From customer experience to experience design – are we getting any closer?


It’s about time I revisited my cynicism about “customer experience.” Here’s a review of recent learnings, including a podcast chat with Brian Solis, the author of a new book on experience design.

happyface-sadfaceAs more pundits hop on the “customer experience” bandwagon, being a CX grouch is a sticking point. A year ago I wrote a post that still makes the social rounds, Customer experience – worthy goal of marketing utopia?

So has my position changed? A year of research into UX design and the work of diginomica contributor Barb Mosher Zinck, including Is it time to reset your customer experience strategy? have challenged my views. I recently taped a video and podcast on the realities and potential of experience design with Brian Solis, who was a good sport about my skepticism and had some useful clarifications (Solis has just published a book on experience design; more on that shortly).

The power of experience is not lost on me. If I made a list of the five business books that influenced my thinking the most, The Experience Economy (1999) would make the cut (the book was updated in 2011). It sparked the idea that doubling down on content creation would bring more “experiences” to more people than I could EVER do one-to-one.

Well, I bet my career on that idea, and to some extent it came true. But I learned the hard way that content – with the exceptions of things like Game of Thrones, Abbey Road, or Moby Dick, is rarely a complete experience unto itself. Folks still want to interact with the creator, and take the conversation one step forward. And that has proven difficult to scale -see: email hell.

My CX objections

Which brings me to my CX objections:

  • Experiences like those we get at a small town merchant are notoriously difficult to scale.
  • A corporate culture must be ruthlessly committed to customer service to pull off a complete experience. (see Esteban Kolsky on customer experience for executives).
  • Customer experience is fragile, and can be demolished by the weakest link, such as a disgruntled employee with too much power (Why am I thinking of United Airlines flight attendants right now?)
  • Up until recently, the technology wasn’t there to provide a complete customer experience at scale. Arguably the technology is finally there, but there are still massive data silos.
  • Mobile has made a deeper customer experience possible, but has also upped the ante with the problem of consistent experiences across channels. This is the promise and disappointment of the so-called “omni-channel”.
  • Many successful CX initiatives focus investments on a small subset of elite customers. This can be profitable, but creates an experience crevasse as folks move in and out of rewards programs and so on.
  • CX evangelists often cite the “power of the customer” as a key driver of their CX optimism. But the power of the customer varies by industry. The more monopolistic the industry, the less power the customer actually has (see: Comcast, or Stuart’s recent whipping post, BT – How can BT have spent so much on CRM, but still has no single customer view?

Reframing CX – an informal chat with Brian Solis

Upon the occasion of Brian Solis’ recent book release, X: The Experience When Business Meets Design, I taped the aforementioned podcast. Solis, a principal analyst with Altimeter Group, was a good sport to agree to a video chat with someone he’d never met, with no scripted questions. I put that to the test by starting our chat with the email blast he sent on behalf of his book – but to be fair, he turned that into a positive by turning my cranky reply into an interview.

The best thing about Solis’ view of CX is that it is wholistic: he’s trying to grapple with all the moving parts. For example, if you can handle the buzzwords, he believes experience design must include these three components:

  • CX (customer experience)
  • BX (brand experience – in other words, the interaction with the brand when you may not be wearing your customer hat)
  • UX (user experience)

That’s a lot of Xs, but the idea makes sense: if you can’t account for all of these experiences in your design, then you’ll fall short. Why talk in terms of experience design?

In Solis’ book, he notes and Bain and Company study of 362 companies. 80 percent of those 362 companies thought that they were delivering a so-called “superior experience.” But in reality, only 8 percent were – as per their own customers. How did that 8 percent pull it off? By designing the customer experience. That means the entirety of the experience, not just one aspect. As one Amazon reviewer noted about the Bain study:

The other 92 percent were focusing on the design of just the product or service delivery. More than 50 percent of a customer experience is subconscious, or how a customer feels.

During our chat, Solis addressed experience design tunnel vision:

The word “experience” means so many things to so many people, and that is part of the challenge, right? If you ask somebody in customer service or customer support what the word “experience” means versus advertising, design, creative, UX, web, mobile – everybody has a different answer to it. It’s all very micro in terms of their perspective – not that that’s just a bad thing. That’s just the way that businesses are designed, to focus on their fiefdoms and excel as best they can… You can’t debate what it means, and the biggest aspect of what it means to me is, not just in words, but also how it feels, or how it looks, or how it smells. All of the aspects around the senses.

Moving from “BS metrics” to better experiences

So what’s motivating companies to design better experiences? What’s the advantage? Solis argues that the new generation of mobile apps have raised the stakes, and made us expect more than transactions. This is what the Experience Economy was getting at back in 1999, but our technology has undergone some huge iterations since then:

That’s what the authors of the Experience Economy were getting at back in the day. It was looking at things beyond products, right? If you look at that connected customers, younger customers, they don’t want products. They want experiences. That means that how you approach them, how you engage them, is not unlike what we’re starting to see with the Ubers of the world, or the Tinders of the world.

They’re turning simple transactions into full-blown experiences. Once [customers] taste it, they do not want to go back to doing business as usual. They start to judge every company, so think about now what that means to your insurance industry, what that means to your bank, what that means to your shopping, your groceries.

Thus Solis’ book, his framework for modern experience design. But hold up – doesn’t Solis’ approach raise a new challenge? How do enterprises pull disparate software systems into the same design framework?

I picked on a digital darling, Starbucks.

Reed: The Starbucks mobile app, has gotten all kinds of praise. I’ve enjoyed using it, but I’ve had issues with things like topping, and some credit card related issues. The call center and tech resolution stuff was hell. Some of these app darlings get exposed once you get into the customer resolution side of things.

Solis: I have this quote… It said, “I love calling customer service, said no one ever.” The challenge is that you have a company like Starbucks that’s incredibly innovative on its technology front. Especially in its retail experience. It’s because you have sort of a new infrastructure. You have the chief digital officer, the chief marketing officer, and the CIO, all working together for rapid prototyping and iteration, innovation, experimentation, et cetera. What you still don’t have – and this is what digital transformation is all about – is this evolution into the entire experience, the entire journey being stitched together through one common vision and one common purpose. I guarantee you that at a near point in the future, Starbucks will have that nailed.

Solis sees a cultural shift underway, from what he calls the “bullshit metrics” of the outsourcing/efficiency era:

You’re taking 40, 50 years of philosophical approaches to customer engagement, and having to reel it back in. That philosophy started with outsourcing, scaling to save money, to improve efficiencies and optimization. With that came a whole bunch of bullshit metrics, a whole bunch of horrible experiences. We got a lot of reluctant customer relationships, and executives didn’t care because there was this standard that everybody in the industry just sort of agreed to. Someone comes along and starts doing it better, and lo and behold you get a taste for it, and now it creates sort of this rolling momentum.

The wrap – for now

During out talk, Solis acknowledged the challenge of a comprehensive experience design architecture. I asked him: are we running into a classic “boil the ocean” problem with his approach? Solis sees a way around that, based on designing “micro-moments”:

I do a lot of research with Google around what they call micro-moments. I talk about this in the book. I’m trying to create a sense of urgency, but I’m also not telling you to boil the ocean. I’m trying to give you cups, or pools, if you will – areas where you can have an impact. One great opportunity for impact is in micro-moments. The mobile customer is completely upsetting the customer journey because they’re fragmenting it. They’re coming in and out of it, they’re doing things their way.

Now, you have to almost rethink: “Now that I know the experience is going to unfold this way, what would I do about it?” It gives you a real nice opportunity to experiment and more importantly, to learn… This is why the book really focuses on the customer aspect of change, because there’s so many opportunities to start small and go big there. You could take the same approach that’s in the book and apply it to employee engagement.

Solis’ approach addresses many of my objections. But there is still an implied acceptance of the customer’s power of choice, something I often question. The notion of designing for experiences because the bar has been raised does resonate. There’s no reason for me to stick with Uber when I could use other ride-sharing apps, except that it just plain works. And I’m seeing Slack adoption where many other collaboration tools have failed, because the experience works.

Mosher Zinck’s aforementioned post, Is it time to reset your customer experience strategy? raises practical issues. Her CX rethink includes the problem of conducting a small, disconnected CX project (“isolated teams that don’t talk to each other“) – a danger those pursuing Solis’ micro-moments approach should be wary of.

I also liked this recent post, 7 Tips for Customer Experience Differentiation. A “Customer Experience Council” could potentially address some of the silo traps. As usual, I’ve run out of blog space before I ran out of ideas. What say you?

End note: here’s the embedded version of podcast with with Solis:

(You can download the podcast also, on my Busting the Omnichannel page. The podcast is on iTunes and the video on YouTube.)

Image credit – Office emotion © Kenishirotie –