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Share the Sandbox

by Samantha Starmer
7 min read
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To avoid losing its place at the customer experience strategy table, UX needs to work with marketing.

In my previous UX Mag article, I asked the UX community to start thinking about integrated experiences across physical and digital touchpoints—in other words, to design for a holistic customer experience (CX). Since writing that article, I’ve become even more convinced that we, as a community of UX professionals, need to quickly find our place in the growing discipline of CX to avoid losing the visibility and support we have gained in the last few years.

The number of companies across industries talking about (and hiring for) CX is exploding. And guess what? We aren’t the ones getting the newly created C-level positions of Chief Customer Officer.

While CX is becoming a key competency for many companies, there isn’t an agreed upon definition. I view it as an extension of UX, where non-digital experiences and services are just as important as screen interactions, and the full range of touchpoints with a brand across time has to be explicitly designed.

Customer Focus Is Replacing Marketing Focus

In a Harvard Business Review article titled Rethinking Marketing, the authors argue that “the marketing department must be reinvented as a ‘customer department’ that replaces the CMO with a chief customer officer.” Designing customer experiences—not just user experiences—is where companies are increasingly putting their focus. Ninety percent of executives surveyed by Forrester Research said CX is either very important or critical to their future plans. Customers increasingly expect companies to create successful interactions “throughout the entire arc of being a customer.” Some of these interactions include websites and mobile apps, but others may be face-to-face, via a call center, or even with what we view as obnoxious advertising.

Act Fast, or Lose Our Value

One of Forrester’s top CX predictions for the year is that more departments within organizations will try to get actively involved with CX. This rush to focus on the customer is happening at all different types of companies and industries. Suddenly the customer is HOT. The new popularity of customer centricity means “technology companies of all shapes and sizes have started to rebrand themselves as customer experience management (CEM) vendors.” In fact, Forrester predicts an “all-out war” to own the CX management space. This is already a top strategy for powerful vendors such as Adobe. Designing good customer experiences has become a business differentiator, and everyone wants a part of the action.

Given the current power of CX at the C-level, UX practitioners must step up our game, otherwise we will lose progress we have made to be more deeply involved in strategy beyond just performing usability services. We need to act now to be part of the broader CX solution. If we don’t proactively collaborate across divisions and organizational structures, we will be stuck playing in the corner by ourselves. If we don’t figure out how to manage partnerships with other departments in a collaborative, creative, customer focused way, the discipline of UX as we know it is at risk. CX management will take over.

Get Off Our High Horse

This means that we need to stop blaming marketing and instead join forces with them to partner on CX. I’ve thrown a few rocks myself, at times frustrated by a group who may seem to only care about driving traffic and pushing products, regardless of the experience. But experience and marketing can’t be separated. Kerry Bodine, CX analyst at Forrester suggests, “Customer experience and marketing are increasingly intertwined… it’s hard to tease out exactly where the experience ends and the marketing begins (or vice versa).”

UX and marketing are both required to create good customer experiences. We can’t do it alone. We need someone focusing on sales generating demand for a site or an app that employs UX work. Rather than fighting with marketing, we need to partner to engage customers via good experiences. Peter Merholz speaks of “the viewpoint of marketing, where ‘the brand’ is the top priority” leading to “designing from the inside-out, and the results is a superficial gloss.” However, we can’t go to the other extreme and design only for what customers want. Our companies need to bring in profits in addition to satisfying customers.

End the False Dichotomy

Marketing isn’t all evil, and UX isn’t all good. Decrying marketing departments and saying they do crummy or manipulative work (even when true) isn’t going to help the UX discipline. More importantly, it isn’t going to help customers either. Content strategy guru Karen McGrane has some simple advice: “If you hate ads, then figure out a way to make the experience of ads better. That’s your job, isn’t it?” We can’t just turn our backs on business practices we don’t like.

Advertising and marketing aren’t going away. Rather than being adversarial, we need to listen to David Moskovic when he encourages collaboration between UX and marketing: “Marketing needs to start integrating UX design processes into a holistic view of digital (and beyond) customer interactions” and “UX practitioners need to acquire a better understanding of marketing’s priorities and brand management practices.”

Embrace the Dark Side

As technology becomes increasingly ubiquitous in people’s lives, and as consumers gain increasing control of communications and choices, the entire discipline of marketing is being forced to change. Initiatives to improve CX are now driving marketing dollars, marketing technology, and marketing staffing decisions. The UX community has a great tradition of learning from other disciplines such as psychology, physical architecture, and sociology, but we generally don’t learn enough from marketing. We should spend less time making our deliverables perfect, instead using that time to learn from the folks who create advertisements, send direct mail, use microsites, and manage paid search. The experience cannot be separated from marketing communications; we should be helping marketing create more customer friendly advertising and encourage their participation in creating the CX.

True innovation can come from the natural creative tension between focusing on brand needs and customer needs. I worked in Amazon’s customer service department when they launched 1-Click purchasing in 1998. And guess what—at first, most customers hated it. We had record numbers of calls and emails complaining about 1-Click, saying it was too easy to make a purchase. So easy, in fact, that customers accidentally bought items and were furious that we had “tricked” them into it. But rather than getting rid of 1-Click, Amazon recognized that customers could be educated to love the convenience of this purchase option. How many UX departments on their own would have made that decision? Can we argue that it was a bad one for customers?

Stop Being Snobs

I didn’t realize until this year that I have actually been doing CX work for almost 25 years, not just the dozen or so I normally put in my resume. Why? Because I didn’t think to count my ten years in the restaurant business. But now I recognize that those ten years were spent designing and executing customer experiences, just in a different medium than via a website or app. I developed my customer-centric DNA while slinging martinis and rushing to deliver food while it was still hot. I spent ten years asking customers what they wanted, but decided to ignore those hard-won insights when I got my degrees and a white-collar job.

Likewise, I used to be embarrassed that I started my Amazon career in customer service answering phones and email. But now I recognize the need to build relationships with our call center team, brick-and-mortar store managers, trainers, and employees, and I am proud of my time on the front lines interacting directly with customers. Yes, design seems to have a cool-factor that many of us are delighted to play up, but understanding users’ needs, increasing consumer satisfaction, and creating the best customer experiences we can is really all about service. The service design folks understand that good experiences require unity from all aspects of an experience, not just the cool digital stuff.

Give Up Control

Because CX has become a critical business focus, we have to get comfortable with everyone in an organization wanting to play in “our” sandbox. More and more people are talking about what we do, and sometimes explaining it incorrectly. We need to be okay with that. Having partners and allies means other people outside of the UX department are talking about users. It also means that other people may start to take credit for some of our work. But we need to get over that. Cynthia Thomas explains, “experiences should seem to originate from the whole company,” which means they can’t just come from just the UX department. This is great too, as it means that the value of designing good experiences has become widely understood.

We need to take the opportunity to educate those interested in customer experience in the value we can bring. We have been thinking about the end user for a long time, and many of our tools and methodologies can be used to design holistic experiences, onscreen or off. The more we can evangelize actionable ways of putting the customer first, the more we’ll be able to influence a broader CX strategy. This is how we’ll be invited into enterprise-level CX and to fill those chief customer experience officer roles.

These views are solely the author’s and do not represent the views of REI.

post authorSamantha Starmer

Samantha Starmer, Over the last 12 years, Samantha Starmer has worked on a wide variety of experience and information architecture projects and strategy. She started her career in the early days of Amazon.com, enjoying a year long stint in Slough to launch Amazon.co.uk, and later developed experiences for Amazon’s checkout functionality and the third party selling platform. She also honed her start-up skills at SchemaLogic, and her business strategy skills while at Microsoft. She is currently a senior manager at REI, leading teams for experience and, interaction design, information architecture, and customer experience research and analytics. Samantha’s most recent focus has been evangelizing and creating holistic customer experiences across channels, time, and devices. She regularly teaches at the University of Washington’s Information School, where she received a Masters of Library and Information Science degree in 2005. Samantha is active in the UX community and enjoys mentoring new UX practitioners and learning from as many different disciplines as possible. She has served on the boards of the Information Architecture Institute and Content Management Professionals, and is currently on the Oversight Committee for the Dublin Core Metadata Initiative. Samantha is creating a new blog, but in the meantime, you can follow her on Twitter at .


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