Good User Experience Requires Prioritizing User Perspectives

 

Creating positive user experiences should not be a means to higher company profits, greater conversion rates, retention, and all that jazz. If actual excellent user experiences are created, those benefits will almost always result.

Companies should create positive experiences for their users because they care about them. When engagement, outreach and other experience initiatives are released with much fanfare, they are often transparent attempts to boost profits without truly addressing the users’ needs. This results in an experience that may seem cool, slick, or smooth on the surface, but does not actually improve the usability or experience. If that is the case, users will recognize it as the marketing ploy it is and move on to something that genuinely serves their needs.

The reason so few companies provide experiences rated positively by their customers (here), is because of this fundamental misunderstanding of the perspective and approach necessary to create a good user experience.

Now obviously, businesses want to make money. Putting profits ahead of users, however, can often backfire; one of the reasons UX efforts are so popular right now, is that customers have become disengaged and disillusioned with corporate cultural greed. However, UX efforts will often fail if the focus is on profit and when they do fail, customers perceive it as an abuse of trust – just another attempt for corporations to charge more and give less. This is why the latest crop of articles proclaiming the need for Customer Experience Management (CEM) in business is a cause for concern as well as celebration.

More discussions about UX, and more efforts put into it, are always cause for celebration. The concern, however, stems from the way UX is being discussed. The fashion right now is to use the terms ‘customer experience’ and ‘CX.’ I choose not to do so because that is unnecessarily limiting. All customers are users, but not all users are customers. In the face of the torrent of articles discussing Customer Experience Management, I feel it important to acknowledge that designers have been having this conversation for years. Now it just so happens executives are listening and so have repackaged and rebranded the discussion with new vocabulary around a perceived inherent power differential – customers: where the money comes from, versus companies: where the money goes. I argue here that this inequity is the wrong perspective from which to start any experience efforts. Thinking of users as customers prioritizes your interests over theirs, which rarely leads to the creation of easy, delightful, and intuitive experiences for them.

Because this minor nuance in speaking has such a dramatic effect on the direction of the initiative, I think it is absolutely critical to frame the discussion appropriately. A key point that seems to underlie all of these articles is that the ‘good old days’ are gone and now “the fundamentals are changing faster than ever” and “customers are savvier than ever.”

I object to this sentiment on two points. The first is that the good old days being lamented were never that good. At least not for users. As soon as technology has been available, it has been forced into processes at the expense of the customer interactions in pursuit of lower costs. I can’t even remember a time when automated phone menus were not standard practice.

As to the second point: they’ve always been savvy, but now they have alternatives and technologies that enable them to easily pursue those alternatives. Users have put up with terrible experiences for far too long, simply because there were no other options. Slowly however, people have been striking out on their own and creating tools and experiences that they themselves would like to use. And in doing so the old paradigm of service provider as untouchable, monolithic authority is crumbling and replacing it is a much more democratic system in which not only can anyone provide an alternative service and succeed if they provide that service better, but also one in which the first organizations to create excellent experiences are those that immediately attract a large customer base (and therefore more profit).

You may think I sound like an angry customer that you don’t want to deal with, the type often dismissed as irrational. I do this intentionally; many of your customers are very angry, but rightfully so. They have been using terrible tools and services for so long, with few other options and no acknowledgement from corporations, that they are not willing to trust your new Customer Experience Management initiative at face value. There have been many ‘engagement initiatives’ before that turned out to be marketing driven profit grabs. You need to prove to them that you really want to provide them with great experiences. And the only way to do that is to actually consider their experience as paramount, even above the sacred bottom line. Once you have actually created an environment that provides good experiences for customers, then you can focus on increasing revenue and decreasing cost, both of which are likely to come naturally with an influx of users. But to echo what only a few others have said, good experiences are not the responsibility of a single department. They can only be created in businesses that intentionally create a culture that places users (including customers) and their needs at the heart of every decision.

To conclude, I’d like to reiterate that I’m glad we are all finally talking about user experience and customer interactions. But for this discussion to be productive, we need to include necessary perspectives that are almost always overlooked in the rush to jump on the next big thing that will differentiate a business. We need to consult the user experience professionals who have been having this discussion since before there was a user experience discipline. We need to seek out user perspectives instead of devising complex ways of managing them. Everyone is saying we need Customer Experience Management, and a few people are explaining what doesn’t work, but in trying to measure the effects of such initiatives, we must not forget to discern between approaches that are profit focused and those that are user focused. Because lumping them all together obscures the reasons some experience efforts are so successful and some fail so spectacularly – the successful ones provide excellent experiences in fact, rather than in some abstract specification document; and they do so by truly placing the user first, even in the language they use.