Innovation in customer experience

The experience delivered by a product or service can be a source of competitive advantage and business value through innovation. Experience designers – using the empathy they generate with customers during primary research, and the understanding of the customers’ broad context of use they gain – are well-placed to be the source of such innovation.

Examples of innovation through the customer experience are many and varied. Xero (xero.com) provides an example of an accounting package that has broken new ground through the qualities of the experience. Amazon’s 1-click payment feature is another example of such innovation – taking a standard feature (storing customer credit card details) and creating value for customers and Amazon.

And it isn’t just in the realms of software and websites that the experience of using the product can be a point of differentiation and innovation. Take the example of Casella Wines’ Yellow Tail range. Simple labeling, easy choice, and lack of pretense has made Yellow Tail wines a smash hit, tapping into the established market of regular wine consumers, but also beer drinkers who had previously shunned wine as snobbish and complicated.

But where during the experience design process does such innovation arise?

Usability testing – where users are asked to attempt tasks and provide feedback – is useless as an innovation tool. Testing does not provide a path to break-through innovation – it leads to refinement and improved quality of execution of an existing idea.

Usability, on the other hand, can be a ground-breaking innovation in industries where ease of use, efficiency of action, simplicity, and appropriate prioritisation of features are all foreign concepts. Xero is a prime example, and whilst the designers have done more than simply introduce usability to a software industry (accounting) that has previously relied on User Manuals and training, the usability of the software is a key point of difference.

Whilst it may seem like stating the obvious to say so, the designers of Xero saw an opportunity to change the rules of competition (innovate) in their chosen domain, and targeted the experience of using accounting software as the means of doing so.

There are also examples of interfaces that have flown in the face of convention and been similarly successful. The one that readily springs to mind for me is Kai’s Power Tools – the Photoshop plug-in released in the early ’90s. The interface was a complete break away from conventional software UIs, and a stark contrast to the Photoshop environment within which it resided. Aside from the power of the tools provided, the UI offered a playful and engaging environment that encouraged exploration and experimentation.

Customer experience is about more than usability. In fact, the very notion of UX as explored by Jesse James Garrett in “The Elements of User Experience” and it’s widespread adoption since, is an acknowledgment of the many varied qualities of the design (in this case, software or websites) beyond simple usability. In the 10 years since, UX has very much focused beyond questions of efficiency and effectiveness, learnability and utility. Today’s UX practitioner is almost certain to be considering the emotional qualities of the design, aesthetics, relevance & appropriateness.

In order to address these aspects of the design challenge, UX practitioners have been taking a closer interest in Design. Led by the interaction design community and their strong connection to industrial design, UX practitioners have increasingly been adopting an approach that follows – at least in it’s broad outline – a traditional design process.

This design-driven approach to the practice of UX has been accompanied by a more widespread practice of conducting upfront research to understand the context of use of a product or service, and in so doing opened the doors to opportunities for innovation that were never available to the Usability specialist. Context provides us with the opportunity to identify secondary or supplemental behaviours not directly related to the product/service at hand that, when incorporated or directly solved, unlock significant value for the customer and the business. This is one significant source of inspiration for innovative ideas.

Another benefit of this move towards a Design approach has been the adoption of analysis and synthesis techniques aimed at generating innovative solutions to design problems. Synthesis particularly lies at the heart of design-driven innovation, and provides a repeatable framework of activity in which break-through ideas can emerge. Those ideas are the result of focused and intensive work on the part of the designer, employing creativity and a deep understanding of the problem space.

Synthesis is a generative activity relying on sketching, critique and iteration. It is a creative activity during which the designer tests boundaries and constraints. It draws deeply on the designer’s empathy for the ultimate users of the designed object, and gains much of it’s power from the parallel exploration of multiple skeins of thought. There is no magic in synthesis, although ideas may seem to appear from nowhere to the unpracticed observer.

But what does ‘innovation’ look like to the business sponsors of these design activities? In short: break-through innovation means making your competition irrelevant. It means looking at the current status quo of competitive offerings and designing something that literally rewrites the rule book. Most importantly, innovation delivers significant value to the business, not in small incremental improvements, but by opening up large reservoirs of previously latent demand.

This objective is a critical one for UX practitioners to bear in mind when attempting to promote an innovative concept. Overly-strong user advocacy can lead to blindness to the commercial objectives of the business. Whilst it’s true that any successful product or service needs a customer-base. It’s equally true that a concept from which the business cannot earn revenue is ultimately doomed.

It is also important for UX practitioners to recognise that, whilst the experience of customers is now a common form of innovation, it remains but one in a collection. The value a UX practitioner can bring to the table beyond simple innovation around the UX is their understanding of customers’ context and the insights available therein. Those insights, when combined with the insights from other business stakeholders – on industry structures, trends, alternative products & services, the purchasing and supply chain – create a powerful opportunity for break-through innovation. In isolation, the UX practitioner’s window on the customer is narrow indeed.

This article was written in response to reading: “Where innovation belongs in user-centered design” by Jake Treumper over at Johnny Holland.