Who Owns the Customer Experience?

I’ve been deeply engaged on a project for a client the last few months, so much so that I’d begun to feel a bit proprietary about the whole endeavor, to the point where I’d bristle whenever the experience deviated from the initial vision to which I’d become devoted. Anyone who’s shepherded an interactive project from conception to launch is intimately familiar with the compromises made along the way, and the complexity of an agency-client relationship necessitates even more consideration of – alternative outcomes, shall we say – than might be found in a more self-contained development environment.

And so, over the first half of this year, I found myself trading viewpoints on the best possible experience for a customer using a new product we are designing along with another party to the project. We were discussing ways to organize a product selection process, and while I was certain my approach was more appropriate and sensible for the audience (and the business) John*, my collaborator, kept pushing his own viewpoint as to the best possible customer experience. It was not the first time I had thought, to myself, how odd it seemed that someone in his position (a project manager, I had thought at the time) was so interested and informed as to usability best practices.

And then, several months later, I noticed in his email signature a title something like, “Customer Experience Lead.” And as I thought about the points he’d made over the months, suddenly they seemed more credible.

This is exactly as ridiculous and shallow as it seems; what does a person’s title have to do with the validity of their advice?

User Experience folks typically endeavor to represent the Voice of the Customer, a responsibility made considerably more difficult when those customers are not your own, but those of your client. How difficult it can be to make the case – passionately, if delicately – that your client’s customers are in fact not likely to be terribly interested in the new service being offered, or unconvinced of the life-enhancing benefits espoused by marketing. But we take it upon ourselves to argue on behalf of the end user, who typically isn’t sitting at the conference room table where decisions about the experience are often made. There is no Hippocratic Oath for Customer Experience practitioners (would it read, in part: “I will forever forsake the ‘blink’ tag, nor shall I allow radio buttons to be used where checkboxes are called for, nor shall I permit the use of lengthy instructions as a substitute for intuitive, usable design principles?”) Even if there were, it would offer no exclusive claim to understanding customers’ needs.

Simply, it is everyone’s responsibility to speak for the customer. This goes beyond customer advocacy on the part of usability specialists, or user-centered design, or goal-oriented design principles. There are very few businesses whose product or service is so unique, so unreproducible, that there aren’t a dozen substitutes a short Google search away. In such an environment, placing the customer at the center of everything decision isn’t just a best practice: it’s a means of survival.

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