Creating the Customer Experience

After a long period of inactivity on this blog, it’s time to resurrect things here. With 15 years+ of experience creating various online applications with IBM Interactive Experience, I’ve amassed a few tidbits of knowledge that I think will be useful to others interested in Web development and architecture, so I’m planning a series of posts that dive into many issues faced by those who create online interactive experiences. Each week or so, I will go over one topic that I think will be of interest, diving into such topics as developing a browser application as part of a team; prototyping, structuring JavaScript classes, and re-factoring will all be covered. These articles are intended to be technical, going into detail with code and examples. To start things off though, lets look at customer experience at a higher level, before descending into the details in subsequent articles.

The Dao of Customer Experience

If there is one article you read about Web design (apart from this one of course!) I would highly recommend reading John Allsopp’s seminal article A Dao of Web Design. Read it now if you like, I’m happy to wait.

Firstly, think about what your pages do, not what they look like. Let your design flow from the services which they will provide to your users, rather than from some overarching idea of what you want pages to look like. Let form follow function, rather than trying to take a particular design and make it “work.” —A Dao of Web Design

Fourteen years ago the main theme was about trying to control what’s on screen to make it more like print. Now it’s about control over how a site shows on the multitude of mobile devices. The Dao article has had a major influence on the movement to use flexible design principles (a.k.a. adaptive or responsive design) to take advantage of the medium in a way that’s inclusive to a diverse audience. The flexibility that John speaks of leads us to consider that by letting go of our desire to precisely dictate how a site will be viewed or used, we are showing consideration towards our audience. A viewer with limited vision can increase the browser’s default font size without breaking the site’s layout, while a viewer using a mobile phone on a train can access the same content as someone at home. I believe that the principle that guides us in designing for flexibility, and that led to the thinking behind the responsive design movement, is that of empathy. This is a key trait that allows us to put the customer first; shaping the customer experience for what they want and need rather than for what’s convenient to implement.

Walking in Someone Else’s Shoes

The feeling of empathy is something that I believe is fundamental to designing the customer experience; putting yourself in your audience’s shoes, thinking like them, and asking yourself what would you do in their place. The first step in doing this is to stop referring to your audience as users and start referring to them as people. If you are creating an internal customer relationship management application, it’s not for users, it’s for call center agents. If you are creating an e-commerce website, your audience isn’t users, it’s your client’s customers. If you are creating an e-learning application, your audience isn’t users, it’s teachers and students. If you can meet some members of your target audience in person, or at least put together in your mind a persona representing who those people might be, it’s a lot easier to develop the needed empathy for your audience that will help you let go of the rigid thought that you know better than your audience what they need, and instead embrace the flexibility that your target audience requires.

I admit it’s really hard to drop “users” from your vocabulary, after all the term we most often use in our field is “user interface” for what’s shown on screen. Try though to start thinking and speaking using terms such as “customer experience” instead of “user experience”, “visual interface” instead of “user interface”, and “audience” instead of “users”. They are still well understood terms that won’t get you too many strange looks, yet they help to ease you into the mindset of empathy that is required to do your job well. Any time you find yourself typing the word “user” into an email or document, pause and think about who it is that you are actually talking about, then use a better word to describe those people.

The Dao of Web Design ends with the following quote:

The journey begins by letting go of control, and becoming flexible.

I would say that flexibility is a hallmark of empathy for your audience, and this quote could also read:

The journey begins by letting go of control, demonstrating empathy for your audience, and becoming flexible.

Thanks for your time, I hope you join me next time.