Design Thinking Meets Customer Experience Management

Brands realize their job today is as much about customer experience management (CXM) as it is selling products or services. CXM-the orchestration and personalization of the entire end-to-end customer experience-requires brands to be agile in order to keep up with ever-more tech-savvy and demanding consumers.

That’s where design thinking comes in. Design thinking is an empathetic process-oriented methodology for creating products, services, and experiences using technology and creative skills to target a customer need or problem. In doing so, organizations can design experiences that differentiate themselves among brands, keep up with real-time consumer expectations, and build an empathetic alignment with the end user.

“Everybody is catching up,” said Ruth Crowley, a CX expert and former vice president of customer experience design at Lowe’s.

Thinking Nimbly
Adopting a design-led methodology-or really any methodology that get brands closer to their customers-requires not only the recognition of design as a business enabler, but a change in mindset among marketers, more collaboration, better communication, and even a bit of courage, Crowley told

“The competition for the customer absolutely includes experiences in all sectors, which speaks to the heightened need for a more disciplined design process,” she said. “The challenge is it requires a little more patience and a lot more inclusivity and tenacity.”

The experience economy is helping design-thinking practices spread around the creative ecosystem. User-experience designers are moving “from a doer to a leader,” according to Forrester’s CX predictions for 2019. In other words, as more companies demand bottom-line results from their CXM, making the case for design thinking will require designers to take the lead in communicating why design and design thinking is so important.

“Career ladders for professional design practitioners and leaders will evolve to reflect new competencies needed to enable the democratization of design, like serving as a design evangelist and educator,” wrote Forrester analyst Harley Manning.

Case in point: During the South by Southwest Festival in March, every event space in downtown Austin, Texas, was turned into an “experience” to sample one or another brand, from LG and Samsung technology to the final season of HBO’s “Game of Thrones.” And the lion’s share of panels during the conference tackled themes related to designing user experiences.

Whether it’s on the phone, in a physical space, or via interfaces such as an app or voice search, “change is a design problem,” said Nick Law, chief creative officer at Publicis Groupe, in his SXSW keynote.

Design is a business-building activity, according to McKinsey & Co., which recently released its “Business Value of Design” report, that found companies with the best design practices improved their revenues by an average 32 percentage points over the rest.

“Design drops to the bottom line,” said Michael Stoddart, director of strategic business development at Adobe Asia Pacific, who has been presenting at industry events on the business value of design and the benefits of design thinking. “We are seeing brands undergoing another transformative period-but this time not limiting it to technology.”

Successful leading brands, he added, are applying their CXM commercial successes and learnings more widely.

“They seek to apply design thinking to not just improve customer experience through new technology, but to leverage these improvements to implement a wider transformation,” Stoddart said. “Organizational design, service, and inclusive design are some additional areas being synthesized into a holistic strategy.”

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

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

Balancing Act
But becoming a design thinker isn’t always a natural move for organizations. Design thinking calls for delivering the “minimum viable product” (MVP) to customers as quickly as possible-sometimes at the prototype stage-and improving it as 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.

“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 told “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.”

The answer lies in execution, Bakritzes said. 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.

“There is only one chance to make a good first impression,” reminds Adobe’s Stoddart, who has recently supported the launch of PWC’s report on Inclusive Design. “This report shows that design must include edge cases from the very beginning of the process – in fact, inclusive design mandates edge cases be moved to the core – and has the potential to translate directly to both greater commercial return and increased market size.

Data, Crowley added, is the new “fuel.” “But the key is to look at the insights, not to validate what you think you already know, but to validate what’s going to be material and relevant to the customer,” she said.

For example, Lowe’s started its experience design process by mapping the real-life customer journey based on shopper behavior in-store. “That helped a lot. It helped clarify for people what the reality was, but it also more importantly helped identify the opportunity,” she said.

Continuation And Activation
Design thinking also requires a new level of persistence and collaboration among teams, Crowley added. Traditional thinking that “information is power” can get in the way, she noted. “Information is only power if it’s shared,” she explained.

As an example, she noted how at Lowe’s, while working with a digital team reworking parts of a website, she collaborated with the digital designers by being the voice of the customer. As a result, the site was made easier to navigate and kept customers longer, resulting in a 1,100% increase in hits the first week, and a further 780% increase in the second week.

Design thinking also is an open-ended process in which the experience design process continues to iterate. “Continuation is just as important as activation,” Crowley said.

Of note, design thinking can bring to the surface many internal tensions inherent between teams, starting with the textbook split between creatives and technologists and the trope of tension between marketing and sales. And in retail, merchandisers and marketers will sometimes have different views of what the customer wants.

Bringing everyone together becomes a key task for CXM professionals, who must serve as the guide and interpreter for the various groups that must collaborate to pull off those design sprints.

“Yes, there’s always going to be friction,” Crowley said. “But if you help people through it and there’s a methodical way to go through it, you can do it quick and you can do it in an agile way.”


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