The keys to successful digital customer experience design

Companies who obsess about delivering a frictionless customer experience are best equipped to drive loyalty and win lifelong brand advocates. But where should a company begin when they realise they have a customer experience problem?

At NearForm, we have first-hand experience of working with many leading global brands to make that step change and create digital journeys that win. What’s our formula?

Well, a good starting point is determining what an optimum digital customer experience is not.

In its Predictions 2021, Forrester Research forecasts that 25% of brands will achieve statistically significant improvements in CX quality this year. However, transforming a company’s digital customer experience often means that the organisation needs to view and approach digital customer experience with fresh eyes. Every engagement is different, but from our experience with clients, here are some key elements of successful digital customer experience design.

  • Digital customer experience design is user-centric — not business-centric.
  • Digital customer experience design drives user empowerment — not user engagement.
  • Digital customer experience design should focus on creating the optimum user journey — not a wow user interface (UI).
  • Digital customer experience design should follow a range of appropriate methodologies — not a best-in-class process.
  • Digital customer experience design is about outcomes — not outputs.

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

1. Become user-centric — obsess about your customers

The importance of customer experience has been heightened by the COVID-19 pandemic. It has exposed gaps in modern CX at a time when consumers are turning to intelligent chatbots, automated self-service platforms and all sorts of other digital channels to resolve their issues. It has also created an opportunity for organisations to see where and how to apply CX in a place that adds value.

At NearForm, we help companies deliver on their transformation programmes by helping them to create totally new digital customer experiences, often in the form of web-based services. Without exception, the most successful engagements are those with organisations who are ready to embrace customer-centric thinking.

Our designers work with clients from the very start of project engagements. Their objective is to collaborate with our developers to find out how to translate the client’s requirements 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, we need to truly understand what the customer wants. The best-designed user experiences (and user interfaces) don’t just look good; they reveal a fundamental understanding of the customer and their problems.

We’ve observed that companies who offer a superb digital customer experience are obsessive about customer research. Qualitative and quantitative research is not just useful for uncovering what customers know they want, it can also reveal market opportunities for wants or needs that customers are not aware they have. Innovation expert Anthony Ulwick points out that customers can’t ask for solutions that they can’t imagine. He suggests that you should ask them what metrics they use to measure success when getting a job done and then come up with new solutions that will help them to get that job done perfectly.

When you become customer-obsessed, you also acknowledge the needs of those with different abilities in our society, ensuring that digital customer experiences are more inclusive and accessible to all. Accessible web applications are important for everyone using the web — not just for people with disabilities. This means that it is vital to prioritise accessibility in any project to create an online product or app.

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

In his book What Customers Want, Anthony Ulwick explains where companies should begin when addressing a customer experience deficit. He talks about what he calls outcome-driven innovation and its ability to create breakthrough products and services.

Ulwick urges companies to realise that customers buy products in order to help them to 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?

Ulwick’s methods have been so successful they’ve generated their own acronyms (ODI for outcome-driven innovation and JTBD for jobs to be done). His mindset mirrors what we do in the earliest stages of engagement with clients, especially in the all-important initial design-led discovery workshops — just as we did with EY to successfully design and build their EY Virtual Advisor digital service. This approach helped them to focus on design-led product development and a rapid iteration process that quickly focused their team on 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 particularly that of the product designer) is to reflect back to the enterprise what they’re saying and gently probe and challenge their reasoning. If they come to the table declaring they’d like to create widget X, we will ask, “Why widget X? What customer problem will that solve? Are you certain that widget X is closely aligned to a ‘job’ that the customer finds important?”

This simple line of discourse can be strikingly effective. The set ideas that enterprises bring to the table are often financially motivated. The enterprise may be keen to derive further value from a certain asset or sunk investment — 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 organisation is really important: Not only do they bring subject matter expertise, but the conversations around the table are more fruitful because the participants’ varied backgrounds allow for a deeper challenging of the core problem the enterprise is trying to solve. Roles often include technical director, data scientist or analyst (especially important for business-to-business projects), marketing or content team member, and preferably someone involved in customer research. Most important is a senior staff member or project sponsor with decision-making capabilities. Both the transformation program itself and the segment of the program we engage in need executive sponsorship. It is vital for these decision-makers to be in the workshops, participate in the customer-centric thinking and really take on board the customer problem to be solved.

In digital customer experience transformations, performance is at least as important as the design of the user interface. Working with small cross-functional teams allows you to bootstrap small successes end to end. That means backend, frontend, content and design all working together in that first workshop and throughout the engagement that follows. To create a solution that customers really want, designers, developers, content creators and data experts need to collaborate seamlessly from the outset.

NearForm’s collaborative engagement model of designing for the user journey and performance 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 delivery 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 of the future. Being able to adapt quickly is a top strategic priority. Debate continues over the relative merits of Agile versus Waterfall and the best software development methodologies, but no one size fits all. Your organisation might benefit from adopting Lean, some kind of Agile and Waterfall hybrid or something else entirely.

For example; when building EY Virtual Advisor, we needed to jointly map and scope out all content for the service upfront. If we didn’t, the EY team would have been unable to plan and operationalise for the mammoth task of producing all the educational content required. A classic Agile approach would require building one feature and component at a time 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. Otherwise, it would have been a costly and (in Agile terms) 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 analyse and think critically about what works and what doesn’t. 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.

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