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The Importance of Designing an Experience Culture

by Cynthia Thomas
6 min read
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External customer experiences begin with the company’s internal culture.

There is no shortage of stories about business missteps in today’s digital and social media realms. As brands try to invite customers into their processes and provide greater transparency Into their worlds, stories like Nestlé’s disastrous Facebook customer interactions, Comparison of Gap's old and redesigned logoor Gap’s rebranding debacle, force judgement on their choices of processes and implementation of tactics. Unfortunately, amidst the chaos of damage control, companies are forgetting to ask: what were the root cultural causes of the disaster?

There needs to be better evaluation of corporate culture and its influence on the actions and sentiments of its employees. Countless hours are spent setting up external communication policies, teams that listen to what customers are saying, and even entire departments dedicated to customer experience (CX). This outward focus on developing good experiences for customers often overshadows the need to live that philosophy inside a company’s own walls. A culture that does not internally live a focus on experience will find it impossible to externally execute the same.

There are big shifts happening to empower employees and recognize their contributions, as evidenced by stories coming out of big companies around the world. Employees are becoming trusted represenatives of the brands they work for, which is a win for both brand and employee. But in today’s age of transparency, many will have little chance of success in representing their company’s supposed focus on CX if they are functioning in an opposing internal atmosphere.

Organizations need to design their internal culture to live the tenets of good experience every day. The Nestlé employee wouldn’t have interacted with customers negatively had the culture within Nestlé not propegated such sentiments. In the case of Gap’s rebranding, inviting consumer feedback into a decision as monumental as changing a reknowned logo wouldn’t have failed as miserably for Gap if it were not executed as an afterthought in their decision-making process.

These events provided a window into these companies’ worlds, and exposed how they live on the inside. Nestlé didn’t fail at social media, they failed at fundamentally respecting their customer. And Gap didn’t mess up a logo change, they highlighted just how unpracticed they are at utilizing customer feedback, an indication that customer involvement is not an everyday occurance for them. The cultures these companies have designed simply aren’t supporting the experimental tactics they are attempting to implement.

Can a Culture Be Designed?

The short answer: yes. This is the definition of culture:

The attitudes and behavior that are characteristic of a particular social group or organization.[*]

Attitudes and behaviors are constantly being shaped within organizations. It’s the reason there are performance reviews, processes and procedures, and role expectations. If business leaders want to foster a specific culture, then all opportunities, activities, and expectations of their staffs will be measured against the success of exemplifying that culture. To design is to plan something for a specific role, purpose, or effect—to work out its form. Company culture is designed in every conversation, and in every bit of feedback and evaluation criteria. It’s possible to control the corporate atmosphere by choosing which behaviors to support and encourage, and which to discourage. Cultures grow organically, but they are actively designed.

What Is an Experience-Driven Culture?

In today’s world, customers expect companies to focus on experience. In order to meet that expectation, a company’s UX and CX efforts cannot be isolated in a single department, or in one or two positions. The experiences that resonate and are successful for customers are those that are seamless across all touchpoints; experiences should seem to originate from the whole company, not just from whichever department they sprung from within an organization. Companie cannot lean on the experiences customers have with the “customer satisfaction team” and call it a day. Every role within an organization should work together and towards the vision of how the brand interacts with its customers.

So what are the attributes of an experience-driven culture? While the subject is still evolving, I believe there are three core attributes of a experience-focused culture:

Action, not process-oriented

There is always an important role for process within organizations. It allows employees to function effectively and efficiently through the important work they do. But too often process becomes a crutch. People execute what the process dictates, adhering to the strictly defined steps. For all the efficiencies that processes enable, they can actually hinder progress towards goals and the free exercise of creativity when used in this manner.

In an experience culture, action—whether it conforms to process or not—is more highly valued and encouraged. Having the flexibility to move, execute, and explore without fear allows people the ability to develop solutions and learn from their own experiences. This proves invaluable the next time they’re challenged to solve a problem. It promotes confidence by producing results, and by giving people a say in how those results were arrived at.

Problem solving, not execution-focused

Unfortunately, we live in a checklist-driven world. There are lists of tactics that need to be implemented, webpages that need to be designed, and so on, and people do their best to fulfill on each of these. But how often do managers encourage their teams—or themselves, for that matter—to challenge the why behind what they are doing?

In an experience-driven culture, assignments for tactic planning and execution aren’t handed out. Instead, problems are framed and defined. For example, team brainstorming and discussions don’t start with deciding which social network the brand should have a presence on, but rather with describing a problem customers may be having, and then designing and developing a valuable solution to that problem. The former is tactic-driven, and the latter is experience-driven. When people are allowed to look beyond the surface from the very beginning, it frees them to think beyond the obvious. It trains them to hear complaints or feedback differently and to identify and connect dots, rather than band-aid-fix their way to a solution.

Creativity and collaboration at the core

A key attribute of a culture focused on experience is an uncompromising encouragement and expectation of creativity and collaboration. Why? Because the very nature of collaboration creates opportunities for challenging individual modes of thinking. The act of discussing ideas and possible solutions or scenarios forces people to engage in their work in a creative manner.

Creativity is fostered because people aren’t just applying their own isolated knowledge and ideas, but rather are actively seeking and applying the experience and insights of others. This allows people to work in a setting that makes the focus on customer experiences an extension of how the employees themselves work and produce, rather than a skill they have to try to learn and apply. To have these attributes at the core of a company’s culture means that creativity becomes the measure of proficiency, thereby surpassing production. One is not at the expense of the other, but success is measured based on the creative thinking applied, not just the number executed.

Fostering a culture based on creativity and collaboration helps bring down the walls that divide people from each other within organizations. Collaboration is not just amongst and within a given team; it needs to filter through and cross teams and departments. Creativity is not relegated to the creative department; it is a requirement for all.

When team members are given the opportunity to live this way within the designed culture of their organizations, the benefits manifest when they engage with customers. They can see beyond the script to find creative ways of being helpul. They identify opportunites to deliver beyond what the customer may be asking for. They work with and for customers, inviting them to be part of the solutions. All of this comes together to deliver the experiences customers are increasingly expecting and demanding. And the amazing part is, this becomes just an extension of who an organization is, rather than a collection of skillsets that are needed to be taught and learned.

Every type of organization would benefit from designing their own version of an experience-driven culture. But note that I said “their own;” this is an important distinction. There is no universally right way to design an experience culture. It must fit with a company’s brand, beliefs, and business. It is a challenge all companies need to address, lest they find themselves failing to live up to customer expectations.

If you’re trying to guide your company or team to be experience-driven, try starting with activities like building with marshmallows and spaghetti. See how it feels, and what your team learns. You might be surprised how refreshing it is and surprised by the results. Then build from there. Besides, what could be more of an experience than marshmallows?

post authorCynthia Thomas

Cynthia Thomas, Cynthia Thomas is partner at Translator, a digital experience agency focused on connecting online and offline, customer and brand, and person-to-person through smartly designed experiences. She leads strategy, conceptual incubation and user experience thinking for agency clients, helping them navigate the digital landscape. Cynthia’s passion for the UX discipline and experience thinking as a whole has driven her focus on studying the social, cultural and behavioral influence of the digital space on human interactions and expectations. A digital native, Cynthia started out in her career both as a web designer and a developer writing code. This hands-on experience gradually led to an interest in strategy and user experience design, which she parlayed into a job within the interactive group at Laughlin/Constable, one of Milwaukee's largest ad agencies. It was there she introduced research, strategy and the UX discipline to LC’s process. In 2005 she joined Fullhouse as an Interactive Strategist, refocusing and establishing the UX discipline and parlaying it into a service offering for the agency. During this time, she also introduced experience design (XD) as both a team structure and philosophical approach to solutioning, helped implement a collaborative work environment. She speaks and writes on the subject of user experience and experience design on a regular basis, and is a frequent contributor to the Translator blog Just Sayin’.


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