It’s not a particularly hot take in 2019 to suggest that we’re almost entirely dominated by digital interfaces. Because of this, customers have never expected more from companies in digital spaces.
Regardless of your business size, it is overwhelmingly likely that digital experiences make up a large part of your customer experience. Whether this is at the lead generation stage or the point of consumption, businesses with zero digital presence are almost extinct.
This means that customers not only expect more from digital: customer experiences are fundamentally digital experiences, and the competition to succeed has never been higher. There is no longer an easy way to distinguish between digital experiences and customer experiences. They are, for the most part, the same thing.
This provides a timely and important juncture at which to explore how we currently think about and create these experiences. And it’s surprising to look at how similar the process is, regardless of which industry or sector you’re operating in.
Silicon Valley Influence
It’s strange to think that we can already turn the clock back over a decade to analyse how key the emergence of Silicon Valley start-up culture was in shaping customer experiences today.
Think of 2007, the year the iPhone was announced and launched. Silicon Valley was thrusting a spotlight on itself, primed to grow exponentially throughout the next decade. Companies such as Facebook, Twitter, even Google and Amazon, were at the beginning of a transition from notable start-up companies to technical behemoths dominating our economic landscape.
With this came an explosion in technologies and ideas which entirely altered the landscape in which we operate. Whether it was the adoption of entirely new UI patterns or borrowed concepts such as Agile project management, the global influence this culture had was unfathomable.
If you have ever delivered a digital platform or service, the fingerprints of Silicon Valley will be all over it. And because of the reach and depth of this influence, it’s hard to focus on what the dominant trend was from these companies. But I feel it’s most accurately summarised in one of the best-known Silicon Valley phrases:
Move fast and break things
This phrase’s ethos has stretched directly through the provision of products and services. The act of moving fast and breaking things - shipping code as quickly as possible, then fixing and improving it rapidly - has been so widely adopted over the last decade that it’s almost impossible to imagine this being a paradigm-shifting mentality within software development. And it goes deeper than that, affecting business strategy and customer experiences as much as it does product delivery.
This motto means different things to different people. To me, if we’re drawing a wide net over this phrase, I think the entire last decade was governed by learning from data.
The huge increase in the number of tools available to us to aid our learning has completely altered how we analyse and improve our digital services. It’s now the de-facto method for choosing how to provide and improve our digital offerings.
This has opened up opportunities the industry could have only dreamed of before this data explosion. Product teams will use some kind of data measurement service to provide insight into the implementation of their ideas and to encapsulate information about their customers. And it’s without a doubt the cheapest and easiest way to effectively analyse and quantify your successes and failures.
But this massive toolbox of cheap, accessible measurement suites and metrics has allowed us to fall into certain habits. It’s these tendencies as data analysers which mean we become over-reliant on data to produce and improve our offerings.
It’s easy to point at obvious abuses of power when handling data - most notably the Cambridge Analytica scandal - and think that these issues only affect companies that have access to large amounts of data. But we’re all guilty of looking through it and making wide-ranging assumptions which treat users as collectives rather than individuals.
This comes at a real cost to us being able to end up providing effective and cohesive customer experiences. The use of these mass data collection tools, such as Google Analytics, allow us to turn users into faceless, quantitative data points. It instantly strips them of their needs and emotions when using our platforms and services.
The paradox within our current data-driven approach is that while we insist on stripping users of their needs and emotions, we are similarly insistent on narrowing in on specific issues in a vacuum.
It is common practice for marketers and product owners alike to sift through analytics and make judgement calls on a particular, isolated set of features or pages. It is extremely rare for this analysis to look at these in the context of the platform they exist on, and rarer still for them to be considered in the context of the entire customer experience.
Data analysis in its current practice allows us to isolate issues too quickly. Decisions are made without an understanding of the customer journey throughout your entire offering.
If the future of digital services is truly personal, then our current approach for using these tools needs to change. A catch-all data approach, which doesn’t allow for in-depth analysis of users on a more human level, will ultimately fall short of user expectations.
But why does this matter now? These tools have allowed products and platforms to significantly improve over the last 10 years. It may seem odd to send up the rally cry against data in a world where it is impossible to survive without it.
But I feel we have reached an impasse. The weight of data can be overbearing and is constantly susceptible to the weaknesses of the tools and people who analyse them.
And this situation isn’t getting any simpler.
A rapidly complex expansion
The web as we know it is changing at a pace we have never seen before. We are moving beyond a world dominated by screens into an ocean of new and different user interfaces. From AI to VR (and any other acronym you can think of), our options for reaching customers are expanding and diversifying.
This is a threat to a product team’s ability to create cohesive customer experiences - device to device, platform to platform. Despite the obvious financial costs of constantly investing in and adapting to new technology, it is diversity which is the biggest threat to providing experiences which feel familiar and brand-specific.
We can look at Ikea to see this diversity in action. While in 2007 it would have relied on physical interaction in their stores, it now has an ever-expanding suite of apps and digital offerings. From Ikea Place (their augmented reality app) to Internet of Things (IoT) smart devices, this expansion directly threatens Ikea’s ability to create cohesive experiences which fulfil their aim of delivering “the wonderful everyday”.
This kind of product expansion and diversification is necessary for Ikea to grow and compete in its market, but also means they can no longer rely on data alone to measure and improve upon their offerings.
There is no such thing as an analytics or measurement platform which will accurately compare interactions between web interfaces, voice interfaces, and augmented reality experiences. The experience, abilities and types of customers using these platforms have the potential to be so massively diverse that drawing comparisons between each becomes a dangerous art of data manipulation to suit business narratives. It prevents real improvement which positively impacts your customers’ experiences.
This means we need an alternative approach. I believe that storytelling is the ultimate alternative to help unite these exciting and diverse challenges.
Learning from Madison Avenue
"If you don’t like what’s being said, change the conversation." - Don Draper
I don’t think there’s a better example of companies adopting a methodological approach to cope with wide-scale changes than the advertising industry in the 1950s and 1960s.
While certain sectors had to adapt their approach due to increased regulation (like the tobacco industry), it was the dawn of mass consumerism and subsequent pivot of advertisers to adapt which we can learn from today.
The acceleration in the number of similar products in all markets completely transformed the advertising industry. Pitching products based on their features became obsolete as multiple versions landed in stores. Simply existing in the marketplace was no longer a strategy for sustaining business.
Yet advertisers found a way to deal with this challenge, creating desire in a crowded market through storytelling.
The use of storyline driven marketing campaigns revolutionised what it meant to distribute and sell products. From billboard advertisements to the dawn of the first TV commercials, many of the world's most famous brands were born during this era - and many have stood the test of time.
In many cases, creating a customer experience through the use of branding and storytelling became more important than the product itself. As Don Draper mentions in the opening episode of Mad Men: “Advertising is about one thing, happiness”. Or at least, advertising is about the generation of this feeling. Taking control of the message emitted from your product and using this to impact the customer's feelings and emotions.
This is what we can learn from this era. As the idea of digital experiences has melted into the wider customer experience, it becomes more important than ever to make sure that we look at treating users as individual people rather than homogeneous groups.
That means leaning on storytelling. Providing engaging narratives that run through each of our online offerings to make sure we are constantly connected to the user on a more emotive level. We want to tell the tales that make people feel something, so they’re more closely aligned with the brands we promote.
Interestingly, we’ve already started seeing an upward trend in the design community talking about and designing for this new future. It is becoming much more common for designers to look at and consider the emotional side of UI development.
It’s as if we’re relearning the lessons of the Madison Avenue era of advertising. We’re catching up to the idea that we need to rely more heavily on emotive design, rather than data-driven design.
This shift is not a simple overnight fix, but it’s a necessity. We will no longer be able to use generic catch-all data tools as our primary customer experience strategy. Instead, we need to use these tools to fill in gaps and help us back up our strategies.
There are great examples of data being used as a key pillar of a company's strategy, but it must be built upon a firm commitment to user storytelling and customer experience rather than being the leading light.