Tony Naqvi
Experience Design

A telco that makes things easy?
Welcome to simplicity.


Brand & Product Design

In it for the long haul

It's day one at my new job in Riyadh, 35°C outside, and inside the office all hell has broken loose.

Mobily is the second largest telecom operator in Saudi Arabia, and at the tail end of 2014, just as I arrived to take up the role of VP of Digital UX, it hit a snag with the Kingdom's regulator.

I say snag, but really it was (for Mobily) a crisis of astronomical proportions, as the result of an accounting 'error' led to the company having to restate its financial earning.

This was no trivial matter - the crisis involved the suspension of Mobily's operating license, the firing of its CEO, it wiped billions off of Mobily's share price, leading to its subsequent de-listing from the Saudi Stock Exchange.

It was in short, a scandal. And I had just walked smack bang into the middle of it. However I'm nothing if not tenacious, and I took it in my stride as I embarked on what would turn out to be a 5 year journey of reviving the fortunes and transforming one of the biggest regional telcos.

A 5 year journey of transforming one of the biggest regional telcos

The scope of my role was initially to rebrand and re-invent Mobily's SaaS SVOD platform mView, and manage the development of other digital products in its portfolio such as its own-branded App store, payment gateway and carrier billing with Apple and Google, and b2b digital products including SaaS fleet management, cloud and enterprise products.

However this role would evolve over time - partly in reaction to the unfolding crisis, but mostly because my talents were needed elsewhere - and after about 14 months I eventually found myself in my longer-term role in the brand and marcom department as VP of Brand Design & UX, where I'd end up staying for another four years. But i'm getting ahead of myself. Let's role back a bit.

Designers dream

My first task was to tackle mView, which in itself was a pretty big deal. No really - every way you looked at it, it was a big deal.

The content licensing alone cost over $50million. On top of that there was the design, engineering and manufacturing of the mView set-top boxes, the new mView brand design, product UX/UI, packaging, marketing and advertising, co-branded products - not just a substantial investment by Mobily,

it was also a designers dream, and I was in charge of it all.

I started by meeting the existing team, making some new additions, meeting with external partners and vendors, and generally getting a feel for the lie of the land.

Samer, head of the digital department, wanted to meet pronto to discuss the mView rebrand, and manufacturers in China were all lined up to get started on the new set-top box. Busy, busy.

Any product development strategy should flow from and reflect the brand it represents

My discussions with Samer were productive; we were both pretty much on the same page - primarily that the mView rebrand should take precedent over everything else.

Like me he saw the importance of how any product development strategy should flow from and reflect the brand it represents - a crucial factor that Product Designers often overlook.

With the nod from him I set to work, beginning with a comprehensive review of the current brand strategy and identity, business goals and objectives, competitor analysis, customer segments and their respective profiling, current marketing strategy, product roadmap, and budget and delivery expectations from the Chief Digital Officer.

Entertainment anywhere

The entire rebranding process for mView took about 9 months in the end, so best not to bore you with all the details, but in summary here's what happened.

The key differentiator of mView from other regional competitors was that it although it had a dedicated set-top box, as a SaaS platform it was essentially accessible from anywhere, on any device with an internet connection.

I therefore built a brand strategy around convenient connectivity; the ability to enjoy live and pre-recorded tv show, movies, music, and other digital content either at home or on the go - 'entertainment anywhere' became the value proposition, with accessible, proactive, and creative forming the core values that guide decision-making and action.

I wanted to avoid any semblance of 'corporatism'

I wanted to avoid any semblance of 'corporatism' - both internally and externally - of the brand. I gave it a down-to-earth, self-confident, and modern, energetic personality to match its values and to foster free-thinking, innovation, and enthusiasm both internally with staff, and externally with partners, suppliers and customers.

This foundation would be the driving force behind our visual identity, our product and industrial design philosophy, and our content strategy - a vision for mView that competitors in the region would find difficult to match or replicate.

Stealing the show

You face many battles as a designer, both with yourself and with those you work for. Some you win, others you lose. However the key to being a good designer is to turn even your losses into victories. By that I mean making the best of (what your may feel) a bad situation or decision.

In presenting the mView brand strategy and initial proposal for the visual identity to department head and Chief of Digital, I was met with unanimous approval for the strategy, but resistance to the visual identity concept design - the Chief wanted it to be red, like Netflix.

Netflix stands out as the premiere streaming platform, but at the time was not yet available in the region. The Chief was convinced that making mView red would likely cause consumers to mistake it (initially at least) for Netflix, thus driving subscription sales. Yeah, that makes perfect sense, right?

Apart from the obvious fallacy in his logic, the key differentiator is that mView isn't (just) a streaming platform - it's an entertainment ecosystem. I absolutely didn't want a copycat of Netflix., and making it red would seem an obvious and lazy mimic.

But try as I might to convince him to the contrary, his mind was made up. It had to be red.

With that battle lost, I needed to figure out how best to differentiate the mView identity in other ways.

I wracked my brain for ages, thinking of ways to make it unique, spending days in Illustrator and SoftImage experimenting with design variations, until the answer came in the form of a distinctive logo and design system that really stole the show in a way that the Chief couldn't really argue with - it was still red after all.

For the logo, I thought less about Netflix (although I was adamant it wouldn't be a bloody logotype), and more about how to visually embody the brand architecture.

I was adamant it wouldn't be a bloody logotype

Leveraging the core brand values of accessible, proactive, and creative, I toyed with the concept of a pathway leading Users on a journey - I liked the idea that mView is much more than a 'lean back' experience, that the breath and depth of the platform leads you forward to new and undiscovered things.

The result was a brand mark consisting of the MV initials rendered as a single curved line, with a soft shadow denoting the separation between the M and the V, enclosed in a circle that denotes the 'infinite' nature of the platform.

I also included a wordmark to cultivate familiarity more swiftly, with the long-term plan to eventually drop it in favour of the symbol on its own.

I have to say, it turned out to be one of Mobily's more successful brand identities. Feedback was almost unanimously favourable across all customer segments.
And it's certainly unlike any of its competitors logos, and the identity system further enhanced its uniqueness.

Infinite versatility

Moving swiftly on. For mView's design system, I made the circle a core graphical element that could be utilised in an almost unlimited number of ways, providing a flexible foundation for use across any number of brand applications.

It acted as a container or mask for imagery or copy, or could be used simply as a decorative focal point.

For typography I opted for a rounded sans serif (Rubrik) that lent applications a bold but affable tone in keeping with the brand personality. Headlines and titles were all lowercase - a nod to the (primary) Arabic language that has no capitalisation, and I used font weights to denote the typographic hierarchy.

For layout composition, I created a geometric grid for print, packaging, and on-screen applications (with the exception of the mView App) that illustrated how various asset could be arranged.

And I also added some secondary colours to help create a more vibrant and vivid palette.

Industrial strength design

Product and industrial design wasn't something done in-house at Mobily. In fact, I can think of very few telcos that have the people and resources to build digital and physical products internally. I changed that.

I argued that we had such a strong culture, and knowledge and insights into our market and customers, that rather than try and translate that to external agencies, we could capitalise on that strength.

And much like how we had an internal design team to create brands and content, giving us the all important control over development and, more crucially, consistent implementation, the same should apply to our product and industrial design. And not least because they're tremendously expensive when outsourced - bringing that capability into Mobily would also save significant expenditure on consultants, engineers, and agencies.

And it would exactly be an alien practise. Most telcos, including Mobily, have vendor engineers (for example from IBM and SAP) working in-house.

Creativity and innovation as intrinsic foundational components

The other reason I felt it was important was because I had proposed (and had approved) the brand strategy that called for creativity and innovation as an intrinsic foundational component of the mView brand.

Traditionally, and specifically for hardware, telcos will just send out an RFP to manufacturers for things like set-top boxes, and will in return get an off-the-shelf catalogue of whatever any given factory has available. These are often generic and ugly devices (there are the occasional rare gems, but not often).

The other significant factor is the hardware is often selected by the finance department, based on RFP responses, but of course driven primarily by cost. They have no real insight into the need, nor the brand or audience, so they're making a subjective choice. And the department requesting the hardware rarely has a say in the matter.

I pointed all of this out when I went direct to the Chief and CEO to get approval for my idea. And to everyone's surprise (not least to mine) both agreed.

Over the next several weeks I wasted no time in getting the new section set up.

I commandeered part of the top floor of our building to be the design space and workshops for development, visualisation, prototyping, 3D printing, fabrication, and finishing.

I assembled a team of product and industrial designers, draughtsmen, programmers, additional UX and UI designers, researchers and data analysts, graphic designers, typographers, packaging designers, 3D artists, video editors, cameraman, sound designer, photographer - everything I needed for an in-house multidisciplinary design studio..

I spent a further month and a half really drilling into the team the essence of the mView brand and the design philosophy., particularly with the industrial design team. It was important for them to understand my thinking and approach. Creativity and innovation was paramount. Now I know the old adage that form follows function, but in this case form had to take precedent.

The new mView set-top box would be a spectacular, stylish design

The reason for this was because we already had a technical specification and working version of the set-top box - the next version would be functionally identical. The only difference would be that, as the mView brand had evolved, so our hardware product had to reflect this.

And the last thing anyone at Mobily, within mView, or our current and potential customers, wanted was another generic, ugly black box to hide away in the home. I wanted (and the brand demanded) more than that. The new mView set-top box would be a spectacular; a beautiful and stylish design, with a product UX/UI to match, that rather than be hidden away to gather dust, would take pride of place and prominence - I wanted people to be proud and boastful of having an mView box.

And so we got to work.

Reality bites

Life has a really bad habit of biting you in the ass when you least expect it, and often when you could really do without it.

You'll recall that I started case study describing the circumstances under which I'd arrived at Mobily. Yeah, that.
Well, it was all starting to play out right around the time we'd just completed the first phase to the STB hardware design.

We'd already been working in parallel on the UX/UI for the App, which would be integrated later, with some additional features unique to the STB., and were in User testing.

We had started assembling the first three different prototype versions of the STB casing to present to the Chief and CEO., and I was busy putting together an elaborate presentation and reveal to impress the top brass.

On the morning of the meeting I arrived at the office, and having grabbed my daily caffeine shot, was now scrolling through messages in my email Inbox. I stopped at one that read 'RE: mView STB Prototype Review', and opened it up. Nothing to set any alarm bells ringing - it just read that Finance and HR would be joining the meeting (they would often piggyback meetings if they had a C-Level meeting).

"Hello Tony - hope you are well. Have a seat, please"...

Giving ourselves plenty of time, myself, and the product and industrial design leads made our way (careful with those boxes fellas!) to the Tower, and the C Suite meeting room.
We were waved straight in, and despite the fact we were nearly 10 minutes early, the Chief(s) and the CEO were already seated at the long, immaculately polished wooden table. It's fine - they probably had a prior meeting.

"Hello Tony - hope you are well. Have a seat, please", the CEO said, motioning us to take the seats directly opposite. 'Oh shit, something's happened' I thought. And I was right. Life had indeed bitten. Or more precisely, had taken a ruddy great chunk out of Mobily's ass.

I was duly informed that Mobily had been delisted from the Stock Exchange, the share price was plummeting, and we were haemorrhaging customers. In their wisdom, the board had decided to "stop to all current and pending product development. R&D across the company will be halted, and CapEx... capped. With immediate effect."

Of my team of almost a dozen, most would be let go, and I along with two others would survive to be transferred to the Brand and Marcom department, where apparently were needed. Boom!

Moving on up

It was devastating to see mView discontinued, the team disbanded, and all our hard work go down the drain, however it wasn't entirely the end of the road.

As an organisation, we'd learned an immense amount; namely that we had done what no other telco had done in bringing product and industrial design in-house, that given the right support and resources we could create financial responsible products and services (we'd saved Mobily a fortune in the time we'd spent developing the new incarnation of mView), and that we had some incredibly talented people who's skills we could effectively use. And that's precisely what happened.

The board's other significant decision (at least the one that affected me most) was that it was time for a rebrand.

It had been almost 10 years since anyone had sat back and taken an in-depth look at the Mobily brand and assessed if it was still relevant and fit for purpose. Moreover, given the crisis that it was in, Mobily needed to provide at least some glimmer of hope for the future to it's staff and its customers.

The CEO has slipped Tarek a copy of the mView strategy and brand guidelines I had created to review

It turned out that my work with mView had not entirely gone unnoticed beyond the Digital department and the C-Suite.

I knew that Tarek, the SVP of Brand and MarCom, had already been lining up agencies to take on the rebrand, so I wasn't surprised to be called into a meeting with him and the marketing chief to discuss how the project would proceed forward.

What did surprise me was that apparently the CEO has slipped Tarek a copy of the brand strategy and guidelines I had created for mView and asked him to review it and give his opinion on it.

His feedback must have been positive, because despite the termination of the mView program, it was recognised that the overall the cost/value benefit had been validated, and that rather than revert back to the agency model, the top brass had decided to adopt the mView approach - to do in-house what had previously been outsourced.

And it would be my job to lead it.

Now this was by no means a trivial thing. Branding an entire organisation, especially the second largest and most popular telco in Saudi Arabia, is orders of magnitude bigger than branding a single product/service. It was a brave decision for the chiefs to make, and I was grateful that I had their confidence and backing.

Back in the Brand and MarCom department, Tarek introduced me and my lone survivors to the team that I would inherit for the project - bringing us to a grand total of 5. Yes, 5. 5 people to do the entire rebrand. The CEO giveth, the CEO taketh away.

It wasn't all doom and gloom though. Firstly, we were happy to still have jobs, so we worked with the appropriate gratitude and enthusiasm. Crucially, Majed, the Director of Brand who had been assigned to my team, was worth at least 5 additional people. He was amazing. He possessed the keenest of insights not only into the minds, habits and behaviours of our customers, but also the most intimate inner workings of Mobily (he had just celebrated the grand milestone of 10 years at the company). Just the chap to have on your side for a project such as this (we formed a lasting friendship that's still going strong).

For the next year and a half we toiled with the customer relations team gathering data, the product teams with their roadmaps, the marketing teams and their strategies, finance for their forecasts, HR for everything internal (that was't already known to Majed), and the CEO and Board for the business strategy over the short and long term.

What materialised at the end was the Mobily Brand Experience Framework - mBRACE - a new foundation for the comprehensive and systematic overhaul of the entire brand.

The mBRACE Framework consisted of four core pillars; brand strategy, brand identity, brand management, and brand experience, supported by a series of actions and activities that together provided a new, more human and more emotive brand experience.

Taking things back to basics, and rebuilding trust

One of the challenges any successful business faces is falling victim to complacency.

Over the previous decade, Mobily had ridden a wave of popularity driven by product and service innovation, but that had slowly twiddled over recent years as the company gloated on past successes and became bloated and sluggish.

To address this, the strategy behind mBRACE was simplicity; strip away the superfluous and and focus on making our customers and employees lives easier. Taking things back to basics, and rebuilding trust through a trimmed down product and service lines that delivered true value, and enabling our staff to be more collaborative and efficient through an Agile approach to their work.

We developed a segmentation model that allowed us to precisely map product and service features to individual user needs, around which we could then carefully craft an appropriate experience, making them richer but more relevant.

We overhauled the visual identity, starting with reducing the logo to just it's symbol (already a potent and recognised brand identifier).

We replaced the sprawling typographic system with a single custom typeface containing a bilingual character set, and new typographic hierarchy, making it more consistent and less confusing.

A minimised the colour palette, created scalable layout grid, new UI stencils for more thoughtful and intuitive digital applications, a human-centric interior and exterior retail design including empowering new tools for automation and self-service,, a tone of voice and messaging platform that was simpler, more informative and direct, and far less technical, and reduced waste in packaging, making it more re-usable and recyclable.

We trashed the existing web portal, placing it with a more feature-rich and intuitive site more relevant to both consumer and enterprise customers, wrapped in a unified UI design that extended across all digital products and services, making them more familiar and accessible.

Back in the game

Considering all that had transpired over the previous two and a half years, there was no great fanfare for the brand relaunch - we just quietly began the re-introduction through a carefully planned roll-out strategy.

The effects, whilst not immediate, were none the less tangible and impactful as the market began to notice the subtle shift in attitude and appearance.

Customers gradually began to respond. The feedback we were getting was that Mobily was once again a joy to engage with, products and services reviews were far more favourable, and our marketing and advertising much more distinctive and responsive.

So by the summer of 2017 (just six months after the launch) Mobily was well on the road to recovery. The share price had stabilised, we were re-listed on the stock exchange, HR was reporting an unprecedented number of job applications, competitors were already beginning to respond, and trade and footfall in retail stores were back to their pre-crisis level.

We were back in the game.

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