Design Thinking Meets Customer Experience Management

Design Thinking Meets Customer Experience Management

This article is part of our April 2019 series about customer experience. Click here for more.

On the streets of Austin, Texas, during last month’s South by Southwest Festival, no one needed to explain that experiences are the new currency of marketing. Every bar, restaurant, and event space downtown had been turned into an “experience,” where festival-goers could sample one or another brand, from LG and Samsung technology to the final season of HBO’s “Game of Thrones.”

Marketers realize that their job today is as much customer experience management (CXM) as it is selling products or services. And it’s not just about consumer brands; at the convention center, writer Baratunde Thurston and marketing guru Bonin Bough joked about the many activations around town from enterprise technology companies—“these three-letter acronyms,” Thurston said. All of those activations were showcasing experiences for the future before “the most cynical audience on planet Earth,” Bough said.

CXM is increasingly about trying to be nimble and quick to keep up with ever-more tech-savvy and demanding consumers. By adopting design thinking—a process-oriented methodology for creating products, services and experiences using technology and creative skills to target a customer need or problem—organizations can not only make experiences that differentiate them among brands, but also ensure that those experiences adapt quickly to keep up with real-time consumer expectations.

‘From Doer To Leader’

The experience economy is helping design-thinking practices spread around the creative ecosystem. Many panels during the SXSW conference tackled myriad themes related to building user experiences. Marketers are increasingly trying to “move fast and break things,” following the advice of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.

User-experience designers are moving “from a doer to a leader” according to Forrester’s CX predictions for 2019. The “democratization of design” is leading companies to make design thinking a core competency for organizations.

Even car companies—which design new models looking up to a decade into the future—are rethinking their processes to turn their products into a “driving experience.” Automotive design is a slow-moving industry, but luxury branding has changed, noted Gorden Wagener, chief design officer of Mercedes-Benz.

Connected, autonomous, and electric vehicles are giving the industry new solutions and experience options, he told a SXSW audience while discussing user experiences. Designing an autonomous car “completely changes the brand perception” and creates a new experience through design, he said.

While Wagener talked about evolving the Mercedes-Benz experience for today’s buyers, Ben Sheppard, who leads McKinsey & Co.’s Product Development and Design practices in the United Kingdom, explained to his audience the value of design to a company’s bottom line. McKinsey’s research found the companies with the best design practices improved their revenues by an average 32 percentage points over the rest.

In addition, McKinsey’s recent study on design practices stressed that product, service, and experience design are converging, whether it’s in software-as-a-service or, for example, Nespresso’s practice of putting working coffee makers in the stores. As the customers use them, the brand can fine-tune its offering by observing how they fix themselves a cup.

Building Wings Mid-Air

Now it’s time for marketing departments and agencies to adapt. Experience is a design interaction between a company and its customer, whether it’s on the phone, in a physical space, or via interfaces such as an app or voice search, said Nick Law, chief creative officer at Publicis Groupe.

But until recently, agency creative teams were still structured to produce advertising, with a copywriter and art director, Law said in his SXSW keynote. “[But] change is a design problem,” he said. Agencies need new team models built on delivering storytelling and experiences, not just art and copy, he said.

Many SXSW speakers were clear that becoming design thinkers isn’t always a natural move for organizations. Design thinking calls for delivering the “minimum viable product” (MVP) to the customers as quickly as possible—sometimes at the prototype stage—and improving it as their feedback rolls in. In an age when consumers have become so demanding and measure brands based on the best they have experienced (not just other competitors in the brand’s sector), this can complicate experience management.

The answer lies in execution, said Tonya Bakritzes, CMO of Isobar U.S. If that MVP can deliver an experience rooted in insights that understand consumers’ behaviors, emotions, and pain points; and is backed by data and built with solid design, “the risk delivering that MVP is much lower than the risk of waiting to deliver a monolithic solution,” she said.

“We learn so much by seeing experiences in the field,” Bakritzes told “Companies should understand that they need to employ teams that are constantly measuring, gleaning insights, and optimizing to meet consumer needs.”

Slow Down And Fix It

Design thinking and agile practices bring to the surface many tensions inherent in-house, starting with the textbook split between creatives and technologists and the trope tension of marketing versus sales. Sprints, scrums, and test-and-learn tend to make Web designers and creatives lean into their key personality traits.

Technologists, on the other hand, are more precise and like to test and refine things before sharing them. Engineers don’t like testing websites until they are ready to go live, but the biggest impact on a website user experience is at the wireframe stage, noted Craig Tomlin, owner of UX research firm WCT & Associates.

Those incomplete websites can be fixed more easily “because you’re pushing pixels, you’re not pushing code. … That is a major bear,” said Tomlin, author of “UX Optimization: Combining Behavioral UX and Usability Testing Data to Optimize Websites,” in his SXSW panel.

“It’s a balance, but being the first to advance shouldn’t mean sacrificing the thoroughness of the process or the quality of the end product,” Bakritzes added. “A high-performing agile program should be working iteratively toward a broader experience vision, rooted in consumer insights and data. It should also be empowered to adjust its course as new insights are gleaned from experiences in market.”