As a web designer, it's easy to think of the small picture. That's not always a bad thing; the small picture may be one or two features in a website that need fine tuning, or it may be the site's look-and-feel. Breaking an experience into small parts allows the details to be worked through and perfected.

It's rarer that web designers think of the bigger picture—not just the end-to-end journey of a user, but the entirety of a customer's experience. This is bigger than a user's journey; it comprises multiple user interactions such as finding the site, performing a task, getting support, and giving feedback. This whole voyage may take weeks to complete, or it can be as immediate as someone being told about an app, downloading it, playing with it for five minutes, and leaving a review. With a rapid expansion of mobile into mainstream business and with changing consumer expectations, the need for designers to think big in order to deliver customer experience has never been so important.

Setting Expectations

For websites and mobile apps alike, a consumer is most likely to discover a product or service through search engines, advertising, or recommendations from social networks. Each route sets a different level of expectation for the customer:

  • Search gives the lowest expectation because relatively little information is contained within search results
  • Advertising often paints a rosy picture of products or services so expectations are higher
  • Social networks produce the most realistic expectations, as this is the only channel where both negative information and independent praise can be found.

What consumers expect to find affects what they look for when interacting with a product or service, whether they are browsing, looking for something specific, or trying to complete a task. This first touchpoint is where most UX journeys begin. Many designers simply view this touchpoint as a single use case, and attempt to group people into buckets to predict what they will do. If customers expect more than a use case can describe, it is entirely possible that they won't be happy with a product or service—their expectations won't be met. The experience design hasn't taken into account the customer's needs for that touchpoint.

Rising Standards

A few years ago, a frustrated customer would simply sigh and give up on a difficult product, or try to accomplish the same thing using another service. More recently, though, people have been treating websites and “garage-made” apps as if they were products from multi-national corporations, expecting the same level of service from a one-man band as they would get from their electricity company. This is causing problems for startups that aren't equipped to provide the expected level of support. With large companies expanding rapidly into new areas such as iPhone app development, expectations for support are also going up, often faster than the companies can keep up with.

This problem isn't exclusive to the new companies. With the mobile app explosion and large companies trying to gain a slice of the mobile app market, many companies, both large and small, are not providing the same quality of customer experience that they provide for their core services. They make the mistake of assuming their application is good enough and their customers are technically savvy, so they don't have to put much effort into customer support.

Early in 2010, two nationwide UK companies launched iPhone apps in the UK to complement their core services. Both companies had large advertising campaigns, with advertisements being displayed widely across London's transport system and in mainstream media. Following all the advertising hype, both of these apps received mixed to poor reviews on release, as the advertising set expectations too high. The advertising campaign gave the impression that all aspects of each company's services would be available through the new mobile channel. In reality, only a small fraction of what customers had come to expect as a standard service was available. To make matters worse, there were reports that the customer support facility for one of the companies had no knowledge of the app's existence and no ability to help the customer with the app.

Thinking of the Big Picture

What can be done to improve the whole experience of interacting with a company? The customer's experience must be considered at all stages of UX design; the big picture should always affect in the design of the small picture, as each touchpoint in the ecosystem is crafted. Marketing teams must be involved in designing the customer experience, so that the holistic experience of using a service or interacting with a company conveys the right message every time.

A website, app, or service must contain information on where to go for assistance, whether that is an FAQ, a phone number, or an email address. Customers expect to be able to open a dialogue with the company to resolve any issues that they may have. Operations and customer support functions, whether maintained by a single person or a 200-person call center in Southampton, must work in coordination with each other so they are able to effectively respond to customers and provide the best experiences, no matter which channel the customer is arriving through.

Thinking of the customer experience, rather than just the user experience, leads to a more complete product, one where customers' expectations are met before, during, and after their journeys. Thinking of the big picture leads to happier customers, not just happier users.