Customer Experience Versus User Experience: What’s the Difference and Why Does It Matter?

By Jon Innes

Published: November 1, 2013

“In ecommerce, … you have to convert the user into a customer. That’s why, in my experience, executives at ecommerce firms get that user experience matters.”

I recently returned from the first UX STRAT conference in Atlanta, where I was an invited speaker and panelist. Just the fact that this conference has even occurred shows that we have reached a level of maturity in our profession. Finally, there are enough of us who are interested in applying strategic thinking in the field of user experience that we can hold a conference whose focus is on how we can get involved with corporate strategy and apply strategic thinking to our UX work.

Near the end of our “Who Owns Strategy?” panel session, someone raised this interesting question: “What’s the difference between user experience and customer experience and does it really matter?”

This was a tough question to answer in a short, panel-style format. I merely suggested that, when considering the difference between user experience and customer experience, the audience think about an ecommerce site and the potential customers who have not yet converted by buying whatever goods the site sells. But I thought this subject warranted more in-depth consideration. Now, here’s the extended version of my answer.

While people who are just visiting, or using, an ecommerce site are not yet customers, clearly the ecommerce company cares about them. In fact, I’d say most ecommerce companies care more about these prospective customers than the actual customers who have already completed a purchase transaction. In ecommerce, users convert to being customers; and if they return to the site and buy more stuff—which is known as retention—that’s even better. But, first, you have to convert the user into a customer.

That’s why, in my experience, executives at ecommerce firms get that user experience matters. These executives understand that users convert to customers, and they track conversion rates. In fact, ecommerce executives typically obsess about users who are not yet customers and constantly measure conversion rates.

Conversion: Why It Changed Everything

“One of the biggest inflection points in the wide-scale adoption of user-centered design was it’s application in the area of ecommerce.”

One of the biggest inflection points in the wide-scale adoption of user-centered design was it’s application in the area of ecommerce. I lived through the dot-com era in Silicon Valley. Companies started investing in something called user experience. Successful companies noticed that users visiting their sites often did strange things—like putting items in their virtual carts, but not buying them. Jakob Nielsen wrote about the 70% abandonment rate, and ecommerce executives started caring about those users who were not yet their customers.

Early Adopters of User Experience

“Prior to the arrival of ecommerce on the scene, there had been a few companies that applied user-centered design (UCD) methods to the development of hardware and software technology.”

Prior to the arrival of ecommerce on the scene, there had been a few companies that applied user-centered design (UCD) methods to the development of hardware and software technology. Forward-thinking companies like Intuit, Apple, and Xerox used many UCD methods that are still considered novel or innovative in some corporate contexts today. Methods like ethnographic studies on target users, rapid prototyping in combination with usability testing to iterate on a design, and other UX best practices. Thought leaders in our field, working at progressive companies, had employed these methods long before ecommerce existed. But UCD methods were largely unknown outside the few firms that employed them, and executives at most companies were completely unaware of the benefits of user experience.

Even before these forward-thinking technology companies picked up UCD methods, those doing complex systems design in other industries had regularly employed some of the key methods of user-centered design years earlier. Ever heard of a flight simulator? That’s the minimum viable prototype of a cockpit whose purpose was to refine an airplane pilot’s user experience.

Back in the pre-Internet era, designers working at places like Lockheed and Boeing—doing human-factors work on cockpits for planes, helicopters, and tanks—often struggled to apply iterative design processes in waterfall environments with long development cycles. While you could perhaps debate the success of any specific effort, you can’t argue with the results from a commercial perspective. These firms dominated and, to some extent, still dominate the industries in which they compete. In fact, I’d argue that they defined these industries.

Of course, a pilot would not fit the classic definition of a customer. Few pilots buy their own planes. Airline pilots don’t, nor do military pilots. The key factor of these aeronautical companies’ success, however, was that the actual customers cared whether their pilots—and passengers—had a good experience. Bad pilot experiences are expensive and rarely go unnoticed. Executives at these companies care about user experience, even if they still use the old-fashioned term human factors.

Should UX Professionals Take Customer Experience Jobs?

“Why would [a company] identify customer experience as an area in which they want to invest rather than user experience?”

Well, as we often say in our field, it depends.

After that UX STRAT panel, I thought about this question a bit more. Certainly, if some well-meaning executive wants to hire you to do all the right things, you shouldn’t quibble about his or her use of the term customer experience versus user experience. You should, however, think about the following question:

Does the company really understand that user experience is an established profession?

If a company does understand this, why would they identify customer experience as an area in which they want to invest rather than user experience? Do they have a strategy that focuses on selling what their customers ask for? Or do they put thought into determining what would convert people who aren’t customers into customers? If they focus on the former, don’t ask for stock-related incentives, and make sure that they are a big company with a stable revenue stream that generates high profits.

Companies won’t increase their market share much if they don’t consider people who are not yet customers when defining their products and services. Nor will these companies do well when their customers start defecting to companies who do care about user experience.

The executives at Xerox who failed to successfully productize the inventions of Xerox PARC didn’t consider the needs of the broader market and let Steve Jobs and Bill Gates steal both their ideas and their top talent. I’d say that RIM’s failure to successfully address the consumer smartphone market is a sign that they’ve failed in a similar way.

“Companies with disdain for their customers provide bad service and poor user experiences.”

As a consultant, I have run into companies who define customer experience as a new way of thinking about customer-support functions. While I applaud the application of this kind of experience-oriented thinking to customer service, I’d have some reservations about working for someone who defines customer experience as solely a support function. These companies are unlikely to consider the needs of people who aren’t yet customers, but might convert to being customers if a product or service is superior to that of competitors. They are also unlikely to act strategically if they are listening only to customers who interacting with their support channels.

Don’t get me wrong, customer-service channels can make a strategic difference to a company. Take Zappos for example. It is possible to compete on superior customer service alone in some industries—but only in industries where product differentiation is less critical. You can’t differentiate based on your products if you’re selling shoes or books that were made by others and that people can obtain elsewhere. Zappos, and it’s new owner Amazon, compete on service because they are essentially in a service industry—albeit one that tracks conversion quite carefully.

Companies with disdain for their customers provide bad service and poor user experiences.

If an organization is just starting to think about customer experience, it’s a sign they have also just started thinking about any kind of experience design—customer or user experience. You might be able to help them, but you’ll be launching a culture-change initiative as much as a product-design initiative. Be prepared. Culture change is hard stuff.

Conversion Applies in the Real World, Too

“Apple stores are … all about user experience and are optimized for conversion and gathering user feedback.”

Fry’s Electronics is a local, Silicon Valley chain. It served as the watering hole for geeks venturing outside their cubes long before Amazon disrupted the Valley’s ecosystem and enabled geeks to avoid any people contact at all and still buy geeky stuff. When I used to frequent Fry’s, it was common to find boxes that nerds had ripped open because they wanted to play with the products. We did this—yes, I’m pleading guilty—because Fry’s customer service was so bad that it took longer to find a store employee than it did to drive to Fry’s in rush hour traffic and park. I’ve seen many an abandoned cart at Fry’s, but nobody seemed to track them, nor did they seem to take note of boxes that potential customers had opened and discarded.

One of the tactics that Apple used to transform itself was to open physical stores. I distinctly remember my first impression of an Apple store. It was different from Best Buy or other places, like Fry’s, where you might buy a computer. It wasn’t filled with boxes that listed features on their side. Apple stores actually encourage you to use the products on display. In fact, the entire store’s focus is on helping you to experience the products on display and to convert that experience to a purchase. People who actually seem to love the products give demos and present training sessions that are aimed at the voyeur types who might be afraid to break something or admit that they don’t know how to use a trackpad. In addition, attentive staff gather direct observational data on those users who do and, more importantly, those who do not convert to customers. Apple stores are user research labs.

Notably, when living in Cupertino, I regularly bumped into Apple employees at Fry’s, opening the boxes of products like MP3 players, tablet computers, and smartphones, long before Apple made these things. (Bumped into them literally, as in knocked them over while illicitly fondling some piece of gear. I’m bigger than average and somewhat clumsy.) I have no doubt that Apple stores found some inspiration in the Fry’s anti-pattern of retail electronics.

Apple stores are the anti-Fry’s. They are all about user experience and are optimized for conversion and gathering user feedback.

Should Companies Care About Users or Customers?

“Customers are those who buy your products, but your long-term success is dependent on usage and positive user experiences that lead to more usage and future purchases.”

My advice is that companies should care about both users and customers—and so should you. In business-to-business (B2B) environments, customers and users are different people. Customers are those who buy your products, but your long-term success is dependent on usage and positive user experiences that lead to more usage and future purchases.

For example, most IT departments buy Microsoft Windows, Outlook, and Office for corporate users. Non-IT, business users rarely buy their own business software or hardware. Learn from RIM, the maker of the once ubiquitous BlackBerry smartphones. Even in B2B scenarios, if you don’t satisfy your users, you’re doomed in the long run—once you start competing with someone who understands user experience better than you do.

I’ll continue to brand myself as a UX professional who understands how good customer experiences depend on good user experiences, not the other way around. But more importantly, I’d recommend that you think about tracking objective metrics that measure the business value of good user experience—metrics like conversion rates.

Conversions matter. Not just to UX professionals, but to the executives who own the overall strategy of their business. In the end, accounting is the basis for all business decisions—not just empathy or a good sense of design. Conversions are just one behavioral outcome that has obvious financial implications. So keep focusing on making those who use your products happy, and in most cases, you'll find that you have happy customers—because UX matters.

8 Comments

Hey Jon,

Great to see an article on this. I’d like to see more around UX and user experience / engagement.

The pilot may not have bought the plane, but he is still a customer since he’s the customer’s employee. At least, isn’t this how successful client-focused organizations think?

Jon, I think you’re right that it’s going to be a cultural change for many organizations. And for some of us, that’s a great kind of challenge, but it’s going to be difficult for many.

Support for cultural change has to come from the top, and those of us accepting CX jobs have to know they’ve got support from the CEO. I think it’s why you’re seeing more CXO positions.

CX is today what UX was in 2000. It’s just starting out.

Brian,

I agree that any successful business should treat users well, but there is a subtle difference. The pilot didn’t buy the plane. Nor did most corporate Blackberry users buy the device.

This distinction is important as you have to deal with user feedback and customer feedback, which may not be aligned in B2B. It’s a bit more complex than B2C scenarios. You have to consider the customers/buyers, and the users may not agree on what’s important or even talk to each other.

I find this article wide of the mark in that is doesn’t acknowledge that CX exists as a business activity, entirely separate from UX design. CX is a business activity with it’s own history, development careers, and professional associations: http://www.cxpa.org. If you go into the CX department of a large company, you will find people with business degrees who have never picked up a design tool.

Skills that I’d expect someone working in the CX department to have would be things like putting together detailed business cases and costings for new projects or transformation management in call centers. These are things that no UX designer I’ve ever worked with can do.

CX and UX are two sides of the same coin. Both work toward the same ends, but CX is focused on business processes, and UX is focused on design.

Ed,

I recognize that CX is exists. I’m just trying to clarify that people are confused by CX versus UX and that the definition of UX includes more than just UI design for Web sites. In fact, the term UX predates the Web, as do many of the methods most UX professionals employ.

Having worked for a pioneer in CRM, I understand call centers. I’ve actually designed software for several leading vendors of call center software and consulted with companies trying to improve call centers through redesigned software and processes.

UX leaders and consultants do put together detailed business cases for improving designs all the time. Individual UX designers may not. That said, I’d say that many of the CX staff I’ve worked with have not done this type of work either.

I think your comment about CX staff having business degrees and no experience with design tools clarifies that we are talking about different types of work. Both types of work can be transformational. It’s also a bit of a gray area. Are you aware that many business schools are now teaching design thinking and that there are now degrees combining design and business training such as DMBAs?

As for CX focusing on business processes. That’s an interesting point. Business process reengineering to improve customer touchpoints is rarely done by UX people outside of companies that provide Internet services. There are lots of exceptions however. AT&T and USWest had folks with UX backgrounds focusing on these things years ago. IDEO has worked on healthcare service delivery as another example.

As more companies adopt CX and UX practices, I think the key is to understand the work and what skills are required to do it well. Turf wars serve nobody.

I have been engaging with customers on the subject of customer experience and user experience primarily because of the digital wave. What I find is that the interpretation given to user experience is primarily user-interface experience related. The conversations revolve around usability, responsive design, intuitive placement on screen, device-based use of real estate, and so on.

Customer experience conversations, on the other hand, invariably talk about changes to improve the transaction velocity of a process.

Your article defines users as nonconverts, and hence, I am curious about the industry definition being changed.

Sudhir,

With the rapid growth in UX jobs over the past two decades, there are a lot of people new to the field who confuse user interface design, usability, UI technologies—like responsive Web design, which is achieved through CSS and JavaScript—and user experience. User experience is a broader field that considers all of these things, as well as others, in a holistic approach to designing products and services.

eCommerce companies have invested heavily in user experience because they can see the ROI (Return on Investment) from applying this holistic approach to transactions—the conversion of a site visitor to a satisfied customer who returns to buy more products. User experience is not just about designing ecommerce sites, anymore than computer science is just about coding them.

The reason I pointed out that user experience has its roots in industries that predate the digital age is to illustrate the point that user experience is not just Web page design. I’m not changing the definition of user experience. I’m trying to correct the misuse of the term by those outside the field and those who are new to it.

The term user experience was coined by folks like Chris Wickens, the engineering psychologist, and Don Norman, one of the first executives in Silicon Valley to hold the title of VP, User Experience while he was at Apple in the ’90s.

See Don Norman’s book The Invisible Computer, which he published during the dotCom era, for a great discussion of user experience and a very accurate prediction of how computers would evolve from desktop computing to the pervasive and ubiquitous forms in which they appear today.

Jon, thank you for sharing those reflections. Besides customer and user experience, I am just curious to know, why does there exist no client experience. Why were customers preferred instead of clients?

I would also love to hear what you think about stakeholder exploration and why, in your opinio,n it is not so “experience” focused.

Thank you.

Daniel

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