Drawings of potential website or platform designs
PHOTO: Hal Gatewood on Unsplash

Solid design thinking starts with the customer in mind. Solving any problem, especially complex ones, should place customer research at the center of the solution.

A design-thinking mindset helps CX experts preempt customer needs and better anticipate their wants, which is critical to providing a satisfying customer experience.

A good place to begin the design-thinking process is with a simple question: “What is the customer journey?”

“The answer is usually unique and always interesting,” said Mary Ann O’Brien, CEO and founder of OBI Creative. “Like the North Star, those insights should guide the design process. The benefit is that your design will then be fundamentally oriented toward solving your customers’ problems.”

O’Brien said it’s important to remember that we have only our own context from which to develop concepts and ideas.

“Without discovering the customer’s needs or issues, we are only approaching their problems with our preconceived notions,” she said. “Getting in the habit of starting every project with customer research is a great way to develop design thinking.”

Design Thinking Starts With Empathy, Observation

OBI’s senior art director, Kristen Kelly, added that empathy is the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and truly understand life from their perspective. As a CX expert, she said it’s hard to argue that there’s any trait more essential to doing the job well than empathy.

“Marketing and purchasing is an emotional experience, and designers must practice empathy to tap into that,” she said. “When you understand the customer’s pain points, it becomes easier to design solutions and experiences that solve their problems.”

PJ Stephen, vice president of customer experience at Valtech, explained that design thinking makes co-creation and empathy generation accessible to all.

“It levels the playing field between those who understand experience design, marketing and commerce technologies, and those living the lives we providers are trying to improve,” he said. “Designers, marketers and experience strategists, for all their training and rules and patterns, can only get so far alone. They need to be able to talk to the customers.”

This means observing consumers “in the wild” and generating the kind of empathy one can only get from seeing someone else’s lived experience firsthand.

“In reality, it comes down to people being curious about one another, out loud, and writing it all down to build shared mental models with one another,” Stephen said. “Design thinking is about low-fidelity, high-touch conversational design. It’s about asking lots of questions and being insatiably curious about collecting a high volume and variety of answers to those questions.”

From his perspective, the name of the game for design thinking is open communication: its great power is that it allows people from all walks of life, perspectives and teams to add their voices to the narratives.

“If you’re newly investing in adding some design thinking to your workflows, start by casting a wide net,” he suggested.

That means inviting people you would not normally consider strategic, creative or marketing savvy.

“Not just from your customers, users, members, guests, clients or consumers, but also from your own internal teams,” Stephen said. “Invite the project managers. Invite the developers. Invite the accounting folks, and the customer service teams and the CEO, if you can find some of her time.”

Related Article: A Look at the Way Organizations Are Using Voice of the Customer

Looking at the Metaverse for the Next Design

From O’Brien’s perspective, working with a market research firm that specializes in voice of the customer research is an excellent partnership for CX professionals.

“Market research or design and development partners can work with CX professionals to develop a customer journey map that reveals consideration drivers at each and every touchpoint along the customer journey and details every opportunity for interaction with the brand,” she noted.

Kelly said going forward, augmented reality and the metaverse will significantly impact CX design thinking.

“One of the most exciting features about the metaverse and how quickly AR and VR are advancing is how they can extend the customer journey experience,” she said. “For marketers, AR and VR provide an opportunity to test concepts to understand where customer pain points lie before committing to a final design.”

This was something Kelly experienced firsthand at a recent AR/VR convention, where a company that provides hand sanitizer stations to health care facilities used a VR headset as a training tool.

This tool helped clients train staff on what scenarios were appropriate for handwashing versus hand sanitizing versus wearing or changing latex gloves.

“They developed this application after learning that a recurring pain point for their customers was staff lapsing in proper handwashing procedures and needing training,” Kelly explained. “The VR experience significantly improved adherence to standards when used.”

She said the company showed design thinking and applied it to the customer experience by understanding pain points and providing a solution they could use as a sales tool — an added benefit for customers who purchase the company’s sanitation stations.

Related Article: 4 Ways the Metaverse Can Enhance the Customer Experience

Focusing on the Human-Centric, Not the Platform-Centric

“Augmented reality feels inevitable to me,” Stephen said. “We’re all tired of our phones and our computer screens. Who hasn’t been to a concert lately and lamented the sea of glowing phone screens dominating the view from out in the crowd?”

He said society needs the hardware to go away, lest the risk of developing serious neck problems from looking down at little glowing slabs grows.

“Augmented reality will do this for us, if we design it right,” he said. “I imagine a world where data, content and social and commercial interactions are layered seamlessly onto our world. And where leveraging them will be as intuitive as breathing, looking, walking, touching and talking.”

Stephen said that while virtual reality is a wonderful medium for creating immersive, isolated experiences, calling it a great technology for helping someone focus on a singular narrative task comes at a high social cost.

“People engaged in VR cannot simultaneously engage with the outside world,” he noted. “The Metaverse promises to bring the social aspect back to VR by allowing us to join one another in these shared virtual spaces. But I’m not actually convinced that’s what we want to do.”

Stephen said the proponents of the Metaverse would do well to apply some design thinking empathy to what they are creating to determine if it’s something we want or need as a society.

“They may be engaging in platform-centricity over human-centricity,” he said.