This Strategy Will Help You Uncover the Most Valuable Customer Experiences

How would you like to know what your customers really want and value, and what motivates them to actively engage with your products and services?

projekt202 VP of Experience Strategy & Insight Aliza Gold
projekt202 VP of Experience Strategy & Insight Aliza Gold

Fortunately, there's a way to reveal that information, explains projekt202's Vice President of Experience Strategy and Insight Aliza Gold. In this conversation, Aliza discusses the use of experience strategy to discover patterns and themes that provide deeper, more valuable insights into customers' needs and motivations.

You head up the Experience Strategy and Insight (ESI) division at projekt202. Can you tell us a little about what that is?

Absolutely. First I'll start with a definition of experience strategy because a lot of people have never heard of that. An experience strategy is something that identifies the most valuable, holistic experience for both the business and the customer.

In doing that, to be able to identify the most valuable experience that a company could offer to its customers or its employees, we need to really understand those customers and employees. Across many industries, there are a lot of different ways of doing that.

We feel like we have a "secret sauce" for being able to really, deeply understand people. We do that by not just sending out a survey or having an interview and asking somebody what they want, but instead, spending time with people in their context, you might say, in the places where they live and work, and do the things that we're interesting in observing.

We observe them and we also spend time talking to them. We build a relationship that has some real authenticity, because by the time we spend two or three hours talking to somebody and using anthropological and psychological techniques to probe rather deeply into what somebody is motivated by – what they care about, what they aspire to, what their goals are – then you build up a close connection in that time.

That's how you get to some of those deeper answers. Understanding those elements is what really helps us design and create and envision experiences that people really value and connect with emotionally.

It sounds like it's much deeper than just a survey or just a focus group. You're talking about learning about people and their needs at an individual level?

It is individual. For people who are used to large samples that have statistical significance, that can seem a little bit counter-intuitive, but actually, because we are looking at a set of individuals and, through their answers, we're looking for patterns and themes. We aren't just going off one person’s answers. It's rather a pattern that helps us see across people to a broader truth. That's what we use to direct the experiences we design.

"What's exciting about this is that it really gets at building business value by really understanding people ... When businesses truly 'get' the people that they're trying to serve, they have surprisingly terrific business results."

As we do that, we're able to do things like, understand a person’s journey in their life cycle with the company, all the way from the beginning when they might first learn about a company through a time when they've owned perhaps many of the offerings that a company has, and all of the experiences along the way.

We also get to understand how people organize experiences in their heads. Essentially, they're mental models for how they think about an offering or an application that they work with every day. That is the key to designing things that feel intuitive.

When we're talking about designing products, when we want them to feel easy to use and valuable and intuitive, we have to understand people’s own intuitions, so to speak. By doing that, we can organize the application in a way that allows people to move through it easily and easily accomplish their goals.

When we're talking about something broader, then we're looking as much at people’s emotional states as they interact with the company and looking for opportunities throughout that journey where we can better meet people’s needs or values, or even find places where we can surprise them with something that they value.

Can you tell us about the team of specialists that you have organized, work with and help lead? What does their day-to-day on a project look like?

That's a great question. We've got some wonderful experts on our team. These are people who have trained, often in a variety of different fields, but they all bring to the practice a real understanding of how to get beyond the surface.

They use a variety of techniques from psychology, from design research, from anthropology, ethnography, all of those fields have combined into this experience strategy field, to allow us to get to that deeper understanding. As a project progresses, our team works first with a client company to understand that business and that industry as much as possible.

We may be doing things like competitive analysis to understand where that company sits in relation to other companies in their industry. We could also look for perhaps disruptive things that are happening in other industries or cool innovations that we may be able to apply in the industry that our client’s working in.

We get that foundational context. We do things like interview the stakeholders in the company. We also understand from other people in the company who may not be directly involved with the project, but have something to tell us about how the company works and what the key challenges and goals are. That's part of our establishment of the context of the company and the industry.

Of course, we'll review whatever products the company has, and if we're working on a specific product, then we'll look at that in detail as well. We don't do that because we want to necessarily preserve what's in the product currently. Our trained team is actually excellent at being able to separate what is true today from what could be possible because it's really important and that's part of the training, is to keep your mind open as you move through a project, because you really don't want to get attached to anything too early. You don't want to get attached to the way a product works now or the way a service is done now.

You don't want to get attached to one specific thing that you heard that may or may not be part of a pattern. Of course, you want to understand all of that. There's a lot to hold in your head as an experience researcher and strategist, but that all gets combined in the synthesis space.

Aliza Gold leads a discussion on Experience Strategy and Insight.
Aliza Gold leads a discussion on Experience Strategy and Insight.

It's pretty exciting. It is a really fun phase. As is the phase where we go out into the field.

Before we do that, we build what we call a protocol. The point of that, and what that document is the result of, is understanding from the business context what the client’s questions are.

What do they want to know about their customers or their employees? They may want to know, Why does this kind of customer not shop more with us? Or they might want to know, How can this product feel better to use, to our customers? They may even want to know, How can our salespeople sell this product better?

There are all kinds of questions that we can answer with this work. It's very important that we identify them clearly because there are also lots of different methods that we can use to answer those questions. Within the experience research practice, there are all kinds of techniques and ways that we can get at those answers.

To devise the best program to do that, we want to understand those questions very clearly. That is through understanding the questions, and then devising the best series of activities to get at the answers, that's how we build that protocol.

That protocol is essentially the schedule of what we'll do in the field session with a participant. The participant is what we call the person that we're observing. As I mentioned, it might be a customer, it may also be an employee. We've worked on a lot of internal enterprise complex tools, as well as customer-facing applications and experiences.

"It's pretty fascinating and exciting to me that it is changing the industry, both for design but also across a number of different practices ..."

Once you have that protocol, there's also the recruiting part. The recruiting part is something that a lot of people who haven't done a project like this before – so I'm not talking about our team, I'm talking about clients – are concerned about it.

People wonder, How do you find those participants? It could seem pretty mysterious, certainly. As it turns out, there are third-party recruiters, people who recruit for all kinds of research activities, often market research. While we are not a market research company, we can use those same recruiters who have huge databases of people to locate our participants and so that's how we typically approach that.

We build what's called a screener, to be able to identify the people with the characteristics that match the people who we want to observe. This is getting into quite a bit of detail.

It's nice to know that all of these little details have been thought out so much. It really is getting down to the details of what designers need to know before they can even start thinking up ideas and innovative thoughts about how the software should be redesigned or built from the ground up.

That's a great point. I've spent time as a designer myself and I know how key it is, how crucial I felt it was to have that understanding of people and how they think about the application, how they use the application before designing it, particularly for some of those complex applications that are used by specialists. Getting into the minds of those specialists really makes a difference when you're designing this tool.

Since this is quite a different process for going about design, how do you feel ESI is changing the industry?

It's pretty fascinating and exciting to me that it is changing the industry, both for design but also across a number of different practices, even, as I mentioned before, business strategy.

This approach has at times been called design thinking. At projekt202, we like to call it also experience thinking, because it really is all about people's experiences.

Across the industry, we have started to see how this approach is being applied, which is basically understanding the people that you are creating something for, then ideating, brainstorming, coming up with solutions to people's challenges and needs that align with the businesses goals, then prototyping and trying out some of those concepts, and then evaluating those prototypes with people, having your representative customers try those prototypes. That method can be used to effect positive change in all kinds of areas.

I talked to somebody at a large electronics manufacturing company who was using it in their operations group and got millions of dollars of savings in doing that. Marketing groups are also finding that – in their quest to be customer-centric – that experience strategy can be one of the best ways for them to start out thinking about how to create resonate marketing messages. Marketing messages that people find valuable instead of annoying, that experience strategy really helps with that.

Also with business strategy, it's a great way to understand a company and an industry and its customers, ideate potential alternative strategies, pilot those and evaluate them. It has really only begun to have the effect that it will ultimately have on not just the digital industry, but many industries.

I think what's exciting about this is that it really gets at building business value by really understanding people, because ultimately businesses are about serving people. When businesses truly "get" the people that they're trying to serve, they have surprisingly terrific business results.

We've seen this again and again with clients. Even if the experience strategy process can at times feel a little bit unusual to people, they are pleasantly surprised with the ultimate results from the projects where we apply it.

Here's one little example: We worked with a top 10 financial company in their home loans group, and at that time they had less than 1% of their originations going through their website – originations meaning people applying for home loans on their website.

That was about three years ago. We went through a wonderful experience strategy and innovation phase. Then we did a lot of design for them, a lot of front-end development, worked on a variety of different projects that were, you could say, spawned from the fantastic journey map that we created that illuminated a lot of opportunities for them.

"If a customer is experiencing a lot of disjointed things as they interact with that company, then that is going to make them feel like they have a relationship with an inconsistent entity."

At the end of that, with just one of the tools or offerings that were spawned from the journey map, they are now expecting to see about 75% of their home loan originations go through the website. I think anybody would say that that's a pretty remarkable result.

While we would love to be able to say it was all because of experience strategy, it's actually rather challenging to tie that very specific correlation between what we did and those results. At the same time, because we're seeing these results with client after client after client, we feel quite confident in the return on investment that experience strategy provides.

What would be a dream project for your team?

I'm sure that each person on my team would probably answer that differently. Some of our team is very passionate about health care. Other people love retail, so often we think about that as industry-based, but one thing that I am very jazzed about right now is the idea of using experience strategy across a variety of experiences that a company offers, because one thing that is true for especially large companies is that they get very siloed, as we say. Customer service doesn't talk to marketing, who doesn't talk to engineering, and that's not uncommon at all.

But one thing, one sad result you might say, is that the experiences that the company offers are also kind of siloed. People have a different experience with customer service. They hear promises from marketing that they don't actually get to experience in the actual product. That all essentially hurts a company's brand, from the perspective of a brand really being the relationship that a person has with that company and that company's offerings.

If a customer is experiencing a lot of disjointed things as they interact with that company, then that is going to make them feel like they have a relationship with an inconsistent entity. If you think about people and having relationships with people, if somebody behaves very inconsistently, it's hard to trust them. You can see how there's this domino effect in a way of these siloed experiences, so what I'm fascinated by is the promise of experience strategy to unite experiences across a company and affect experiences in different places, you might say.

"In strategy, it’s important to find places where you might have the most leverage, where if you apply your resources you can have the biggest impact."

Different types of experiences that we have identified are digital experiences, and those could be internal systems that employees use to do things that ultimately have an impact on the customer. It could be applications that customers interact with themselves, and then there are service experiences that customers have with the company with their call-in center or with employees in a store.

Then there are what we might call environmental experiences. That might be anything from how a company's space is literally laid out. It could be way-finding.

We worked on a project for a fertility clinic where we helped them diagnose some of the problems in their space that actually made it more difficult for the nurses and doctors to serve patients well. It definitely affected a patient's experiences in that clinic. Experience strategy really can touch all of that, including things like screens and kiosks that might be in an environment.

In companies, lots of people may be thinking about the experience. It's not that people don't. People who are working on the brand may be thinking about that. People who are in marketing are thinking about that. People in service are thinking about that, right?

All of these different groups within a company have some piece of the experience that they're thinking about, but often there's not one person or one team who is looking holistically across all of these experiences that a customer could have with a company.

If we could unite those experiences by understanding that journey, and starting with that broader, holistic vision that experience strategy provides, but then going in deep to various touchpoints and understanding which touchpoints will have the most impact on the customer experience. When I say touchpoint, that's basically any place where a customer will interact with a company.

In strategy, it's important to find places where you might have the most leverage, where if you apply your resources you can have the biggest impact. We want to help companies or clients do that because, of course, companies don't have unlimited resources, even if they might want them.

It's important to take a strategic view on all of those experiences and understand we can't necessarily fix them all at once, but we can, over time, start by improving the most important ones, and then build out to more and more of them with time. That would be the dream project in my view.

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