Experience Partners: Giving Center Stage to Customer Delight
Published: April 12, 2008
Today, the design industry is at the threshold of a new epoch—a point of theoretically limitlessness potential for expansion. We must decide just how, going forward, we will relate to the people who use our designs—as people who are “busy and eager to get on with it” yet “alert and caring” or, much less constructively, as people who are merely “simple-minded and stupid.” Therefore, I want to propose the concept of experience partners as a whole new way of thinking about our customers as partners in holistic product experiences. We need new terminology to describe this concept, because the term users limits us to old ways of thinking about the world we live in and the products we develop. The term experience partners reflects an emerging paradigm shift from a focus on product features to instead conceptualizing holistic product experiences and embodies our best understanding of how to design products that create delight and become integral, harmonious parts of people’s lives.
“We can’t accept things as they are, as long as we think that things should be different. Tell us how not to believe what we think, and then maybe we’ll be able to hear.”—Stephen Mitchell
Almost two decades after the release of Don Norman’s landmark book Psychology of Everyday Things, I still find many designers are simply unwilling or unable to understand that the way they designed a product made it difficult for people to use it. Typical reactions of designers and product managers to usability problems involve some variation of:
- “Test users are stupid.”
- “Real users don’t mind complex designs.”
- “Some people are too stupid to serve.”
Predictably, this kind of thinking universally produces products that are confusing, hard to use, and are constant sources of frustration and wasted time. Edward Tufte has spoken eloquently about the need for clarity and simplicity.
“Clarity and simplicity are completely opposite of simple-mindedness. ... The operating moral premise of information design should be that our readers are alert and caring; they may be busy, eager to get on with it, but they are not stupid.”—Edward Tufte
Contrasting the Concepts of Users and Experience Partners
The concept of experience partners does not refer to a new human/computer interaction (HCI) methodology. Rather, it is a new way of thinking about our customers—as partners sharing an experience within a global community. We need new terminology to achieve this change in perspectives, because the term users:
- implies convenience for computers comes before convenience for people
- reflects a mindset that blames a person using a product for errors
- implies busy work
- causes featuritis
- carries a lot of baggage that traditional HCI techniques cannot overcome
- leads to sloppy design thinking
- does not reflect the emerging paradigm of a human-to-human digital community
On the other hand, the term experience partners and related terms like partner experience design and partner-centered design reflect a focus on creating holistic product experiences that employ the best environmental options available, delight our customers, and enrich people’s lives. Experience-partner design thinking:
- re-enforces the idea that design serves an on-going human-to-human partnership between the designer and the customer, working toward common goals
- moves our focus beyond features to the larger holistic product experience
- embraces the larger concept of a partnership—recognizing the fact that the only way modern companies can succeed is by helping their customers to succeed in achieving their own goals
- takes into the account the environment in which the customer experiences interactions
- emphasizes human-to-human relationships, with the goal of using technology to create a global digital community
In the following sections, I’ll explain why the idea of a user is a dying metaphor and why we need to invent new terms like experience partner to fully embrace the paradigm shift in our thinking about the people who use our products.
Putting People First
The term user implies convenience for computers comes before convenience for people. One consequence of this is blaming a person who uses a product for any errors.
Engineers who built early computer systems employed the term user to differentiate the people who use a system on a daily basis from the clients or managers who defined a product’s features and business rules and paid the bills. Thus, from the start, engineers were concerned primarily with pleasing their clients and were completely uninterested in things like usability, long-term customer loyalty, and tailored experiences. Today, for many modern companies like Yahoo! and Amazon, clients and users are essentially one and the same. Unfortunately, for many designers and engineers, the old term user still carries a great deal of negative baggage and implies entities who have no input into the design of a product. Business rules and back-end efficiency are still the primary focus of many modern design efforts.
“…current interfaces illustrate how many computer scientists are biased toward efficiency with technological resources rather than human attention; or to put it bluntly, toward convenience for computers before convenience for people.”—Malcolm McCullough, in Digital Ground, 2004
In contrast to the old term users, the term experience partners places our focus above all on the convenience of customers—on creating products that speak their language. Thus, the term experience partners emphasizes a holistic approach to design and expands designers’ thinking to encompass everything experience partners see and touch, including interactions, visual elements, content, customer service, product delivery, packaging, and brand. When Philips adopted the concept of Sense and Simplicity, one of the first things they redesigned was the box their televisions came in. This is just one example of how using the power of experience-partner design thinking can create an exceptional total experience by removing all barriers to a person’s having the best possible first experience with a product.
In most cases, the old user world-view concerns itself solely with efficiency and features, completely disregarding the effectiveness of the human operator, empathy with that person, and the importance of a product’s desirability to customers.
“The focus is on things other than the essence of the actual people that will use the products … the intentional attempt to satisfy people’s internal needs and desires simply isn’t there.”—Dirk Knemeyer
However, people’s real-world experience with simple, experience-centric consumer products like the iPod has shown that only by redesigning the workflows that bring machine and human together as partners can we achieve the efficiency gains the computer age has promised. The same holds true for office automation systems. That is why we need a new concept like experience partners to help us think about our customers differently—as partners in interaction experiences. As Po Bronson has said, “Customer satisfaction in the meeting will be correlated to how much they get to speak.” The idea of experience partners reflects our need to engage customers early and continuously throughout product design and development.
“If they are not involved in the process, they are hardly likely to approve the product. It’s that simple.”—Roger Fisher
We also need the term experience partners to reflect the reality that many modern companies share liability, financial resources, responsibility, and ultimately, success with their customers. This is so, because many companies no longer produce products in the traditional sense, but instead provide virtual services—like Facebook—to which many customers contribute content. Therefore, they are dependent on the good will and success of the people who are actually using their products rather than on some third-party client. Customers decide to become part of a service, pay the bills, and tell others about it, so they too will become customers. The term users does not begin to reflect the realities of this kind of customer relationship—the term experience partners fits much better. However, this is a new breed of partner—in a relationship that is both voluntary and potentially transitory, because even your best experience partners will leave your for your competitor if you don’t take care to provide the best possible experience for them.
“Why is it that the only humans who seemingly make errors are the people who are trying to use the product? … why not point the finger at all the other people that had a hand in the situation: programmers, designers, product managers, and quality testers? Whose human error is it anyway?”—Whitney Quesenbery
Changing our thinking to adopt the concept of experience partners emphasizes the realities that human beings on both sides of the design divide are fallible, and there is no such thing as a perfect system. We need to think of the designer/customer relationship as an ongoing conversation—a long-term partnership to which both sides must contribute to create a better experience. Experience-partner design thinking implies that both human and machine mistakes are at times unavoidable, so we must integrate error-handling into a product in ways that create learning experiences. Failure is no longer a separate, undesirable outcome of the experience of using a product. Instead, making errors is an integral, harmonious part of a customer’s discovery and exploration of a product. For example, the “Did you mean…” feature on Google and the related products features on Amazon and many other ecommerce sites complement the search experience—in the event a search engine does not give the exact results an experience partner desires.
Technology Serving the People Who Use It
The term user implies a mindset that tolerates busywork for people, results in featuritis, and pushes technology to the center stage.
Wikipedia identifies users as “the class of people that uses a system without complete technical expertise required to fully understand the system.”
Neal Stephenson compares “technically unsophisticated computer users” to the Eloi, a futuristic race of cosseted, non-technological beings who were completely dependent on their keepers, the technology-wielding, underground race of Morlocks who raised them as a food source in H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine. According to Stephenson, the Morlocks represent the designer overclass.
This telling metaphor precisely reflects the current dysfunctional nature of the relationship between users and designers. The term users is a generalization designers have employed to describe those who perform all sorts of work that is not very technical. Programmers program and designers design; the rest—the Eloi—use data or information systems in a rather limited way to do some stuff—whatever users can do with all those nifty features programmers programmed and designers designed—including many features that, as it turns out, almost no one actually uses.
“If you are like me, and like most other consumers, you have never used ninety percent of the available features on your microwave oven, VCR, or cell phone. You don’t even know that these features exist. The small benefit they might bring you is outweighed by the sheer hassle of having to learn about them.”—Neal Stephenson
Featuritis, an emphasis on adding more features to the detriment of other design goals, is one consequence of using a sloppy and imprecise word like users to describe the assorted roles and goals of knowledge workers. This imprecision implies that users will be forced to muddle through their tasks, using whatever features programmers and designers throw at them, rather than their creating a true man/machine partnership with the aim of achieving a specific, well-defined goal. More, in the context of the idea of users, means “more features for users to use” and that is exactly the basis on which many companies choose to compete.
In sharp contrast to feature-leaden monstrosities, the best products and Web applications focus first on simplicity and ease of use. For example, as a result of its simple, yet sophisticated design, no one talks in terms of using Google—you just google it or find it.
“Google has the functionality of a really complicated Swiss Army knife, but the home page is our way of approaching it closed. It’s simple; it’s elegant; you can slip it in your pocket, but it’s got the great doodad when you need it. A lot of our competitors are like a Swiss Army knife open—and that can be intimidating and occasionally harmful.”—Marissa Mayer
The best technology is transparent and simple—providing the ultimate sophistication, efficiency, and desirability. As Milton Glaser has said, “just enough is more.”
The best and most sophisticated technology operates in the background to achieve a desired outcome as if by magic. With the best technology, we don’t talk in terms of “using the keypad to dial the telephone” or “using the steering wheel and pedals to drive.” Instead, we talk in terms of our goals and desired outcomes like this: “I called Jim to let him know our plans.” “I drove to work today.”
“In anything at all, perfection is finally attained not when there is no longer anything to add, but when there is no longer anything to take away.”—Antoine de Saint Exupery
The concept of experience partner encourages our thinking about design in terms of customer goals, because we are invited to treat our customers as partners in creating the product experience. Speaking in terms of experience partners naturally leads us to ask, “What is our partner trying to do?” Then, we can focus on enabling the desired outcome in the easiest, most fun way possible. For example, instead of talking about which address-book features our users would prefer to use, we can focus our efforts on helping an experience partner quickly call his boss.
Overcoming the User Mindset
User-centered HCI techniques are often not enough to overcome the baggage the term user carries.
Recognizing the dysfunctional Eloi/Morlock, or user/designer, relationship, visionary HCI practitioners have developed concepts and techniques like user-centered design, personas, contextual inquiry, and many others in an effort to humanize the user/designer relationship and improve the design of products. All of these methods have certainly helped a great deal in restoring some measure of sanity and making the design process more customer centric. Ultimately, these methods produce better, more delightful products, too. Unfortunately, while these methods are powerful and often quite effective, they frequently come up short in changing the minds of designers and engineers who still cling to the old concept of users as something that implies addiction.
For example, let’s look at the powerful methodology of personas. Personas are supposed to engage designers on a more human level and leverage theory of mind—the ability to predict people’s behavior by understanding their mental state. However, even designers and product managers who fully buy into the personas methodology often discover that, after a lengthy process of creating personas, they still lack the basic empathy it takes to relate to their customers as fellow human beings and tell their human stories effectively.
In many cases—judging from my own personal experience—our best HCI methods and tools for building empathy toward our customers still fail to tell the human side of the story. We can find the answer to why this is so in Alan Cooper’s column “The Origin of Personas.” Walking on the beach one day and having an imaginary conversation with a single representative customer he had met during customer interviews, Cooper created the concept of personas by treating this person as a partner in a conversation. His approach is a very intuitive, very human, empathetic activity you can use to put yourself into your partners’ lives and understand their needs on a deeper human level, as part of their larger life stories. We cannot achieve this kind of human connection if we’re thinking of our customers in the same terms as addicts. As long as the fundamental nature of the relationship between designers and customers remains constrained by the dying metaphor and mental baggage of the term user, all of our best efforts will still lead to a general lack of empathy, sloppy design thinking, and crappy products, regardless of which advanced HCI methodology we use.
To remedy the situation, we need to focus first and foremost on human values as they impact design. Frank Lloyd Wright once said, “All fine architectural values are human values, else not valuable.” We can say the same thing about user experience design. Without recognizing the fundamental humanity of our customers and the need to create a partnership with them, our most user-centered methods are, at best, similar to the concept of affirmative action, which helps to ameliorate the long-term effects slavery and racism have had on our society, without addressing the old thinking that was the underlying cause of the societal disease of racism. Therefore, to solve our problem, we need to find new concepts and language to describe novel ways of relating to our customers. In particular, we need to recognize customers as partners in interactions with our companies—hence the concept of experience partners I am proposing. If we are to have any hope of changing the dysfunctional user/designer relationship, we need a conception of our customers that more accurately reflects the change in the nature of our thinking and focus—a concept like experience partners.
Coming to Clarity
The term user leads to sloppy design thinking.
Providing precise terms that describe both customers’ desired outcomes and the people who use our products to achieve their own goals might seem like an unnecessary effort. However, in reality, the language we use matters a great deal. In his essay “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell wrote that our language “becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.”
One of the reasons the term user is so common is because it is so conveniently imprecise. The term user lets designers and businesspeople alike describe products in terms of their features instead of customer goals—and in doing so, avoid making difficult design choices. This is especially true when a team is missing important information about their target customers.
On the other hand, the term experience partners actually forces a product team to precisely define their customers’ goals, mental models, and desired outcomes. Of course, the precise definition of these things is not easy, but it represents a very important part of the design process.
“A well-defined and exciting problem (and its associated constraints) is the catalyst that makes design go. By not drawing a clear and compelling problem, you are cheating your team out of an incredible unifying and driving energy.”—Tom Chi
In other words, the more precise the definition of both the problem and the people for whom you’re targeting a solution, the more likely the resulting product will be something both delightful and desirable. The concept of experience partners can help us to achieve that outcome, precisely because it focuses us on the overall experience and meeting customer goals, not on creating more product features.
Another important point is that calling our members, clients, and customers users gives designers a feeling of self-importance, because users notice and appreciate their work—making the designers the center of attention. Designers sometimes focus on design at the expense of the human beings who will use the products they create.
“In our rush to be great, we forget to be human.”—John Maeda
In their concern for creating art, many designers fail to consider what people actually do with things. The concept of experience partners reminds designers that, not only are we human, but our customers are, too, and affirms that, ultimately, we design to solve our customers’ real human problems.
“Design is not Art…. [It’s] about use…. Design helps solve human problems. The highest accolade we can bestow on a design is not that it is beautiful, as we do in Art, but that it is well-used.”—Joshua Porter
Experience-partner design thinking aspires to make innovative technology so simple to use that it disappears, making things happen as if by magic. For example, if I want to read a book, I flip a switch and my room is flooded with light. I google to find everything I need on the Web. I want to watch a movie that matches my taste, so I go to Netflix and the site helpfully suggests one. If we embrace the concept of experience partners, both technology and its designers quietly recede into the background, giving center stage to customer delight. The customer is no longer just a user, but a partner in the experience.
Describing Interactions Between People
The term user does not reflect the emerging paradigm of a human-to-human digital community.
In this modern age, practically everyone must operate either complex software applications or other technology to perform their work, yet at the same time, we universally lack the patience and time we’d need to learn the complex software interfaces we must use to accomplish our work.“To sell software is to ask people to willfully become temporarily incompetent,” said Po Bronson. The resulting situation is the ultimate cosmic joke: In creating and feeding the dysfunctional Eloi/Morlock, or user/designer, relationship, we have all become the Eloi users of one another’s high-tech products—even those of us who work for technology companies.
“We are way too busy, nowadays, to comprehend everything in detail. And it’s better to comprehend it dimly, through an interface, than not at all. … Giving clear instructions, to anyone or anything, is difficult. We cannot do it without thinking, and depending on the complexity of the situation, we may have to think hard about abstract things and consider any number of ramifications, in order to do a good job of it. For most of us, this is hard work. We want things to be easier.”—Neal Stephenson
High-tech gadgets and software are so ubiquitous and so specialized at the same time that those not directly involved with the design and development of a particular product become part of the outcast user class. The old conception that the term users refers to “technically unsophisticated computer users” is, therefore, completely misleading. Instead, it currently refers to virtually any relatively busy person who does not have the time or inclination to learn a particular gadget or Web application, for example.
“It is not a question of whether users are capable of overcoming complexity and learning an advanced user interface. It is a question of whether they are willing to do so. [Sophisticated and intelligent] users are just like anybody else: They just want to get their work done. They have neither the desire nor the time to learn the idiosyncrasies of individual Web sites.”—Jakob Nielsen
In contrast, the term experience partners better reflects our current reality—in which the rules have changed dramatically and virtually everyone must rely on some kind of a high-tech gadget to do their work and thus must partner with a machine to succeed in even basic tasks like having a conversation—by calling someone on the phone. Like it or not, we have all become each other’s experience partners. We need to recognize this reality and start treating one another with the respect and understanding this concept affords if we are to have any hope of creating high-tech products that are delightful, usable, and fun.
In recent years, the design landscape and the designer/customer relationship have both become even more complex. Social networking sites like Friendster, LinkedIn, and MySpace have provided a variety of novel interactions that break the old paradigm of a single human interacting with a single computer. Instead, unprecedented numbers of people are connecting with one another via rich-media communications, including video, audio, and text, using computers and mobile digital devices that are distributed over a wide network. Thus, it is no longer enough to consider only design issues that arise from the needs of a single user interacting with a single system. Instead, we must design for people who are interacting with one another via a network, performing complex human-to-human interactions via computers, and creating digital social networks and Internet communities. This kind of system sociability creates unprecedented richness and variety in our interactions that we simply cannot adequately describe using the dying metaphor of the user.
“When we talk about the user experience, the main emphasis is often on an individual’s experience with a particular technology…. However, designing for sociability means thinking about how people experience each other through the technological medium, not just thinking about how they experience the technology. The emphasis is on the human-to-human relationship, not the human-to-technology relationship. This is a crucial difference in design focus. It means designing for an experience between people.”—Crysta Metcalf
The novel concept of partner experience provides a much better fit for describing this complex set of social interactions, because it properly conveys the sense of a larger context beyond an individual instance of the human/computer interface. Sharon Lee calls this design paradigm “human-to-human design.”
Thinking about partner experiences opens the door to considering complex social networks on a different level. We can apply this concept in a variety of situations, conveying the possibility that we can go beyond designing for people’s individual interactions with computers and extend experience-design thinking to partnerships with other humans beings, using computers that are distributed over a larger network.
Companies like Amazon, Yahoo!, Friendster, YouTube, and Apple have employed successful modes of human-to-human interaction that are now becoming the norm—not to mention those of massive, multi-user, online games like Second Life. Involving customers in the process of creating broad, digital social networks and designing tools that let them produce customer-generated content transcends the old boundaries of designers, clients, and users.
According to Eevi Beck, “…much technology development no longer happens as design of isolated systems in well-defined communities of work.” The new design paradigm is one of partnership, not the thoughtless consumption our old terminology implied.
This experience-partner design model is one in which there is a continual conversation between designers and the people using their products, which in turn, continually evolve to fit changing human needs. Such novel interactions demand a change in our language, because the old concept of users brings with it the baggage of forced interactions and addiction. We could call this class of high-tech consumers customers or clients, but those terms also have their own baggage. Further, these traditional terms do not reflect the fundamental paradigm shift that is occurring in the design industry—a shift toward treating our customers as alert and caring partners in a global community experience. In contrast to the terms customers and clients, the term experience partners provides a great fit, because the system no longer acts as a policeman enforcing company policies, but instead becomes a child of empathetic and dedicated human beings who intend to create a desirable and useful tool that delights and enhances the experience of life for their partners and the digital community.
The concept of experience partners reflects the emerging trend toward treating customers as our partners and embodies effective principles of good design. Thinking in terms of experience partners:
- Reflects the reality that design is an ongoing human-to-human partnership between designers and customers who combine forces to reach a common goal. The term experience partners emphasizes a basic tenet of effective communication: The person on the other end may be busy and distracted, but is not stupid. It also recognizes that all of the people who use our products deserve the respect and care we afford our best customers and most loyal members. Engage people on their own level, with sufficient empathy, and they will respond in kind. Because the nature of customer relationships is both transitory and voluntary, your best experience partners could leave you for your competitor if you don’t take care to provide the best possible partner experience. We are designing products for human beings who are open to our products’ benefits, provided they help them meet their goals.
- Moves our focus beyond features to the greater holistic experience. The concept of experience partners is naturally holistic. It encompasses everything the partner touches—interactions, visual elements, content, customer service, product delivery, packaging, and brand. Using the term experience—like the Philips Sense and Simplicity campaign—makes us consider the entire setting in which our customers will experience our products, necessitating detailed field studies and ethnographic inquiries to inform the design of our products.
- Embraces the larger concept of a partnership with our customers. In reality, the only way a company can today succeed is by helping customers to be successful in achieving their own goals. The idea of experience partners implies a conversation between designers and customers and reflects the changing relationship between a team of designers and engineers and the people who will experience the product they’re creating. It also invites the early and integral involvement of the people who will use our products in the design process and demonstrates the importance of our doing continuous research to ensure we meet our partners’ goals. We first need to find out how busy people think, then build products from the ground up to accommodate human needs and mental models. The term experience partners is goal oriented. It begs us to answer these questions: “What are our partners trying to do?” and “How can I make my partners successful?”
- Emphasizes human-to-human relationships, with the goal of creating a global, digital community through technology.
First and foremost, the term experience partners emphasizes human-to-human partnerships—both with our customers and between our customers. Further, this term helps us recognize that modern software applications no longer support just human/computer interactions. People often use them within complex social contexts in a global, digital community. Thinking about partner experiences invites us to design for sociability and be aware of how people can experience one another through technological media rather than limiting ourselves to just thinking about a single person’s experience with technology. We can focus on creating the human-to-human partnerships that, in turn, create digital communities.
The concept of experience partners is a good model for the emerging cooperative relationship that ideally exists between designers and consumers of the products they design. It is sometimes necessary to invent new terms to effectively describe emerging paradigms. However, for such a term to be truly useful, it is necessary for an entire team of designers, engineers, and human factors people to embrace and use the same terminology. Using the term experience partners will help break old patterns of thinking about the human beings who use our products. It will also engender new methods that can help us design delightful, usable high-tech products that will assume their rightful places among the tools humankind has universally adopted—tools that enhance our capabilities, imaginations, and creativity like the ubiquitous automobile, telephone, and radio. It’s high time we should drop the old term users and embrace our new experience partners.
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