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User Experience is one of today’s major buzzwords. Since it’s become common knowledge how maniacal Steve Jobs approached the customer experience of his products, it’s de rigueur for every marketing manager to repeatedly emphasize the topic and point out how important a good UX is. This applies even more to agencies; I’ve often been privy to long discussions about refinement – far beyond any reasonable cost-benefit ratio. UX dominates the digital economy. Why is that? Why does everyone think it so important how devices and solutions are operated? And why has the topic effectively – and in reality – gained in importance? Some thoughts.
I think a main reason why UX/CX is such an important topic today follows from the overall market saturation. The more saturated a market is, the more effort I, as a provider, must expend in order to sale my product in that market. I have to increase my marketing efforts, I must improve my product and I must attempt to manufacture it at less cost.
Now, the markets weren’t always this saturated. To the contrary. Until approximately the 1970s we had a shortage economy. Especially in the Western world. In war-torn Europe all that was needed was just to manufacture a product. The rest, that is the actual sales effort, was generally a simple administrative process. Characteristically, during this time the term “Absatz” (akin to “Distribution”) was the focus of those efforts. At that time, “delivering” products to the consumer was cheap and easy. Customers simply had a need for the products. Why then, should a company manufacture as good a product as possible? As long as they work, last long and offer a good price-performance ratio.
Today’s market is completely different: There no longer is a true need in the sense of scarcity or a shortage. Try this experiment concerning your own consumer behavior: During the last twelve months, which purchase beyond groceries and personal hygiene was necessary because of a true shortage – in other words, because the product or item simply wasn’t available. I tried this myself and found that the only thing that was really necessary was a window that I could no longer close.
Of course this wasn’t the only thing I bought. During the past year a bought a whole bunch of stuff, from a dishwasher that needs less water and electricity, to new loudspeakers that can be controlled by my smartphone to various other items (a larger closet, a new table, a new TV (I really don’t know why), new travel paraphernalia and of course new smartphones) – the entire list would be very long. And pretty boring, too. I’ll bet your list would be quite similar.
So why do we buy these things? Simple, because they are better than the ones we already have. Products can be better on various levels: e.g. in price, in appearance or in usability. All of these factors contribute to a better experience with the product. I think that is why we buy them. And that is why so many companies invest in this customer experience.
In addition, time has a different status today when compared to the past. One reason for this is that working hours are a significant cost factor. Time has simply become much more valuable, even though, demographically speaking, we have much more of it.
A mere 200 years ago things were the exact opposite: Material was far more costly and difficult to procure than work. For example, in many representative buildings the technique of marbling (or “scagliola”) was used. Instead of shipping the expensive marble from Italy to the north for a lot of money, craftsmen built wood paneling, which was then treated with a special painting technique by specialists to make the wood look like marble. To this day we can admire these marble elements in many older buildings – the untrained, naked eye usually can’t distinguish between fake and original. The time expended was enormous. But, since work was cheap and material was expensive, it was worth it. Today, the exact opposite is true. Accordingly, time – as a rule – has a much higher status in society. To spend as little time as possible for mundane things such as operating a dishwasher is the sacred duty, so to speak, of modern Western people.
The faster you are operational with a product, the less time you have to invest to operate it, the better. Simple and pleasant operations has therefore become a key factor of every current product.
Far too often, however, the user experience is equated with simple operations. Or the terrific product design. This if far too short-sighted and I think good CX designers don’t think in this manner at all.
I had my own personal eye-opener regarding customer experience in 2008 while reading the book “Conversational Capital”, of which I know the content cover-to-cover. My apologies to the folks of Adaptive Path, whom I erroneously credited with publication and pestered because I had forgotten the title.
“Conversational Capital” actually a book about word-of-mouth, has the subtitle “How to Create Stuff People Love to Talk About”, and defines eight different drivers that a product or service must have so that exactly this experience excites and inspires the customers. These eight are (taken from the Wikipedia summary):
If we take a look at products and companies with excellent customer experience values, we will quickly find that all of these elements are addressed.
Viewed today I think this list isn’t complete. But it does show that customer experience can contain elements that don’t exclusively target a simpler usability as such.
In reality it is always the rather tedious things that constitute a major portion of the customer experience. For example, a long waiting list for reserving a table in a top-flight restaurant is part and parcel of the customer experience. Though it isn’t really “fun”, it is part of the ritual that I must put up with when dealing with a product or brand. All we usually hear in this context is: “It’s simply part of the game.”
In my everyday professional life I experience very little differentiation regarding the issue of a comprehensive customer experience. By that I mean an experience not restricted to on- or offline, but one that rather tries to holistically offer the customer a complete customer experience.
One reason for this, in my opinion, is that many online screen layout designers now call themselves experience designers even though the still do the same thing. Screen layouts. In addition, many of them suffer from something I call the “Steve Jobs Complex.”: The tendency to over-engineer visual details while concurrently losing the big-picture view and the feeling for the relevant. I don’t think Steve Jobs neglected the big-picture or relevant details. On the contrary. But, all the freaky anecdotes about Jobs and how he focused on details have led to a generation of creatives that have taken up appropriate forms of behavior.
I know that I am doing many a disservice with such universal statements. Of course there are many creatives who develop terrific solutions in a targeted and differentiated manner. But, they are usually rather quiet about the whole thing.
I also experience it time and time again how extremely difficult it is to consciously create a holistic customer experience in larger companies. This is usually an administrative issue. Sometimes it’s cultural. That it isn’t the other way around is due to the general discussion about user-centric design of the past few years.
It is generally accepted that we must take care of our customers in saturated markets. On all levels. For, the customer has a virtually endless number of alternatives when compared to the 1960s. And, far more important, the true need of those times has been replaced by impulse and emotions. To operate in this conditions is the challenge we must face and master today. And it doesn’t matter whether it’s on- or offline.
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