Customer Experience Research: The Secret to Brand Experience Innovation
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Customer Experience Research: The Secret to Brand Experience Innovation

August 8, 2019

Mike Henderson

Customer expectations from brands are higher than ever. Here’s how to expand your approach to customer experience research and innovation to drive new value to your customers and propel your brand forward.

A man walking in front of a red wall

Remember Snapchat? That mysterious app that was getting the kids off Facebook and Instagram? Early in 2017, they were making a big splash. The brand that had rethought social media with a more personal, ephemeral approach — who had brought interactive filters into the world — was now moving to flip traditional news on its head and deliver on social AR. Excitement around Snap, Inc. was high going into their IPO (confession: I sold FB stock and bought SNAP; #regrets.)

So, by Summer of 2018, a little over a year after going public, what happened? Engagement had plummeted, and so had brand perception. It wasn’t because Instagram appropriated its Stories feature — Instagram Stories had been around for nearly two years by then.

What happened was that in January 2018, Snap did something seemingly harmless — they made design changes, embedding their Stories feature into their messaging inbox and prioritizing ads at the expense of the experience their users loved.

In doing so, they delivered a fatal blow to their brand (There was a petition. Kylie Jenner got involved. It was a whole thing.)

In our digital service-driven world, your brand is only as strong as your customers’ experience. The way customers interact with brands has changed, and we need to stretch the way we approach research and innovation too.

You may be saying, “But I’m not a tech company.” That doesn’t matter. If your business has digital touchpoints, offers services, or brings customers into a store, then the experience you’re offering — well, that’s all your brand is.

So, how can you approach customer experience research and innovation to prevent a serious brand misstep?

  1. Get contextual

Users won’t tell you the truth. Sometimes this is on purpose, but oftentimes it’s not. If we asked your coworkers how they organize their tasks and work, they’d probably tell us something that sounds deliberate and impressive. Something involving Trello, bullet journals, some daily routine they meticulously follow. In reality, if we sat down and watched them work, it’s probably a lot more complicated (and a lot less organized).

It’s not because your coworkers are lying, it’s simply because they aren’t aware. They tell you what they intend to do, not what they really do. They’ll abstract reality and fill in the blanks. But this abstraction doesn’t always capture the nuances in the real world.

And these nuances are full of design and innovation opportunities.

The Takeaway: Instead of asking your customers or users to enter your world and meet you for a focus group, enter theirs. Observe their real behavior using ethnographic interviews and/or participant observation, and you’ll uncover rich insights and opportunities for your brand’s customer experience strategy.

  1. Don’t just ask for opinions — test

If users can’t always tell you what they do, telling you what they need can be even harder. You can’t expect them to know what your organization can do. You can’t expect them to reliably imagine what your new idea really feels like or what latent needs it might meet. That’s asking a lot. I’m sure if the idea of an iPad was focus grouped, the marketing team would tire from hearing that customers already own a laptop, or if you focus grouped your company’s new app concept, you’ll hear that they already have enough apps.

Instead of asking for their opinions on concepts, show them the experience. Have them live it.

You don’t need engineers to do this (though engineers help!). Prototype an app design (with paper, or any of the growing number of digital prototyping tools), pilot your new service at a smaller scale, mockup and fine tune your backstage, or get creative and find ways to wizard of oz an experience prototype (participants don’t have to know that your new chatbot is actually just a person behind the curtain texting them!).

The Takeaway: Skip the traditional concept testing and asking users for feedback on stim — instead, show them what your new experience feels like through an experience prototype.

  1. Collaborate

Delivering brand experiences is hard. Services cross channels and silos and require coordination. Products require a shared vision and understanding between product managers, designers, engineers, and marketing teams.

When synthesizing research, do it together. Get your Post-It notes out and create an affinity diagram or map a journey together. Arriving at a story that everyone is excited about can be better than a small group arriving at “the right” or accurate story when you’re creating something new.

When ideating, have your teams do it together. The best ideas come from diverse groups of people — from different roles, life experiences, perspectives, and identities — who can see guardrails that only their perspective truly understands.

The Takeaway: Work together, from turning your findings into actionable insights through ideating, creation, and testing.

Now, I’m not suggesting you abandon your traditional customer experience research approach. Traditional qualitative and quantitative research is powerful. Deeply understanding consumers’ attitudes is powerful. Focus groups work. Market research has transformed the way brands connect with consumers. But in a world where a traditional view of brands is evolving, advancing your approach to CX research and innovation can help you deliver more impactful customer experiences.

We don’t know how the design decisions were made at Snap, Inc., but the impact of their simple design change teaches us an important lesson: with the bar rising in consumer expectations, the experience your brand delivers to your customers is inextricably connected to their perception of your brand. By expanding your approach to customer experience research and innovation, you can drive new value for your demanding customers, and propel your brand forward.

Mike Henderson

Director, Experience Innovation

Through his passion for technology and people, Mike helps organizations build meaningful experiences for their customers and employees. With a decade of experience in...

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