2 May 2012
Peter Bogaards
Peter Bogaards

Customer experience: The natural ally for UX in business

In this post, I would like to talk about what has been on my mind for the last year or two: the relationship between user experience and customer experience and how user experience designers can extend their influence in businesses.

A paraphrased transcript of my talk at the Polish IA Summit 2012.

This topic has become relevant because I work for a design agency which used to have user experience design as its tagline, but changed it several years ago to experience design. And this agency (informaat.com) is not the only design firm changing its tagline to experience design. Adaptive Path from San Francisco (USA) and Experientia from Turin (Italy) have done the same.

Recently, Informaat launched a new website in which it uses customer experience and customer experience design instead of user experience and user experience design. An important reason for this change is its new target audience: business leaders.

I see these terminology changes as indicative of the changes in our industry.

A revolution is upon us

We live in revolutionary times. But when you live through a revolution, you don’t know what its impact will be. And I mean a revolution not so much in terms of radical political changes, but in terms of how we relate to our world, ourselves and especially to our institutions. And the most important driving force for this revolution is technology. This technology revolution has a major impact on the institution of business organizations a.k.a. companies.

Suddenly, “customers” are hot and the experience of customers gets lots of attention. But it’s mostly a case of lots of talk and little action.

To provide some evidence that technology forces businesses to deal with the experiences of their customers, we can look at three examples of technology and business companies which have “discovered” customer experience. Consultancy CapGemini provides information on their solutions for customer experience. The same goes for Adobe, who are eager to connect customer experience to their technology products. And even a database provider like Oracle has discovered customer experience and makes a promise.

The Change of the Centre: old version

To understand this revolution a little better, let’s take a step back and focus on one of the important changes this revolution brings about, especially for companies. I call this The Change of the Centre.

But before explaining this change, I would like to introduce someone who was born centuries ago and who also caused a major revolution with a change of the center: Mathematician and astronomer Nicolas Copernicus, born in 1473 in a Polish town called Toruń. Copernicus was the first to formulate a comprehensive cosmology which displaced the Earth from the center of our solar system. His scientific theory replaced the geocentric view of our universe with planet Earth in the centre and other planets circling around it with the heliocentric view in which the Sun is stationary at the center of our universe and Earth as one of the planets revolving around it.

His On the Revolutions of the Celestial Sphere (published in 1543, the year of his death) is often regarded as the defining postulation that began the Scientific Revolution of the 16th century. A great man who got his name attached to important, significant and fundamental changes in time, which we still refer to as the Copernican Revolution.

Now in this way, it’s a small step from Copernicus to Cupertino.

The Change of the Centre: new version

In the first decade of the 21th century, we have witnessed a new kind of Copernican revolution. In this new revolution, again one center is replaced by another. It moves the company, the shareholder or the profit away from the center to the periphery. The old centre is replaced by a new one. The customer, product, and service are now on center stage. The poster child for this change is of course Steve Jobs. Let’s call this revolution the Jobsian Revolution and see him as the incarnation of Nicolas Copernicus. Quite a hyperbole for some.

A difference though is that Copernicus was a scientist who observed the world and then compared it with the then-current knowledge. Jobs was a designer who had value preferences of how the world should be and proposed how to change it. And he sure did.

The PC-inflection points

To better understand the revolution Steve Jobs represents, we must look at the history of technology of the last 50 years. The most important change agent has been the personal computer. As a result, we can identify three inflection points which define the impact of technology on how business is done in relation to the most successful company of the era.

IBM and the pre-PC era

The first inflection point defines the Pre-PC era from 1945 to 1975. You can call it also the middle or dark ages of computers. In that period of 30 years, IBM was the most successful company. As part of the military-industrial complex, IBM was a hierarchical organization, managed like an army (through “command-and-control”) and sold monolithic hardware products like mainframes and minicomputers running enterprise software.

Other successful technology companies of this era were Control Data, DEC, and Wang. These dinosaurs focused on systems for the enterprise; large companies in the process of automating as much as possible processes done by humans. The primary objectives of these systems were cost reduction and increased effectiveness and efficiency.

As far as the people working with these machines were concerned, they were highly trained computer professionals operating sophisticated automated systems. The field focused on the interactions of these professionals and these machines was called Man-Machine Studies or Human Factors. Usability did not exist (yet) as a concept and technology was the driving factor.

Microsoft and the PC era

The second inflection point started the PC-era, which lasted until the turn of the century. Some might still have a vague memory of this era in which Microsoft was its most succesful company.

This technology company focused on software systems for all kinds of professionals. It created business applications for word processing, spreadsheet and presentation. The company was great at doing business, marketing and making a profit. By the year 2000, it actually achieved its mission of a PC on every desktop and in every home and information at your fingertips.

The human dimension of technology in the PC-era focused on the user interface: a ‘thing’ positioned between a person (the user), performing functional tasks with the computer. Interfaces and usability became research topics of academia of which the Special Interest Group on Human Computer Interaction of the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM SIGCHI) was the most influential.

But then something happened around the mid 1990s. The Web emerged and it brought connectivity out of academia into the world of ordinary people. Combined with the ongoing proliferation of technology (based upon Moore’s law), it resulted in the consumerization of technology, which we are witnessing now. But, Microsoft is not driving this consumer revolution. It’s old buddy Apple doing this.

Apple and the post-PC era

Therefore, the third inflection point is the Post-PC era (a term Steve Jobs coined), which started with the introduction of the Apple iPod in 2001. It’s well known that Apple with its closely integrated hardware, software and content is the most successful company of the Post-PC era.

With its products and services (a tightly-knit “ecosystem”), this technology company re-invented and revolutionized industries from the 20th century, such as computing, music, publishing, movies, mobile phones, and retail. Some predict it will do the same for textbooks, photography and the most anticipated one, television.

In the course of time, the relationship between people and technology has intensified tremendously. The user is not anymore the highly-trained expert or professional operating a single application and usability is not the sole important quality of the product. On the contrary. It’s the experience, this set of “pragmatic and hedonic qualities” as Marc Hassenzahl puts it in his model of UX.

So, how did they do it?

Product over profit

As a designer with ambitions of how the world should be and a desire to change the world, Jobs solved an important business dilemma. The dilemma between product and profit.

Most conventional business literature identifies three ways to create value. Two based upon numbers (also known as efficiency and effectiveness) and one on people (also known as customer satisfaction). During the pre-PC and PC-eras, the numbers ruled. By replacing people by machines, IBM claimed to reduce costs of operation. By being very effective in their business activities, Microsoft increased its revenue for a long period of time. But reducing costs or increasing revenue are just one way to look at business. Customer satisfaction – or as we might now term customer experience – is what it is all about in the post-PC era.

And Steve Jobs got that:

You’ve got to start with the customer experience and work backwards to the technology.” (1997)

Like breathing is a prerequisite of life, profitability is necessary for any company to survive. But it’s not its purpose nor is it sufficient by itself. Contrary to popular belief, Jobs showed that profitability is not the purpose of a business. Making money is the result, not the goal.

In his view, the purpose of a business is to add value with great products or services. If a company does that well, profitablity will come, almost naturally. So the profit a product makes must not be the central focus, but rather its value, meaning and pleasure for people. Or to put it in designer terms: it’s the difference between designing to sell and designing to use.

So, making the Copernican parallel in this revolution, Jobs showed that it is possible to bridge the gap between what businesses do and what people need. Instead of putting money in the centre, he puts people in the center. It’s this change of center that brings a revolution. People in the center who need value, fulfilment and meaning. And it’s focusing on the customer experience that will deliver that.

Or as Nathan Shedroff puts it:

Meaning is the most important dimension of the customer experience.” (Johnny Holland 2009)

Customer experience

Now, this huge success of Apple and Steve Jobs of the last 15 years has not been unnoticed by the press, business leaders, and economists. Quite the contrary! Many businesses want to get the same kind of success in their industries and are figuring out how to do it. And they have found the deus ex machina, the silver bullet or the holy grail. It’s the Customer Experience or CX for friends.

And this discovery by the business community will have great influence on our UX design profession. For our UX community, customer experience is the economic incarnation of user experience of the 21st Century.

In economic terms, experience has been identified as a business differentiator by Joseph Pine and James Gilmore with their publication The Experience Economy (1998). They describe the experience economy as a leading principle for what is economically successful. In this economy, competition is not based on extensive product features, low price or high speed, but on the experience of buying, using, and owning products, services or solutions. And the experience economy just did not start with the advent of computers, because think of the value of experience in precursors like tourism, leisure and hospitality services.

[For a thorough analysis of mechanisms of the experience economy, I refer to For the love of experience: Changing the experience economy discourse by Anna Snel]

Recently, this attention towards customer experience is beginning to strengthen within business circles. But unfortunately, it is only slowly becoming noticed by the community of user experience (design).

Or as Leisa Reichelt observes:

(…) we don’t really know people who do Customer Experience, in fact, most of us probably don’t even know they exist and will be immediately sceptical upon discovering them.”

Since 2010, professions, disciplines and communities of user experience have begun to realize that they have to connect to other communities beyond their comfort zones of design, digital and web. They have to connect with strategy (not design only), with services (not single applications only), and with business operations (a.k.a. backstage, not frontstage only).

Definitions from both worlds

Let’s have a look at two definitions. One by the Nielsen Norman Group, including one of the founding fathers of user experience, Donald Norman (…)

User experience encompasses all aspects of the end-user’s interaction with the company, its services, and its products.”

(…) and one by Bruce Temkin, now at TemkinGroup and previous from the customer experience thought leaders, Forrester.

Customer experience is the perception that customers have of their interactions with an organization.”

Looking at both definitions, you might conclude that customer and user experience are actually twins, but separated at birth. If we read these definitions, we notice that they look quite similar. But although they share the same kind of phrasing, focus and vision, in fact they are not identical twins. They are fraternal twins, like brother and sister. User experience is not identical with customer experience. They are not synonyms. Both professions, disciplines and communities are different, separated and almost unaware of each other’s existence. And as stated earlier, some even mistrust their customer experience sibling.

The brother and sister connection

There are barriers for extending the scope of user experience and connect with other domains. The UX community is still very focused on a single dimension of technology, whether it is websites, social media or mobile applications. Or perhaps new user interfaces or usability.

But there is hope. There are a few emerging fields from our profession which can be connectors to customer experience. Besides important work being done in content strategy and cross-channel experience design, I will focus on just two of these connectors with customer experience: user experience strategy and service design.

User experience strategy

(User) experience strategy as part of our community is one of the first reaching out to customer experience. It extends the design dimension of user experience to another one: strategy. A strategy is the plan you need to follow in order to achieve your vision. In this case, your UX vision.

So what do UX strategists do?

In a recent article in UXmatters, Paul Bryan listed some common responsibilities among job postings that these UX strategists have. Besides creating the obvious UX visions, strategies and roadmaps, a few other interesting ones in this context are noticable.

  • Advance the UX practice within a company.
  • Work across business units and departments.
  • Synthesize customer data from many sources to identify opportunities and recommend design directions.
  • Connect design strategy to business results.

You can see that responsibilities such as these are directly connected to business in general and customer experience in particular. You probably also notice how these are definitely related to working within large companies. It’s obvious these user experience strategists must work with all things customer experience.

So, the field of UX strategy is a very good candidate connecting with our customer experience siblings. Customer experience is a natural fit for those of us who do the experience strategy work. Therefore, to deliver enjoyable, desirable, positive, compelling, exceptional, transformational and superior experiences for customers, UX strategy must be a connection point.

But successful strategic UX is not just about delivering a design or testing user interfaces of sites, apps or what-have-you. To shape quality experiences, you have to take a strategic and holistic approach. The holistic experience of onscreen and off.

And here we get to a second field with high connection potential: Service design.

Service design

The field of service design as part of the UX community can reach out to customer experience as well. But only if it can extend UX to offscreen events (“touchpoints”). The term “touchpoints” – as the fields of customer experience and service design use it – is important and can help foster a shift of the way we UXers think about what we can do.

In the last decade or so, our focus has been technology-related: digital and online applications. With the emergence of customer experience and service design, offline becomes as important from a design perspective. I see service design as an emerging (inter)discipline focusing on both online and offline and on the service as the object of design.

Unfortunately but understandably, user experience design has been largely interested in touchpoints with customers that involve digital interfaces. Customer experience people are interested in ALL touchpoints that customers have with an organization as well as all the procedures and infrastructure (the backstage) required to make sure these interactions are as they should be. A customer journey outlines all touchpoints between customers and services. Such a journey requires backstage thinking, as a way of production. Like a stage play.

Service design forces user experience into the context of customer experience. Service design is the design field to integrate online and offline from a holistic point of view. Designing for holistic customer experiences across channels, time, and devices.

Or as Samantha Starmer sees the value of service design for us:

The service design folks understand that good experiences require unity from all aspects of an experience, not just the cool digital stuff.” (UX magazine 2011)

Paraphrasing Leisa Reichelt once again, now is the time in your UX career you have to realize that in order to really impact the experience of your users, you need to move beyond the interface and into business and customer experience.

CX as a practice, discipline and community

Let’s change perspective and look at the profession, discipline and community of customer experience. Or, as I would put it here, to user experience in the context of a business.

To get a sense of what you will encounter meeting your customer experience brothers and sisters, let’s look at magic CX words, like customer focus, customer satisfaction and customer value. As you notice with these magic words, customer experience is not a product design challenge. It’s a strategic, tactical and operational challenge for many businesses. Customer experience is a multidimensional phenomenon and it relates to various organizational dimensions.

As stated earlier, customer experience is on the rise and gaining rapidly in business relevance: as a profession (with relevant publications), as a discipline (with various thought leaders) and as a community (with relevant events). And as with any new field, CX practitioners have created their own member organization, the Customer Experience Professionals Association (CXPA).

But being a successful company in customer experience is not easy. eConsultancy recently found two great barriers to deliver the required customer experience: the organisational structure (think silos, departments and business units) and the complexity of the phenomenon. User experience can help. The scope of customer experience is broader than the scope of user experience. It comprises all touchpoints between a company and its customers. The rise of customer experience and user experience has been concurrent, but user experience probably has more traction in terms of concrete roles within organizations.

The strategy, energy and resources of customer-centered organizations are aimed at processes enhancing knowledge of an engagement with their customers. And prioritizing these over keeping conventional competitive barriers.

One of the most visible and active proponents of customer experience in businesses is Forrester. CX is a practice, discipline and community of its own with Forrester consultants as its thought leaders.

In thinking about CX in business, Forrester’s Customer Experience Maturity Framework might be helpful. This simple but clear model identifies four levels of CX maturity of a company. The levels range from absent, through adhoc and regular to systematic. These levels occur within six disciplines for customer experience in business contexts. Looking at these disciplines, we see our UX fields have definitely something to offer.

Forrester CX disciplines UX expertise
Design Everything UX design
Culture Design thinking
Strategy UX strategy
Governance Web governance, Content management
Measurement Analytics, User testing
Customer understanding User and design research


Seeing similarities, parallels and added values between these fields will make engagement with each other much easier.

Challenges and next steps

In order to really impact our users’ experiences, we need to move beyond the interface and into business at large. There are many challenges and opportunities on the horizon for our profession, disciplines and communities. Whether it is interaction design, information architecture, or content strategy.

As I see it, some of the challenges facing the field of user experience as it crosses the divide towards customer experience are the following.

  1. Aiming for top level of the company increases the political power struggle. UX must engage with politics. This is not our favorite topic.
  2. Connecting with other established conventional business fields, like marketing, product management or operations as part of the experience for businesses.
  3. Seeing customer experience problems often disguised as UX problems, for example system design based upon false assumption regarding the customer. No matter how well you design the user interface, your system will fail.
  4. Embracing the emerging discipline of service design which is so closely related to CX. Service design is about designing experiences that are appropriate to the larger CX strategy.
  5. Working together, it’s teamwork. Showing real interest in CX will open up the CX community. Today, UX talks to design, CX talks to business and money. We have to talk to business and money as well. And CX to design.

And what are some of the next steps we have to take?

  1. Engage with the profession, discipline and community of customer experience.
  2. Extend your UX focus beyond just design.
  3. Include backstage operations in your UX scope. Remember that frontstage excellence is only possible with backstage or operational excellence.

And finally, let go of the mistrust of business, marketing or management. Although mistrust is a typical European characteristic, sometimes you have to have faith and take the leap.

Now jump!

About the author

InfoDesign‘s Peter Bogaards (a.k.a. @BogieZero) has been an online content curator avant-la-lettre in information architecture and related user experience fields for more than a decade, choosing what he thinks is interesting, relevant or remarkable to share. With his tagline “Sharing knowledge is better than having it,” he has been an indispensable resource for many within the UX community. Currently, Peter works as community builder at Informaat experience design.

Accompanying presentation deck (Slideshare)

Customer experience (78), Digital strategy (21), Service design (42), User experience (53)