The keys to successful digital customer experience design

top down photo of designer working on ideas for digital customer experience design

Companies who obsess about delivering a superb customer experience – frictionless digital services included – are best equipped to drive loyalty and win lifelong brand advocates. But where should a company begin when they realize they have a customer experience problem? We have first-hand experience in helping many leading global brands make that step-change and in working together to create digital journeys that win. What’s our formula? Well, a good starting point is in knowing what an optimum digital customer experience is not.

Recent research tells a sobering tale. CX transformation simply isn’t happening: Forrester’s Customer Experience Index, an annual benchmark of customer experience quality among large global brands, has been flat for some three years. At a time when it’s generally agreed that exceptional customer experiences are a prime driver of growth and competitive advantage, it’s surprising that relatively few organizations are making what Forrester calls the “big changes” needed to bring the customer experience to the next level. “If their CX programs were home improvement projects, we’d say they were decorating, not renovating,” said Forrester’s vice president and research director, Harley Manning.

In its Predictions 2019, Forrester Research anticipated that more companies this year will try to make compelling business cases for transforming their customer experience (CX). Transforming a company’s digital customer experience often needs more than a lick of paint but recognising this doesn’t always come easy. It often takes the organization to see and approach digital customer experience in a different way. Every engagement is different of course. But from our experience with clients, a good starting point is to define what successful digital customer experience design is not.

  • Digital customer experience design is not Business-centric but User-centric
  • Digital customer experience design is not to drive user engagement but user empowerment
  • Digital customer experience design is not to design a wow User Interface (UI) but to design the optimum user journey
  • Digital customer experience design is not following a best-in-class process but a range of appropriate methodologies
  • Digital customer experience design is not about outputs but outcomes

Let’s have a closer look at some of these key learnings.

1. Become User Centric: Become Customer Obsessed

Forrester isn’t alone in naming CX (and by extension UI and UX, software user interfaces and user experience) as the make-or-break for enterprises. Accenture, who worked with Forrester to dig further into the topic, calls CX the growth engine of the future. Additionally, IDC predicts that by 2021, businesses offering frictionless experiences across their ecosystem will reduce customer attrition by 20 percent.

The key challenge, it seems, is in inspiring entire organizations to truly commit to customer-centric thinking and to achieve, in Accenture’s words, a “customer-obsessed culture.”

At NearForm, we see organisations experience similar challenges. Our work is chiefly in helping companies deliver on their transformation programmes by helping them create totally new digital customer experiences, often in the form of web-based services. Without exception, the most successful engagements are those where we see organizations who are ready to jump into customer-centric thinking.

My own role is that of principal designer. As principal designer, I work with our clients from the very start of project engagements. There my objective is to figure out how – in collaboration with my development colleagues – I can translate whatever is decided into an intuitive, excellent software experience that signals to the customer, at every stage, “we understand what you’re trying to do and we’re going to help you get there.” In order to do that you need genuine comprehension of what that customer wants. The best-designed user experiences (and user interfaces) aren’t just pretty faces – what Forrester calls the “decorating” approach – but reveal an underlying, genuine comprehension of the customer and their problems.

We’ve observed that companies who create a superb digital customer experience are fairly obsessive about customer research. Qualitative and quantitative research not only gathers intelligence about what customers want; it can also reveal wants or needs that customers may be unable to articulate, but which offer a market opportunity if solved well. Innovation expert Anthony Ulwick famously says that customers can’t ask for solutions that they can’t imagine. “Ask them what metrics they use to measure success when getting a job done,” he says. “Then conceptualize new solutions that will help them get that job done perfectly.”

Becoming customer-obsessed means also acknowledging the existence of those that share different usage characteristics than the majority of people. By taking into account the needs of different-abled and/or disadvantaged communities in our society we can ensure digital customer experiences are more inclusive for all.

2. Don’t just engage your customers, empower them…and focus on the outcomes

If you haven’t read Anthony Ulwick’s What Customers Want (or his follow-up Jobs-to-be-Done, from Theory to Practice), I’d recommend it. This mindset is where companies should really begin when it comes to addressing a customer experience deficit. Ulwick talks about what he calls outcome-driven innovation, and its ability to create breakthrough products and services.

Ulwick urges companies to realize that customers buy products in order to help them get a “job” done and that by understanding those “jobs to be done,” companies can find market opportunities by helping customers perform those jobs faster or better. Sounds easy, right?

His methods have been so successful they’ve collected their own acronyms (ODI for outcome-driven innovation and JTBD for jobs to be done), but don’t let the alphabet soup turn you off of this mindset. It mirrors what we do in the earliest stages of engagement with clients, especially in the all-important initial design-led discovery workshops. Just like we did with EY to successfully design and build their EY Virtual Advisor digital service. For them, it helped to focus on design-led product development and a rapid iteration process that quickly brought their team’s focus onto the needs of the end customer, “to look at the bigger picture, create a clear vision and work out what it was we really needed”.

Enterprises often come to a workshop with a set idea of what they’d like to deliver to the customer and similarly set ideas about how customers will react (positively, the enterprise feels sure).

Our role, and mine in particular as product designer, is to mirror back to the enterprise what they’re saying, and gently probe and challenge their reasoning. They may come to the table declaring they’d like to create widget X; we tend to ask, “Why widget X? What customer problem will that solve? Are they certain that widget X is closely aligned to a “job” that the customer finds important?”

It is striking how effective this simple line of discourse can be. Often, there are financial reasons behind the set ideas that enterprises bring to the table. Maybe there’s a certain asset or sunk investment that the enterprise is keen to derive further value from. And it may indeed be possible to do so. But unless the customer also derives value (according to the metrics that customers themselves consider important), any resulting service can’t really be described as a win-win.

3. Assemble a crew and design the journey

Who’s going to be in the room when the new or evolved digital service is being brainstormed? Drawing people from different functions across the organization is really important: they not only bring subject matter expertise, but the conversations around the table are more fruitful because the participants’ varied backgrounds lead to better challenging of the core problem that the enterprise is trying to solve. Roles we often see include; a technical director, a data scientist or analyst (especially important for business-to-business projects), a marketing or content person, and preferably someone involved in customer research. Most important of all is a senior staff member or project sponsor with decision-making capabilities. Both the transformation program itself and the segment of that program we’re typically involved with need executive sponsorship: and it is vital for these decision-makers to be in the workshops, participate in the customer-centric thinking, and really take to heart the customer problem to be solved.

When thinking about the final outcome and when starting out from day 1, it’s also vital that focus is not only given to just the way things look. Performance is as important, if not more important than the design of the user interface in digital customer experience transformations. Working with small cross-functional teams allows you to bootstrap small successes end-to-end. That means back-end, front-end, content, and design all working together in that first workshop, and throughout the engagement that follows. To actualize the goal of bringing to fruition a solution that customers really want, designers, developers, content creators, and data experts need to collaborate seamlessly from the get-go.

This approach digital customer experience transformation of designing for the user journey and performance, whilst adopting a collaborative engagement model, allowed for the delivery of a new reinvigorated user experience platform for Conde Nast’s food brand, Epicurious, above and beyond expectations: 100% uptime throughout the build, no disruption to user experience and delivered one week ahead of schedule.

4. Be a rebel, and adopt an approach that fits

With stability and predictability, a thing of the past, flexibility and speed will define the winners. A study conducted by West Monroe Partners “Adapt or Fail: The Customer Experience Imperative,” found that 61% of CX professionals agree that being able to quickly adapt is a top strategic priority. There is an ongoing debate over Agile versus Waterfall and the best software development methodologies. But no one size fits all and your organisation might be better suited to adopting Lean, some kind of Agile and Waterfall hybrid, or something else entirely.

For example; when building EY Virtual Advisor it was vital that we jointly mapped and scoped out all content for the service upfront. Not doing so would mean the EY team would be unable to plan and operationalize for the mammoth task of producing all that educational content. A classic Agile approach would argue to build one feature at a time, one component at a time, and do so on a continuous basis. In this case, we needed the upfront scoping and requirement gathering component of Waterfall to scope the depth and breadth of our content approach. Pursuing without it would’ve been a costly and (in Agile terms) a wasteful exercise.

After this scoping phase, we switched to a more Agile or Lean delivery method. We started the build, and software was delivered end-to-end in two-week sprints. Doing so based on our scoping phase allowed us to learn what did and didn’t work from our content assumptions very quickly, and meant we could pivot our approach accordingly.

It’s important not to let an obsession with methods replace the ability to analyze and critically think about what’s working and what’s not. Design is about solving problems. Deciding how to solve a problem is the first design problem to be solved.

We partner with organisations across the globe to help them achieve sustainable innovation through the design & delivery of open software, methodologies and technologies. We work with clients to design & deliver digital customer experience solutions starting with half-day exploratory workshops and resulting in go-to-market ready solutions in 12 weeks.

Jeff is a Principal Product Designer at NearForm and has a decade of experience designing, building, and leading digital product and service experiences across industries. He is currently setting up a new business hub for NearForm in Dubai, working with existing and new clients to get to the core of their new products and kick-start their venture with the power of design.

If you’d like to understand how we can help you optimise your digital customer experience to drive growth and customer loyalty, contact us for an exploratory chat and feel free to connect with Jeff on LinkedIn.

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Published by Jeff Simons
12th March 2019