Designing for a holistic customer experience – thinking outside the product

Economies right now are fundamentally becoming less about physical objects and more about creating ideas and experiences… We now have a new challenge: we have to meet a new emphasis on improving experiences instead of objects, and we need to improve the flow of interactions between customers and service providers. – Daniel Pink, Business Thinking in the Knowledge Economy

If economies are fundamentally changing to be about ideas and experiences, how do we prepare for this change?  What does it means to create experiences? And how do we improve the flow of interactions between customers and service providers?

First and foremost, we have to think outside the product, service, or system.

Design Thinking, Ideo

To do this, we need to break some bad habits. The habit of seeing objects as merely functional. The habit of thinking that technology is the answer. The habit of thinking features matter most. The habit of calling people users. The habit of working in silos. The habit of ignoring or downplaying emotion, uncertainty, and mess. The habit of failing to listen for and study the resulting experience (because there’s always an experience, whether designed for or not).

If we put people front and center, embrace them in all their emotional complexity, and situate our understanding of them firmly in a messy socio-cultural context, then design becomes much more complex.

Designing for a holistic customer experience means designing within and for this messy socio-cultural context. And although we can’t truly define or control the experience (after all, we’re not the ones having the experience) we must still do our best to understand it, design for it, and influence it.

To do this, we must develop deep empathy.

We have to let go of our assumptions and reframe our thinking.

We need to collaborate across our silos to design for, prototype, and deliver the experiences we hope to invoke.

We must think about and explicitly design for every point of contact, every customer interaction (whether that interaction is with the product, website, service, content, employee, message, call center…) 

We must weave together disparate interactions into a coherent whole.

Delivering a holistic customer experience means ensuring everyone in an organization has a deep understanding of the customer, the desired customer experience, and is empowered to act on it.

And then we have to let go. Observe. Listen. Engage in a dialog. Learn. Iterate. Intervene. Evolve.

Because every intervention, every point of contact, every message, every piece of content, every conversation has an impact on the experience.

So while a holistic customer experience can’t be scripted, we can still design for its emergence.

What others around the web are saying about holistic customer experiences:

What does thinking outside the product to design for a holistic customer experience mean to you?

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    6 Responses to “Designing for a holistic customer experience – thinking outside the product”

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    1. SandyWalsh says:

      Hi Joyce! Insightful article. I recently met with a group of entrepreneurs that had received VC funding for their new startups. One of the requirements the (west coast) VC’s had imposed was for the founders to put a UX designer on-board vs. the classic graphic/web designer. They said the bar has been raised so high by Apple that people won’t accept much less. Thoughts?

    2. Joyce Hostyn says:

      Hi Sandy, Interesting to hear and a really positive development. Apple has reset the bar for experiences across the board. Apple designs the experience across all touchpoints and they consider all facets of an experience. And because people can get engaging experiences in their personal lives, expectations at work are also changing. B2B companies and internal IT departments have to rethink the experiences they deliver. Even retail companies such as Anthropologie (or Apple again with their Apple Store) are resetting the expectation of the shopping experience.

      And from a VC/entrepreneur perspective, experiences are hard to copy if they extend beyond the product or technology. They become so associated with the brand and the organizational DNA of the company itself that it’s tough for a competitor to copy.

      Missed an excellent reference I should have added: The Experience Cycle by Hugh Dubberly and Shelley Evenson.

      The experience cycle model illustrates the Apple Experience Cycle and describes the steps people go through in building a relationship with a product or service:
      – connecting (first impression)
      – becoming oriented (understanding what’s possible)
      – interacting with the product (direct experience)
      – extending perception or skill and use (mastery)
      – telling others (teaching or spreading activation)

    3. Joyce Hostyn says:

      Hi Paula,
      Good diagrams have a long life! Interesting how this IDEO version labels the intersection as the opportunity for Experience Innovation, while in your post you’ve linked it to Service Innovation (two sides of a coin).


    4. SandyWalsh says:

      I keep equating “holistic” with “boil the ocean”.

      The hard part of all this for me is the balance between the big-up-front-ux-design and the “A/B testing, fail fast, constant adjustment” camp. Certainly up-front-ux-design is very important for hardware devices and fat-apps and less, I think, so for web apps, but where does that balance lie?

      If I was to approach a web app today, it would be engineered with A/B testing at the core (not an after-thought) and a smattering of good ux-design to get started.

      Can I layer ‘holistic’ on top of that approach?

    5. Joyce Hostyn says:

      If you’re going for incremental innovation, then constant adjustment can work. If you’re going for something more radical or game-changing, you need up front design thinking.

      But even with incremental innovation, I’d argue for having something upfront. Not big massive specs and long dev cycles where you don’t see results and can’t get feedback for a year or more. Think of an experience vision up front. An experience prototype even before coding starts.

      Throughout you need to really engage with and work to deeply understand your customers. A/B testing isn’t enough. You need that raw, qualitative information that allows you to really get into the heads of people. Understand their emotions.

      I like the term emergent strategy (but just starting to delve into it)… can there be emergent holism?

      Think outside of traditional ux-design to the design across the overall experience – use of the product, messaging, education and learning, building relationships. Emerging field of content strategy is a very important part of this.

      Part of emergent holism would be mapping out the current customer experience journey (see my previous post on customer experience journey mapping). Then combine your customer understanding with brainstorming on ideas on how to rethink the touchpoints to design a more holistic experience.

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