Why User Experience Is Critical To Customer Relationships

User experience is a priority that should, in some way, find a home within the design of any new-media strategy.


This is part one of a limited series on the need for brands to employ UX in new-media strategies to improve customer experiences and engagement.

With the explosion of social media and smart devices, customers are becoming incredibly sophisticated, elusive, and empowered. As a result, the dynamics that govern the relationship between brands and customers is evolving.

But even in this era of engagement and "two-way" conversations, the reality is that the relationship businesses hope to have with customers through these new devices, applications, or networks and their true state are not one in the same. In fact, it is woefully one-sided, and usually not to the advantage of customers, which for all intents and purposes still affects businesses. 

Rather than examine the role new technologies and platforms can play in improving customer relationships and experiences, many businesses invest in "attendance" strategies where a brand is present in both trendy and established channels, but not defining meaningful experiences or outcomes. Simply stated, businesses are underestimating the significance of customer experiences.

Some of the biggest trends today—mobile, geoloco, social, real-time—are changing how consumers discover and share information and connect with one another. Technology aside, consumers are driving the rapid adoption of technology because of the capabilities that are unlocked through each device. From self-expression and validation to communication and connections to knowledge and collaboration, new opportunities unfold with each new device and platform.  

As smart and connected technology matures beyond a luxury into everyday commodities, consumer expectations only inflate. As a result, functionality, connectedness, and experiences emerge as the lures for attention. For brands to compete for attention now takes something greater than mere presences in the right channels or support for the most popular devices. User experience (UX) is now becoming a critical point in customer engagement in order to compete for attention now and in the future. For without thoughtful UX, consumers meander without direction, reward, or utility. And their attention, and ultimately loyalty, follows. 

The CrUX of Engagement Is Intention and Purpose

Brands as a whole suffer from medium-alism, where inordinate value and weight is placed on the technology of any medium rather than amplifying platform strengths and ideas to deliver desired and beneficial experiences and outcomes. Said another way, businesses are designing for the sake of designing, without regard for how someone feels, thinks, or acts as a result. 

Thankfully, there’s a cure for medium-alism. UX is the new Rx for most new media deployments. From social networks to mobile apps to commerce to digital, experiential strategies form the bridge where intentions meet outcomes. By starting with the end in mind, UX packages efficiency and enchantment to deliver more meaningful, engaging, and rewarding consumer journeys.

It’s easier said than done, however.  

UX is an art and science, and it is all but ignored in the development of new media channels where customers control their own fate. If the appeal of an app diminishes, it’s removed from the device. If a brand page in a social or mobile network no longer delivers value, a customer can effortlessly unlike, unfollow, or unsubscribe. If the rewards for taking action on behalf of a brand—think check-in, QR, barcode scans, or augmented reality plays—are intangible, or gimmicky without intent, customers will simply power off. And, if a consumer cannot take action in your favor, within their channel of relevance, with ease and elegance, value or ROI will forever escape your grasp.

Agencies, brand managers, developers, consultants, and anyone responsible for any element of customer engagement can learn from the art and science of UX. To that end, UX is a role that should, in some way, shape or form, find a home within the design of any new media strategy today. So I ask:  

  • Who’s your mobile design expert?
  • Who understands the engagement dynamics of Facebook, Twitter, Google+, and other new networks?
  • Who on your team is a master of the psychology to better understand engagement, behavior, and expectations?

Often, creative strategies are driven by a clever idea and not necessarily an idea supported by an engaging design or experience. At the same time, many campaigns are developed for a medium or an event where the platform takes precedence over sentiment or desired results. Of course, when considered, the formula of experiences and outcomes is incredibly potent. But when deployed without directions, everything that results is left to happenstance. Why risk it when you can design for it?

The Experience RedUX

Certainly many brands are guilty of deploying technology strategies without designing a holistic experience. It’s the reason the result of a QR scan is a web page that’s—unsurprisingly—not optimized for mobile devices or the enthusiasm that precedes an AR activation is usually met with an unimpressive digital diorama, only to dwindle in disappointment or novelty.  

Intent or desired outcomes are often thwarted by their very design or lack thereof. 

The primary function of UX is the development of an architecture that creates a delightful, emotional, and sensory experience. This is why it’s vital to customer experiences and engagement. UX is, among many things, designed to be experiential, affective, useful, productive, and entertaining. And, most importantly, it’s devised with an end in mind where the means to that end is efficient and optimized for each channel.

Let’s take a look at the point of origin for the moment. Your smartphone, computer screen, and tablet open a window to a new experience that is unique to that device. It’s a looking glass into your world that goes beyond usability. Successful UX evokes engagement or purpose, affects sentiment, and influences behavior. And this is why UX is so important. 

As Marshall McLuhan once said, "The medium is the message." Now, the medium is not only the message, the medium is the experience. And that is why we cannot simply design for the medium, we must design the experience where the medium becomes an enabler to the journey and the end as devised.  

Two words come to mind here: mission, and purpose. Jesse James Garrett, author The Elements of User Experience, once observed, "An information architect makes information work for people."  If we use his perspective as a springboard for new media, what businesses need now are new CEOs—Chief Experience Officers. But in all seriousness, brands must employ experience architects, as it is they who will carry the responsibility of designing the customer journey so that it is engaging, worthy of sharing, and unified regardless of platform.

Engagement is not a campaign, it’s a continuum where technology is merely an enabler for a greater vision, mission, and purpose. And as such, the attention, engagement, and outcomes that result are indeed reflective of what is both earned and deserved.

Next up…the principles and pillars of UX.

Follow author Brian Solis @briansolisFor more leadership coverage, follow Fast Company on Twitter and LinkedIn.

[Image: Flickr user Berenger Zyla]

Add New Comment


  • Lakshan Chandran

    Just came across this article and I completely agree. It is still crucial for customer satisfaction to have great UX. It's a shame not enough organizations recognize it. It is after all all about the customer today http://bit.ly/1iRD55b

  • TaaDaaGina

    As a production graphic artist, I believe that having an intuitive environment for the end user is the experience => as you so well stated throughout this article. We are on the precipice of huge change with touch and "Kinect" gesturing getting ready to really hit the UX scene. The web as we know it will not be the same in 5 years. Incorporating what you have said in this article, thinking outside of the box, is the future. I for one can not wait! Thank you for telling me about the article last month at the LinkedOC meetup and... for getting my mind redirected and focused on what is important.

  • Mitch Lieberman

    As seems to be the case often, I find myself a bit of a lone voice of dissent. In this case, it is not about the importance of topics raised, rather their 'relationship' to each other. User Experience is important, yes most will agree to that. UX plays a role in positive user experience, most will agree to that as well. But then we get to the 'relationship' word and further on, the 'engagement' word.

    Customers, consumers, people do not really want a relationship with your business. They have a job to do (Jobs to be Done). If you help them get that job done, and make the experience positive (emotionally positive) they will likely come back and repeat the experience the next time they have a similar (or same) job to do.

    I completely agree with the points of information architecture, and the next step is the customer journey, understanding it and aligning your resources towards the dozens of touch points along that journey. But here is where buzzwords and hype get in the way, an experience cannot be given, it is perceived (thus we do our best). Engagement is not what the company can give to the customer, it is what the customer decides to do as a result of their experience - the customer needs to drive it, we need to make it easy to do.

    I refered to Engagement as 'Intent Driven Response' earlier this year: "If Social CRM is about a companies programmatic response, then
    engagement on the customer’s terms defines the format of the response."  - Mitch

  • Ken Mann

    Brian, thank you for so eloquently capturing a major key to the long term success of any product or service.  When knocked out from start to finish (purchase through use) - we recommend it.  Invariably most miss it somewhere along the line.  Like - bringing a packaged food item home from the market and finding that you need a scissors to open it and a Ziploc to store it.  How much more thoughtful to the UX to provide scoring or a tear point on the package; and finding out that it's already in its own Ziploc package?  THANK YOU - we will be consciously incorporating this thinking in everything we make.

  • Henry Eakland

    @ John Gakau   I totally agree with John's observation that the customer experience gap is often caused by "1) an overall misunderstanding of user experience generally (often
    viewed as a "graphic" or "visual" design discipline) which in turn
    results in 2) misalignment of vision, personnel and commitment of the
    resources required to conceive, plan, build, deliver, operate and
    maintain the touch points that are required to deliver the 'more
    meaningful, engaging, and rewarding consumer journeys.' "

    Case studies built on past success are necessary for proving the need to commit time, money and resources up front for user-centered design in order to save time, money and resources down the line because the outcome is focused on customer needs to begin with. This is all too often a tough sell in organizations that believe it's most efficient to dive right in and move a project along based on "business requirements."

  • RM

    Wonderful article. I am currently a Senior Scientist at Exponent, a large technical consulting company, and I have a PhD in Neuroscience from MIT Department of Brain and Cognitive Science. I would love to be able to reach out to folks like Peter Alberti (see earlier comment) who have great ideas but need my type of expertise to help them understand what they need to consider about the human experience when developing those ideas. Your article goes a long way to highlight the importance of UX. What is the best way for me to reach out to businesses?   

  • Benoit David

    Very interesting, especially coming from the elearning industry. In our world we talk about "learner experience", which entails everything mentioned here, but with a clear distinction: learners cannot "drop-off". They need to do their training! So if the Ux is not good, it creates frustration, confusion and even despair, all of which do not foster learning.

    On a lighter note, why not use CXO, for Chief Experience Officer?

  • Peter Alberti

    Thank goodness everything outlined in here is true.  Otherwise my own startup would have been doomed to fail some time ago.  Not because we built a tool that didn't consider UX; we didn't do that. But it took us a great deal of time to learn and apply what's outlined here, and the facts from this article are dead-on accurate!  My advice:  Pay attention to the "generic" concepts from here, but be sure to apply them specifically to your intended stakeholders.

  • Joe Rapolla

    Good piece! 
    Essentially: don't do cool sh*t for the shake of it...do it with a purpose in mind.
    But saying with all the fancy words helps : )
    Thanks for sharing.

  • MRHoffman

    Customer Worthiness is the single measure for customer experience and each component or customer contact. Customer Worthy, the book, lays this out for each department and function across the customer life cycle. Customer Worthy is a do it yourself guide for companies to visualize, monetize and optimize their customer experience. 
    Plot your experience in the CxC Matrix to quickly and simply see opportunities and risks across your company. MRHoffman

  • kim donlan

    Such a gorgeous article, Brian. As a wise marketer, I struggle to have clients and internal creative teams focus on the desired outcome without getting carried away with  being on a platform for the sake of being on it. It is a battle that when I lose (which is not often) I end up winning once the experience is live and I am left to say. "see, I told you so". Thanks for your wonderful words. 

  • John Gakau

    Fantastic piece Brian!  You do a fantastic job framing the gaps left unfilled by many companies/brands as they attempt to deliver on the promises and expectations they set for customers in the marketing hook/early funnel stage of the engagement process. 

    Experience (no pun intended) tells me this is a symptom of a couple of things driven mainly by 1) an overall misunderstanding of user experience generally (often viewed as a "graphic" or "visual" design discipline) which in turn results in 2) misalignment of vision, personnel and commitment of the resources required to conceive, plan, build, deliver, operate and maintain the touch points that are required to deliver the "more meaningful, engaging, and rewarding consumer journeys" you allude to in your piece. 

  • Palmer

    I think that you've hit the nail right on the head, certainly when you say that  "experiential strategies form the bridge where intentions meet outcomes." However, my belief is that true customer experience excellence requires not only the engagement delivered by the UI but also by the fact that a customer can achieve a real outcome through the experience.

    Getting the UI right is difficult and crucial, but to enable the customer to then do something that is meaningful requires that the UI is integrated with the business processes behind it to order, deliver, change, adjust, churn, complain, etc. It's no longer good enough to provide customers with a window onto what they could do, we must now enable them to take action as a result; here and now, through the channel of their choosing.

    Superior UI is nothing without the levers to effect action and levers and machines are nothing without the interfaces to interact.