Co.Design

The Next Wave In Branding: Merging Experiences Across Markets

It’s time to start thinking strategically about designing user experiences for interconnected ecosystems like health care, argues frog’s Fabio Sergio.

User experience--also known as UX--is often referred to as the sum of all interactions with a brand’s products and services. In today’s connected marketplace, having a successful UX is often understood as a natural complement to a strong brand: brand values should inform the quality and distinctiveness of the UX, and vice versa.

Just as Fortune 500 companies invested heavily to create a "brand-centric" internal culture, they are now busy becoming "UX-centric," and for good reason. As companies like Apple, or more recently Google, have illustrated, not only does UX “sell,” but it can also make the difference between a company whose products are coveted and one whose products are bought or used out of mere necessity or utility.

The design community has done its fair share to shape a UX-centric product-development culture, and in the last ten years, the practice of UX design--also often labeled with the same "UX" acronym--has arisen in parallel with the market relevance of UX itself. Even though the term "experience" and the expression "user experience" have both been abused to the point of sounding like yesterday’s tired buzzwords, it is hard to deny that the rise of a UX design community has done wonders to improve the perceived quality of many recent products and services.

An inflection point

The connected nature (i.e., online or networked capabilities) of most of the products and services conceived today creates a complex system of relationships and interactions.

Consider for example any of today’s multichannel services, for example the typical entertainment platform provided by broadcasters, such as Comcast or telecommunication companies such as Vodafone. The customers of these companies today have access to an increasing number of access points: TV user interfaces, physical set-top boxes and remote controls, mobile and tablet applications and web-based services. All of these "last inch" points of contact with one’s personal entertainment system--or service "touchpoints" in service design parlance--can be assembled together in a sequence of interactions. In other words, end-users can string them together ad hoc to achieve their desired objectives in the way they prefer. The experience of "renting and watching a movie" can thus nowadays start from a physical store, a website, a smart TV widget, or a tablet application, and come to be fulfilled on a TV, on a smartphone, on a dedicated media player, or on the same tablet app it maybe started from.

Alternatively, consider the interactions people might have with truly massive inter-connected service ecosystems such as education, finance, or health care. Let’s take health care as an example. Think about the interactive tools that diabetics can access today to manage their health conditions: Mobile applications can track one’s diet and food intake; interconnected glucose meters and insulin pumps can streamline insulin management and also download or upload data to websites to mine correlations and improve therapy. These state-of-the-art solutions, of course, then sit within the larger and ever-more connected systems of professional care, with hospitals using digital patient health records to track, store, and share the results of exams and consultations, which are then submitted for reimbursement using digital channels.

The task of “managing one’s diabetes” increasingly offers the same degree of freedom enabled by “renting and watching a movie”. But it’s clear that within these systems the aim to shape an "experience" out of a jumble of disconnected products and platforms provided by different and sometimes competing brands and organizations can feel like an insurmountable, complex challenge.

This level of opportunity is great for consumers, who get to choose their own preferred route to satisfy a need or desire, but it poses novel challenges for experience design. Designers must now think about how to conceive and design such complex sequences of loosely choreographed interactions so that the overall experience can still generate a coherent set of impressions, ultimately cementing in people’s recollections and reflections the desired perception of a brand’s values.

The emergence of XS, Or Experience Strategy

The "macro" scale of system-level challenges have in the last few years started to put the often-loosely-defined practice of experience design under pressure. The processes, methodologies, tools, and skills required to design a good user experience for a single connected physical or software-centric product are today providing adequate answers but they often show stress at the seams when applied to system-scale challenges.

The "micro" scale of designing interactions with the touchpoints of a service ecosystem is today well covered by UX disciplines like interaction design, user interface design, and product design. The emergent "macro" scale of system-level experience strategy, on the other hand, requires different skills and tools to face the challenge of driving coherency over time and across distributed and mutable arrays of such micro-level interactions.

Unsurprisingly, experience strategy is more and more accompanied by resurgent interest in existing design disciplines that are often associated with system-level challenges, such as service design.

At frog we’ve come to refer to experience strategy as the practice that articulates “how to choreograph people’s interactions with a brand’s products and services over extended periods of time.”

Choreographing interactions into relationships

The term "choreograph" is intentionally meant to suggest that XS does not deal with the granular level of designing people’s detailed interactions with physical or digital artifacts but in defining principles and guidelines that govern how people will encounter such artifacts over time, and what perceived experience will be the result of this staccato sequence of interactions.

The verb choreograph is also suggestive of a level of freedom that end-users of any connected service ecosystem should be enabled to enjoy: Acknowledging that intended end-users are very active contributors to bringing an experience to life will free organizations from the false belief that they can truly fully control it.

Needless to say, to achieve these objectives an effective experience strategy has to be grounded in a deep understanding of people’s motives, desires, and value systems, and cannot live in isolation from the business and technology scenarios in which it will be situated. If a company’s experience strategy is correctly positioned as the glue between brand, human, business, and technology insights, then one of its valuable side effects is that it can also give an organization a framework to understand what features and services will be needed to deliver at the aggregated experience level.

Finally, it goes without saying that in light of these considerations it becomes also evident that the internal structure of organizations interested in delivering services that require this level of orchestration have to be fine-tuned to the specific challenges imposed by multi-channel and multi-platform services, and have to be ready to manage their constant evolution.

The other time factor

The second term in the open definition of XS mentioned above that deserves attention is "time," but from a different perspective.

As previously mentioned, time is one essential facet of experience that’s often undervalued and under-designed, and at times even unaccounted for altogether. Our experience of the world, and hence also that of a man-made system of products and services, is constantly being reassessed in light of our reflections upon what we have encountered to date. The "reflecting self" is always busy sedimenting life’s events into mental models aimed at improving our skills for the next time we might encounter a similar situation, while the "experiencing self" is busy making sense of life’s events as they unfold.

This constant dynamic has micro and macro cycles, and both have to be accounted for: a seemingly delightful and memorable "signature" experience, such as a well-crafted micro-interaction with a product, can feel redundant and gratuitous the tenth time around, in the same way that discontinuities and dead-ends in one’s journey at a system level can defy the value of any well-designed graphic user interface or physical product.

From this point of view, while experience design deals with providing answers to recurring and frequent interactions, one of the main goals of experience strategy is to provide indications about what people should be thinking about a company’s services in five or ten years, and how the values of the brand will be expressed independently from the touchpoints and technologies used to give them a tangible shape across that entire timeframe.

A long-term vision, and how to reach it

Today’s connected world is filled with product and service ecosystems that compete for people’s limited time and shrinking attention spans. The quality and nature of the user experience that these ecosystems offer is increasingly one of their most valuable differentiating assets on the market. An effective experience strategy defines the vision and roadmap to fulfill the promise that a brand makes to its customers, expressed in terms of the long-lasting human experience it aims to stage for and with them.

[Images: Waves, Origami, Swipe, and Clock via Shutterstock.]

Add New Comment

1 Comments

  • jjacoby

    a great piece. we've been advocating for similar advancements and a repositioning of the ux community through UX4Good and other channels over the last few years. of particular note in this article, though, is the consideration of 'time' as a design element. i completely agree. i often come back to the undeniable fact that you can only measure two things: the object or the motion of the object. as such, designers have a tendency to take 'snap-shots' of the thing/experience in stasis and design for that perceived moment. we do it without really thinking about it. with an understanding of time and movement, we can now design for the journey (or movement) and the touch-points along the way; two complementary design activities. you can almost see teams subdividing and reorganizing against this principle to ensure the customer experience path is being fully addressed. we think this is a 'path to performance' on both the business side and the customer/user side.