User Experience and Customer Experience: Why the Difference Matters

Imagine you and I are in a room full of people. I ask everyone, “Who here knows what user experience is?” I’d probably see a lot of hands; yours might be one. If I pulled you out of the crowd and asked you to define UX and why it’s important, what would you say? Something about designing websites to make them easier to use? Ensuring your website or app reinforces your brand? Or maybe, “I’m not sure how to define it, but I know it’s important?”

It’s a nuanced question, but all of those would be acceptable answers. Now, let’s say I follow up with, “And who knows what customer experience is?” Would you be a little confused? Aren’t they the same thing?

They’re not, but you would not be alone in thinking so. UX and CX are different, even though your users may be your customers, and your customers are often your users. Here’s the distinction:

User experience is specific to a product or service. It is the particular experience a user has when interacting with a website, an application, a car, or even a blender. UX professionals like me work hard to make our products and services goal-oriented, elegant, intuitive, and enjoyable to use. No longer a niche concern, good user experience design is a critical investment if you want your product to survive in a crowded marketplace full of unforgiving consumers with short attention spans.

Customer experience is bigger. It’s the end-to-end, ongoing experience a customer has whenever and wherever they interact with your company or brand. Every touchpoint, every channel, every conversation contributes to the customer experience. UX is a component of CX. Good UX can (and does) exist within an environment of poor CX, but its positive impact is severely diminished.

By way of simple illustration, consider this scenario involving two restaurants. Both serve risotto. You love risotto.

Good UX / Bad CX: You call for a reservation, and the person on the line sounds bored and is smacking her gum. She calls you “dude.” You get to the restaurant and there’s a sign for “Valet Parking.” You pull up and wait, but nobody comes to collect your car. Inside the restaurant, there are a few flies and the floors are sticky. Someone in the bar is watching a TV show that features lots of yelling. You order the chef’s special risotto and it arrives quickly in a fluted china bowl so fine it’s almost translucent. It’s the perfect temperature and features local vegetables, saffron, and aged Parmesan cheese. It is incandescently delicious; the best you’ve ever had.

Good CX / Bad UX: You receive a courtesy call and text message confirming your reservation. The valet parking is seamless. The hostess greets you by name and whisks your coats off to coat check. The interior is stunning, all dark wood and leather and candlelight. There is jazz playing softly in the background. The waitstaff is attentive and sharply dressed in crisp button-down shirts and black slacks. You order the chef’s special risotto, and it arrives, sliding around on a stained plate. It features Spam, mushy peas, and is drenched in Cheez-Wiz. It is cold on arrival and there’s a hair in it.

In either scenario above, your brand takes a hit, albeit for different reasons. Neither one might be a dealbreaker, at least not at first. Customers in the first scenario might decide to stomach another visit to your awful restaurant to get a taste of your incandescent risotto, but do you think they’ll keep coming back? Customers in the second scenario might forgive you the awful food once, figuring it’s a fluke, but after a while, they’ll likely move on to other nicely appointed restaurants with much better food.

The smart money these days is on crafting a seamless omnichannel experience where your customers enjoy optimized UX within carefully curated CX. Neither is more important; a balanced focus on both helps your business enjoy benefits like:

  • Greater customer satisfaction
  • More loyal customers
  • Increased referrals and brand advocacy
  • Market intelligence in the form of customer feedback
  • Competitive advantage in a crowded marketplace
  • Increased conversions and revenue
  • Better relationships with your customers

No business person would turn down those benefits, but the big question is, how do you get there? That’s more than a single blog post can cover, but here are five ways to start:

1.Understand the customer journey.

In order to service your customers at every touchpoint, you need to know what the touchpoints are and what customers are thinking at each one. What motivates them? What are they feeling? What questions do they have? A customer journey map is a great way to explore this.

2. Look beyond digital.

While your website or application plays a large part in your CX, and is likely the primary vehicle for your UX efforts, unless it’s the only way you correspond with customers, it’s only part of the story. Think about how you can improve phone calls, bricks-and-mortar experiences, printed materials, and promotions. If it crosses your customer’s path, refine it. Make it better.

3. Invest in UX and CX.

Great experiences don’t happen by luck. They are thoughtfully designed, executed on by talented people, and continually fed and watered. Building amazing experiences for your customers often has upfront costs that compete for precious budget, but consider the long game. It’s money well spent.

4. Don’t favor one over the other.

Remember the restaurant examples above. Your UX and CX need to work together. Though UX is a subset of CX, both are critical. A balanced approach will bring the highest dividends.

5. Empower your people.

People often wonder, “Who owns customer experience?” The answer is, ultimately, everyone. Everyone who interacts with the customer or has any responsibility for a customer touchpoint is an owner of CX. Make sure your team knows it’s a priority. Make them accountable for nurturing the customer experience. Incent call center employees to make customers happy. Applaud people who go the extra mile. Reward employees who create delight, whether it’s over social media, via chat, in a store, or over the phone.

So, are UX and CX different? Absolutely, they are. What’s important, however, is not to highlight their differences, but to understand the common thread running through both of them: your customers. Putting your customers/users first, with the balance of UX and CX that works best for your company, makes excellent business sense. It is a recipe for success more delicious than the most incandescent of risottos, and will keep your customers coming back for more, time and time again.


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