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Can 'User-Experience' Experts Become 'Customer-Experience' Experts? Small companies have mastered user experience; now it's on to the frontier of customer service.

By Toby Bottorf

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User experience (UX) is a mature enough discipline that most medium-to-large companies invest in it as a valuable in-house capability. But the emerging field of customer experience (CX) is still new enough that most companies are grappling with how to develop the organizational capability to deliver it well.

Related: 3 Mistakes That Undermine Using Social Media for Customer Service

The problem is that while there is a growing urgency about making good customer experience everyone's responsibility, nobody actually has the responsibility to do that.

Improving CX capability, then, is important, and it requires two big changes. The first is a move into service design. The second, harder, change is governance at a high-enough level in the organization to manage this move well. (For more about "Innovation Capability," listen to comments by my colleague Jon Campbell.) Customer experience depends on people from many areas of a company who are typically siloed off from one other.

We see a number of traditional UX consultancies positioning their work to incorporate CX. But is this just a renaming, or the evolution of UX, or is there more to this transition? Many of the essential practices of UX work can support the development of great, holistic customer experiences, but the methods and approaches to frame the objectives here differ substantially between the two fields.

UX designers are well equipped for CX work

Both fields practice human-centered design. Both seek to understand people deeply, to develop insights about the ideal-use cases and to describe the experience of the user (as opposed to the functioning of the system).

Almost inevitably, there will be digital interfaces as essential parts of a service system. These may be self-service tools for customers, software for frontline employees or an underlying platform that serves both customers and staff. There are few service experiences these days that don't rely on good UX work. So, it makes sense that the line that divides the two disciplines is blurry.

That's reason enough for this new field of CX to be full of UX practitioners. Afterall, we UX people have most of the necessary skills.

But not all.

Related: 3 Ways to Create Customer Experiences That Boost Sales

What's different about CX?

The difference is one of scale. You're not designing a thing. You're trying to design what happens as a result of many things you directly designed, which is very different from UX. UX is bound technically by a clear and limited use case: It always involves someone interacting with a device.

Service experiences, however, are broad and ephemeral. They happen in time, and might involve the design of spaces as well as spontaneous interactions between people. UX work is often focused on optimizing something that has already been defined, not necessarily generating something new.

Unlearning some UX practices

The biggest change for me personally in making this transition has been in the approach to quality. The definition of a great service depends on whether it is an open or closed system. Most digital systems are closed. Software should work the same every time. For software, improving quality means fewer deviations from how things should be.

But for open-service systems, standardization can set the bar for quality at only a mediocre level. A standard for consistency defines the floor, the lowest level of acceptable service. To deliver great service, people need to be themselves, and represent their organization with good judgment and real agency. That will inevitably be delivered with a lot of variability.

Designing for unanticipated-use cases, then, is the unique challenge of CX work.

Some unlearning is just the recognition of your frame of reference: Starting from the vantage point of digital experiences can cause us to predetermine the solution. This is the old "When you're holding a hammer everything looks like a nail" problem. Beware of bias toward what we do well. Many UX firms make great software, but CX solutions are likely bigger than that.

New methods and priorities

An early prototype of a total customer experience is a bold act of make-believe. Designers play the part of front-line or call-center employees, to deliver the entire service and test it. Customers should judge the customer service portrayed as though it were a real thing in the world.

The goal is to have the most polished-seeming presentation of the service to customers with the most jerry-rigged, expedient hacks running the back-of-house.

Prototypes are enacted performances. They teach us how to prepare for contingencies and show us a range of scenarios, so we are ready for the new ones. They help us outline formal training, as well as design the "stuff" that helps us be ourselves in character. This is the stuff that in a theater would be production design and costumes, designed as much for the actors as for the audience.

Designing social interactions. You know, among people.

In doing CX, we also need to understand more broadly the nature of "jobs to be done" in the system, and assign them optimally, between people and technology. Everyone is familiar with a UX experience where they just want to deal with a person, but increasingly our dealings with people feel like bad human-computer interactions.

For example, if the person at the call center must obey a decision tree and follow a script with no personal discretion, then his or her humanity is wasted; it's not an asset.

Better data is crucial to this process. The sharing of data is what companies want, so they will make fewer mistaken assumptions about you. Communications in this digital age are not as personalized as we had hoped they would be by now; they're just targeted, in precise and arbitrary ways. Not personal at all.

But service is nothing if not personal. It's not the same thing as digital self-service. The question for a purely digital designer is, "How can I leverage this device to create the best overall experience for my customer?"

In CX, in contrast, the question is, "What can we do to build the best possible relationship between customers and our company?"

Related: Here Are 4 Steps to Create an Awesome User Experience

Toby Bottorf

VP at Continuum

Toby Bottorf is a principal at the global innovation design consultancy Continuum. His recent work has included IA & UI design of a client communications tool for a premium financial services company, strategy and experience design of a new digital coaching platform for a leading American health insurance company, and creation of a new-to-the-world service offering for a European car maker. Bottorf holds a master’s degree in communications design from the Institute of Design (IIT) and a BA in art from Yale University.

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