The ‘Experience’ of Experience Design

As I’ve settled into a new customer experience (CX) role over the last year, I’ve thought a bit about my CX journey and the way organizations often react to introducing CX into the corporate culture. Having implemented a new customer experience discipline in various organizations over the last 15+ years, I’ve come to learn a bit about how organizations view the customer experience function and the perceived role CX teams play in articulating “THE” experience for customers.

The Million Dollar CX Question

When first introducing CX more formally within an organization, teams will naturally be curious. Sure, everyone wants to see the experience improved for customers, but there’s often less certainty on how that experience will take shape, what it’s informed by, and who will be responsible for articulating and implementing it. Conversations inevitably lead to the fundamental question asked of nearly every CX leader: “So what is the intended or future-state experience we should be creating for our customers?” To answer that question, one needs to dig a little deeper into what’s really being asked.

First, when attempting to answer a complex, yet simplified question like, “So what is the future-state experience for our customers?”, one has to understand what expectation, view, or deliverable the stakeholder has in mind. Are they anticipating a well-designed prototype or digital wireframe of experiences for the journeys they support? A current and future state journey map pointing out pain points and experience opportunities within discrete journeys across the lifecycle? An end-to-end, cookie-cutter playbook that takes all customers from A to Z in a systematic way?

The truth is, if you ask this question back to employees, they often don’t know what they’re expecting or what the right answer should be. Rather, they’re relying on CX expertise to largely prescribe a vision and experience that will be socialized and handed off to the business to rally around. And while some CX groups may have an experience design capability within the function to create a design system with experience prototypes or future state journey maps, the fundamental disconnect remains: No one group should “own” the vision or assume a one-size-fits-all experience will work across various customer groups. Nor is CX a destination in terms of an “ideal state”, static experience. Just as customer preferences, technology, and social norms change, so too must your experiences in order to evolve with changing customer expectations. Case in point: no one could have predicted the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on the experience of any company’s customers or employees, and many companies are scrambling to re-imagine their brand experiences in this “new normal”. Said another way, CX isn’t something you define once; it’s the journey, not the destination. A feeling beyond just the defined transaction.

Beyond focusing on “what” the experience should look like, companies should equally focus on what the customer experience should “feel” like in any interaction — along with understanding and improving the key tasks or jobs that customers are trying to complete with you. Teams should be able to measure and improve upon how effectively they deliver against those customer jobs, looking beyond operational data at ease/effort, satisfaction, and engagement as indicators of customer experience success and viability. If teams can’t articulate the key customer jobs that should be of focus, that’s a great first place for CX teams to start guiding and advising on where/what to prioritize, how it should feel, and how it should be measured and optimized. It’s not always simply a prototype, journey map, or prescribed experience, but rather a framework for how teams should approach experience creation in a more consistent and customer-centric way.

CX Design in Practical Terms

When you think about a brand that consistently delivers a great customer experience, what stands out? Using Nordstrom as a classic CX brand example, it’s unlikely that every customer who describes a recent experience will share the same scenario or experience it in the same way. Some may have recently made a purchase online, while others may describe a scenario of calling customer service or interacting with a local retail store. While no doubt Nordstrom has amazing experiences by design (cue the journey maps and experience prototypes), what rings true for almost all experiences is the feeling customers were left with. In the case of Nordstrom, customers almost universally describe the ease of their interactions (in any channel), the cordiality of team members, and the almost-personalized feel of the shopping experience (whether through white glove-worthy retail service or personalized shopping recommendations online).

Circling back to the one million dollar question of “So what does our future-state experience look like?”, the answer lies not in a prototype nor a static “Point A to Point B” experience blueprint alone. If you build an experience, but don’t arm employees with how to support that experience from a service or channel perspective, you’ve created an expected experience, not an ideal-state one. Instead, what CX leaders aim to build are a common set of guiding principles, residing within a unified design system, to influence and empower teams to improve the ease and effectiveness of customer interactions. To build customer empathy with employees. To share tools and customer insights that allow teams to more deeply understand the wants, needs, and ever-evolving expectations of customers, and that serve to influence the experiences functional teams themselves can, and should, help shape and create. Finally, CX leaders should introduce outside-in customer metrics that allow business teams to look at experience delivery from a customer’s perspective.

So what does your company’s future experience look like to customers? It’s probably hard for any one person or group to definitively say right now, but what it should feel like to customers is one of unwavering support and a commitment to delivering on promises. Regardless of what you sell or offer, your brand experiences should respect your customer’s time and honor the tasks they find important and valuable. They should speak in a language customers understand, and be delivered consistently across channels, platforms, or modalities. It’s a long answer with an even-longer runway, but the companies that think holistically and inclusively about how to deliver the ideal experience to customers will be the ones that remain to serve their customers long into the future.

cx ninja. ultra runner. never met a carb i didn’t like.