I've talked about the difference between User experience and Customer experience in a recent post. I've also talked plenty about why creating deliberate experiences is key to success that produces measurable advantages. This is so important especially now in these difficult times. Bottom line, without a compelling user experience, your users won't become your customers. Without customers...well--you know how that ends.
There are many (endless, in fact) tactical things you can do to ensure good user and customer experience. Ensure good usability, task flow, give customers a way to reach you and share feedback, etc. But when you start with tactical you also risk becoming reactive--a change here, a change there, per this or that user feedback--and you end up with a bunch of patches and no clear cause-and-effect to speak of. In short- a mess.
So before you get into taking action on creating winning user and customer experiences make sure you have these 10 meta-practices down and go from there:
- Do you know who your customers are? Conservatively speaking, at least 80% of the companies I speak with say they know their customers. Then we go down the product benefit list and look at adoption numbers and learn that the Total Addressable Market may be completely different than the company had thought. Before you do anything else--and regardless of how far along you've come--step back and reassess: are you sure you know who your best customer is? The one with most money to spend? The one who needs this the most? The one who can help you spread the word? You'll need to look at your blue sky customers (that huge group of people who will have adopted your product once you've crossed the chasm) and then work your way back to identify your own personal bowling pin model. It takes discipline, focus, careful planning and execution--but without it you risk finding yourself with only a handful of enthusiastic customers having missed a great opportunity to make a large impact.
- Make sure you know the difference between your users and customers' needs. Your users and your customers may have completely different needs. For example, Blockbuster.com's users browse the site for new releases, recommendations, and general information. They need access to information and ability to quickly move between info bits no strings attached. Blockbuster wants to do this because it builds credibility, and, if done right, gives Blockbuster an opportunity to convert users to customers in little to no effort on their part. When users become customers on Blockbuster.com, they pay a monthly fee for renting movies either through the site or in-store--a brilliant distribution model that gave Netflix a run for its money a when Blockbusters first came out with the plan. These customers have needs that are similar to Blockbuster's users but are also different. As customers they demand additional benefits such as more information, a database of movies they've seen, personalized recommendations, and contact with the company. If Blockbuster messes up that experience, customers will eventually switch. So you see the importance in nailing the experience requirements of both users and customers and delivering to these flawlessly to both increase customer acquisition and to avoid defection.
- Strategize, plan, execute. User and Customer experiences are not random outcomes of having a product out on the market. You need to very deliberately strategize, create a plan, then execute on the plan to create a user and customer experience that tie to and enhance your brand. Are you a free-form, messy, modular, personalized platform for artistic expression? (Go MySpace). Are you an on the spot, no frill, from anywhere broadcasting blog/photo site? (Go Posterous.) Whatever your brand is, make sure your user and customer experience matches it and plan for growth so that it doesn't get out of whack when all of a sudden your product adoption curve shoots up.
- There's a reason you have a plan: now stick to it! Avoid
random designer-generated "cool to have" features that are out of
alignment with your strategy. This if often tough since designers think they're
users (they're not). Users also mistakenly think they're designers. (They're
not.) If you do--and you should do--customer research, make sure your researcher
is one highly skilled--synthesizing user data and deriving meaningful trends
and recommendations is part science part art--get the best resources possible
for this. You'll end up with a clear feature roadmap that includes absolute must-haves and nice-to-haves across 6-month intervals.
- Iterate. Develop
your product in iterations and test with users. This will spare you major
redesigns and will help build the overall experience with both new and existing
customers. Small bites, small changes--when they're framed correctly they lead to big results.
abreast of what your competition is doing. About 3 in 5 companies I speak with don't really know who their competitors are and what they're working on. this sad number was validated by numerous VCs I spoke with. That can be deadly: No one is immune to a competitor coming in and sweeping real or forecast success. It can be an incumbent using scale and infrastructure to derail new startup efforts (just look at what Yelp! is doing in the UK) or an entrant throwing off an incumbent with innovative products that address a real problems in a better way (look at what eTrade did to traditional brokerage firms). So make sure you know who your competitors are--both direct and indirect--run a landscape audit every 3 months, and use all your informal channels to (legally) gather information. It's an important part of your edge.
- Be prepared for customers. One of the greatest challenges new companies need to overcome is turning from a stealth garage operation to a real business that has customers. Remember that the moment you start selling your product--or making it available
as part of your sales model, your users become your current or potential
customers. Make sure you've mapped the optimal customer experience at each
interaction and have put in place mechanisms to deliver on that experience. You don't have to do it all at once--just have a plan that you can execute on when the time comes.
- Re-evaluate your user experience regularly. You already know betas can give you great feedback about functionality and general likes/dislikes. But that's not enough. Once your product meets baseline requirements, you need to get down to the subtlety of users' experience. It's those things users don't yet know they want. The things that aren't being said. Did Apple users know they wanted an App store? Probably not. But they knew they wanted to do more things on their phone. Apple invested a great deal of attention and care in understanding what users haven't yet said and designing to it. By evaluating your users experience regularly you make sure you're still doing the right thing and also, if you ask the right questions, you'll learn where you need to take your product next. Eliciting Aha insights plays a huge role in competitive advantage and in your ability to continually delight your users and customers.
- Build a relationship with your customers. Once users become your customers they're likely to become more demanding too. It doesn't only cost a company to acquire customers--it also costs your customers: It's expressed in dollars spent, time, or quality of results. This is when you need to run your company like a real business and ask for feedback, implement best practices, utilize industry
standards, and regularly communicate to your customers that they're your greatest asset, reinforcing your relationship. As you grow you'll establish industry partnerships, Customer Advisory Boards (CACs) and more.
- Surprise your users. There seems to be an unspoken agreement between startups and their users: You give them a way to be part of something new, or do something differently, and they in turn agree to be treated as "eyeballs" or "wallets" or "shares." Whatever the term de jour might be, it's never all that attractive. So when you surprise your users with something new, something free, something that delights them even in the smallest of ways, you gain loyalty, trust, and...preference and longevity. Something all startups desperately need especially now. In essence, by doing something outside the expected straight line development, you establish an emotional bond (and get a few Karma points, I might add). Facebook could have charged for its iPhone app but it didn't. I still think it was a costly mistake but it sure got them a lot of points. Amazon and iTunes give users free MP3 downloads; Mufin and TuneStory among other differentiating features, let people download full-length songs to a playlist for free. True, there's a greater objective behind these--but as long as there's added, unexpected (free) value to your users, there's nothing wrong with that.
As you take a look at companies that succeed, you'll notice that they have clear user and customer experience principles. While their development is supported and enabled by technology, their strategies are guided by user and customer experience requirements, expectations, and needs. They invest a great deal of attention and funds in understanding what their customers expect now (baseline must haves) and what they'll expect over specific milestones relevant for their sector or industry. In the tech startup world, it might be in 3 month intervals; in building machinery it might be 3 years.
To succeed, you too need to think of your users, your customers, how they're different and what makes them the same. Use this knowledge to create truly compelling experiences that can stand the test of time and entrants and continue to delivery experiences that turn users to customers and make it easy for customers to stick with you.