In the product and design world, there’s always a new framing for how to do the best work. Early in my career, I was enamored with the term interaction design as the new way to think about how to be intentional when putting together a software interface. Don’t let the engineers just design the interface by accident, the thinking went. Define personas, identify what those personas want to accomplish, and then draw out the best possible interactions to let the personas do what they want to do. The design of the platform should dictate how it is built, not the other way around.
Interaction design has fallen out of favor, and the new term du jour is customer experience, often CX for short (don’t get me started on why we shouldn’t use acronyms). Entire teams are created and tasked with improving the customer experience above all else. Often these teams are primarily made up of interface designers, but they’ve been expanded to include researchers, data analysts, business strategists, and front end engineers. In the best case scenario, they’re given a mandate to think holistically and make broad improvements, but more often than not they’re hastily assembled and told to put a fresh coat of paint on what the customer sees.
Even still, in general, dedicated teams are a good thing. Prioritizing the customer experience is what every modern digital organization should be thinking about: obviously direct-to-consumer businesses delivered over the internet, but also business-to-business service offerings. The move toward using thoughtful design to improve how customers buy, navigate, and use digital products has been a huge boon to our industry. So, what’s the problem?
Why CX isn’t enough
The problem with the move toward customer experience is that it’s an incomplete view. Digital businesses today (that is, all businesses) have complex platforms that aren’t a one-dimensional customer experience. The set of internal tooling, processes, and services to enable the business to run are just as impactful to the experience of the customer, and the organization’s success, as the customer-facing interfaces that CX teams are tasked with improving. There are paying customers, and then there are paid customers: the people inside your organization who service those paying customers. Your CX approach has to include both.
Let me offer an example. Postlight recently worked with a consumer goods business that had grown rapidly, and while its digital storefront was pleasant and easy to navigate, its back office systems were a mess. Supplier onboarding was a manual, error-prone process, and getting set up to make and receive payments was a disaster. The payments sub-systems used outdated technology and led to regular problems with merchants getting paid properly and on time. This whole wing of the house had been neglected and needed to be addressed to set the platform on better footing for the future.
Another example that comes to mind: downstream processing of customer-submitted data. This could mean support tickets, form entries, or a call for help with an order. In many industries, how quickly and thoroughly a customer request gets handled is going to dictate what the customer’s view of the company is overall. But the interfaces and systems built to handle these requests on the back end are often the lowest on the priority list. They get consistently overlooked in favor of their more-public counterparts, and as a result, processing times and quality slow down.
Most customer experience teams won’t spot challenges like these. They think only about what a paying customer sees, touches, or complains about. That’s all well and good, but the real customer experience must be a truly complete picture of the ways each part of the organization contributes to how a customer feels about the organization.
What about UX?
Before customer experience, there was user experience (UX). Ten to 15 years ago, most of the designers I interviewed presented themselves as UX designers to communicate that they did more than put a coat of paint on frontends. If a designer focused only on the visuals, they were missing a big piece of the puzzle of software design, the thinking went.
But then a quote attributed to renowned designer Edward Tufte started taking the shine off of UX:
“There are only two industries that call their customers ‘users’: illegal drugs and software.”
Responsible design became more important to the community, and more applicants started looking for product design roles.
There’s a key thing that UX got right: Any person using a software interface, broadly speaking, should have a tailored experience. That experience applies equally to employees, data processors, operational interns, and all of the other non-customer roles as it does for customers.
Some of the biggest bottom-line impact we’ve had for our clients is when we dramatically improve how an internal system works. We’ve been able to increase efficiency on everyday tasks by huge amounts, as much as five to 10 times faster in some cases. This isn’t just a quality-of-life improvement, because improvements on the backend directly lower costs in many ways. Sometimes you can accomplish more with a smaller staff, or your throughput goes up and customer wait times go down, or you can decommission and cut maintenance costs of older, outdated systems. These all have a clear, quantifiable business impact.
Take a wide view of design
UX was a good step in the right direction, and CX is a regression that misses the fact that internal users are users too. Product design encompasses them both.
This is all to say, as you look at your organization, think broadly about how you can apply product thinking and design to improve all facets of the digital experience. A big part of that will be what your customers interact with, but you likely have needs just as important within your internal systems.
Talk to your people, or engage a focused team to do an assessment of where the gaps are and what impact design thinking could have on your digital platform’s future. Interface improvements for a workflow that customers never see could end up having the greatest positive payoff on the overall customer experience.