Embracing the Evolution toward the Experience of Things

By Peter Eckert
Chief Experience Officer and Co-Founder, projekt202

As published in UX Magazine: April 15, 2016

Over the next few years, many advancements in technology will unfold and dramatically shift our behavior and expectations in society. Just look at the IoT, the Industrial Internet, autonomous driving and flying, virtual and augmented reality, wearable devices, biometrics sensors and implants, among others. It is on us to bring these things together in a meaningful way. Welcome to the Experience of Things.

Form Follows Empathy

Market research has been done for many decades, but it has failed to deliver better products.  Take Google Wave, MyFord Touch or Walmart store re-designs. Focus groups, surveys and other market research had indicated that they were what people wanted, but they all ended up failing (as described in the book "Customers Included" by Mark Hurst and Phil Terry).

The reason for that lies in the misconception of what a consumer actually needs. Products are being built in a vacuum at companies without fully understanding the needs a consumer has from any given product and the intersections of multiple products. We live in a feature-driven world, but virtually none of us thinks of features when we try to solve a problem, get work done or just want to use something.

The reality of our lives is that we have hundreds of experiences and touchpoints with technology every day. As providers and builders of technology, we need to take a closer look at the true needs of our customers and users. We have to be extremely empathetic for the situations they are in and what kind of things they are trying to accomplish.

Furthermore, we have to understand their aspirations in life in order to build better products and solutions. This goes way beyond asking people what they want and is more about observing behavior. Once customers and their needs are better understood, the form factors and expressions of our solutions and products will follow suit. Therefore, I believe form will follow empathy over the next few decades.

Product and technology companies must think about it more as an experience continuum. Every touchpoint in an experience matters, even the ones that are controlled by others . If you’re not thinking about your customers engaging with you in a meaningful way at every single touchpoint that you and others could provide, then you run the risk of alienating them. If you can develop empathy for your customers, it creates a foundation for forming meaningful, lasting and emotionally-rich experiences.

The Experience of Things

Empathy for the customer or user directly ties into what I call the Experience of Things. While there’s a lot of buzz lately around the Internet of Things, I think that term is incorrect. When we talk about empathy and our connected experiences, we’re talking about something much larger than an Internet of Things. It’s really the Experience of Things -- everything that we use and interact with in our daily lives is starting to build a computing mesh around us.

Through the connectivity of all our devices and surrounding technologies, we’re developing a super-computer that is extraordinarily powerful. In its philosophical essence, we’re starting to live inside this computer and, in effect, become a node within something larger, providing feedback and data which, in turn, form this massive computing mesh around the globe. The world itself now is a larger capturing mechanism. We are moving toward singularity the way Kurzweil described it, and not a singularity a la Skynet.

Consider why the term Internet of Things came into existence. It was using the power of our connected computing --- essentially, the Internet --- to connect to individual aspects of our lives. I think that’s where this misunderstanding comes from. It’s not about the protocol; it’s actually about the connected mesh of nodes, delivering intelligence based on data points that our electronics and we humans are providing.

For now, the Experience of Things is still in its infancy. Over the next five years and longer, the real power will come at the enterprise level, as larger organizations with many ‘‘moving parts’’ tap into that collective data and behavioral aspects of our now completely mobile society --- and, by the way, the enterprise is calling it the Industrial Internet.

I think the next five years will be especially interesting as we witness a defining revolution of meaningful technologies and advancements. Wearables and biometric sensory will be big, without a doubt. Autonomous driving can’t be stopped anymore. Augmented and virtual reality will find their place beyond gaming. We will be able to get connected wherever we go. Our homes will become much more intelligent. We are moving from flat design to invisible design. However, all of these advancements will be garnered by the same principle, thinking about how these things come together and form one large holistic human experience with technology.

People don’t realize yet how big and how powerful this experience thinking actually is. The ROI that’s embedded within is massive. If we develop meaningful, yet simple and intuitive experiences, our efforts to do so will be greatly reduced on all levels. Think of it: less R&D, less help and documentation, less training, less error and trial, more focused and shorter development cycles, higher NPS scores, better customer segmentation, higher talent retention, and happier customers. The list goes on and on. The real question is, how do we get this done?

The User Experience = Customer Experience

Even five years from now, I believe there are going to be many large companies that are not ‘‘getting it.’’ Companies that are on the cutting edge, however, with a healthy ratio of experience professionals, will be successful. In turn, the more successful they become, the more pressure it will create for other companies to adopt Experience Thinking. For some, it will be too late. Even now, some organizations are experiencing slow deaths. They are so compartmentalized in their own businesses that no one is centrally thinking holistically across the entire customer journey and all its touchpoints.

It’s not just the technology or services; it’s all-encompassing of everything we experience and do in our lives. Companies must build experiences that don’t just deliver features and functions, but ones that also connect with people on aspirational and emotional levels. The key is not to think about humans as users.

In fact, I think the term ‘‘user experience’’ needs to evolve into just ‘‘experience.’’ I think the term ‘‘design thinking’’ is wrong, too; it needs to be ‘‘experience thinking,’’ encompassing customers, users and people who deliver products and surrounding services.

The issue is that the vocabulary is still forming. Depending on who’s in the C-suite, they can use different terms for the same thing. A Chief Marketing Officer talks about customer experience, while the CIO and CTO talk about the user experience, but they’re essentially the same.

The dust is still settling on creating a uniform, experience-thinking vocabulary and I don’t see it being resolved over the next five years completely. We have to first form and agree on terms that are logical and scalable.

The majority of my conversations today are very much evangelizing on the power of empathy and the Experience of Things. However, many remain blind to the power of Experience Thinking because they’re so pressured by the compartmentalized business world that they’re living in.

I see massive changes in society driven by overall data capturing and the ability to compute it. Over the next five years and beyond, as our experience evangelizing continues, more enterprises will recognize the power of user empathy. For those who successfully embrace it, the currently-untapped business rewards for this awakening will be massive. In order for that to take place, though, a new executive position is needed.

The Rise of the CXO

Every large company will need a Chief Experience Officer. People will start to understand that there’s a void within large organizations. Chief Marketing Officers and Chief Information Officers, for instance, are asked to do something they are struggling to do: to innovate on the product level. They are lacking the insights needed to make meaningful decisions. They need the skill of the Chief Experience Officer, who can drive product innovation and product evolution by leveraging big data and human data to develop better product strategies that can be better marketed and easily built. The CXO understands technology, but focuses on empathy around the customer.

Simply said, walking the walk can be hard if you don’t have the right people in place.

Over the next several years, organizations will continue to wake up to this CXO need. That is, the enterprise is a sleeping giant, slowly waking up to the thought that there is a larger customer experience at play.

It will take companies at least five to 10 more years before they really understand the complexity of this. Unless they’re truly feeling pain and disruption from a niche player, they will be slow to adopt this crucial way of thinking.

About the Author

Peter Eckert (@petroid) is Co-Founder and Chief Experience Officer of projekt202. He is widely-regarded as one of the leading UI/UX design visionaries in the world. Peter has helped many Fortune 500 and leading-edge companies implement meaningful, user-centric software application design and development strategies.