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

November 1, 2013

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.

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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. 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. 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?

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.

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

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?

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. 

Founder and President of UX Innovation LLC

San Francisco, California, USA

Jon InnesAs a UX consultant, Jon helps companies set up and improve their user-centered design and research processes. Jon has led UX projects for several Fortune 1000 companies—both as a consultant and as a member of in-house teams. His experience spans a wide variety of domains, including consumer and enterprise software, consumer hardware, IT projects, and ecommerce Web site design. Jon is a Certified Scrum Product Owner, with extensive experience integrating Agile and user experience for both large, globally distributed teams and early-stage startups. Before becoming a consultant, Jon was Director of User Experience for the Quicken Division at Intuit. In that role, he helped the company launch new products for the health care and online banking markets. Previously, Jon was the first Innovation Architect at SAP, where he helped the company build a team in California. Jon has held management and leadership positions at Vitria Technologies and Siebel Systems and has held UX roles at Cisco, Oracle, Symantec, and IBM.  Read More

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