Merging UX Design and Customer Education to Deliver Optimal User Experience Outcomes

January 8, 2024

Not all Customer Success executives have had the opportunity to experience deep dives with UX researchers and designers to see how the magic is made. I consider myself lucky to have worked with world-class UX teams at companies such as LinkedIn, Cisco, and Coursera. But the unpopular reality for UX professionals is that the success of a product hinges heavily on factors beyond the platform—no matter how well thought out the design is. With increasing frequency, companies are coming up with solutions with Customer Education, in ways that are dissociated from the UX team.

Customer Education is a relatively new function that is typically a part of a Customer Success (CS) or Customer Marketing organization. Their goal is to provide proactive communications and resources that change behaviors, enabling users to gain maximal value from the solutions they’ve purchased. However, it is rare for the Customer Education team and the UX team to collaborate. In fact, in the State of Customer Success 2023 Survey, User Experience didn’t make the top-10 list of departments that CS partners with.

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Obstacles to Adoption

Product managers often expound on the idea that, if they can create a perfect design, that is all that is necessary for customers to have a great experience with their product. Unfortunately, this myth has hindered the integration of online and offline strategies that could deliver a harmonized customer experience. The original launch of the Ford automobile provides a good example.

  • People first had to understand why they should bother. Horses worked great. Why spend the time to learn something new? Sure people came around eventually, but it took decades.
  • Operational reality had to align with the solution. Before roads, people couldn’t get the full value of their beautifully designed cars. So, even though roads were outside of Ford’s control, he had to step up and address this problem. Therefore, Ford was a supporter of Charles Henry Davis’s National Highways Association, which he founded in 1911, using the slogan “Good Roads Everywhere.”
  • Development needed to become efficient. Companies leveraged standardization and workarounds that could come from elsewhere. All Model Ts were black, so after-market paint shops opened up nearby for people who wanted something different.
  • Building expertise takes effort. Just handing a key to a new driver wasn’t enough. Driving schools, peer training, and traffic aids such as stop signs were necessary to help Model-T drivers to have a good experience.

The obstacles that Henry Ford faced are similar to those that developers of modern-day software and services now face. The way we are solving those problems could be more efficient if Customer Education and User Experience worked together.

Understanding the Why Before the How

Before users would ever care about how they could do something, they really need to understand why they would want to do it.

Picture this: an executive is looking at his company’s Profit and Loss (P&L) statement and notices a problem that is taking a big bite out of profits. So he decides to purchase a product that can influence better business outcomes, then hands that product off to a lower-level manager or ops person to implement and manage, who then gives access to the rank and file. However, front-line users don’t understand why the company bought the product or why its adoption would be worth the pain of users’ trying to learn another new thing.

User Experience often designs the experience, starting with users’ first login, when users must start from scratch. In reality, several touchpoints are often necessary to get to the first click. When User Experience and Customer Education collaborate on both the offline and online experiences, they can avoid duplication of messaging and design more seamless workflows that can help users to more quickly understand what’s in it for them. When users personally see a fast time to value in using a product, this incentivizes them to engage with the product more and invest their time in building expertise with a solution. Engaged users deliver stronger results for administrators and executive sponsors.

Understanding Operational Reality to Achieve Change

To achieve lasting change, we must understand users’ operational reality The average company with over 1000 employees now employs 177 SaaS applications. Of course, not every employee uses every tool, but each employee consistently uses more than 80 tools. That’s a lot of technology to keep track of, so most employees won’t take full advantage of the depth and breadth of features that most of these apps offer. Therefore, Customer Education steps in to make users aware of problems they didn’t even know they were having and suggest solutions that are hiding in the features they aren’t fully leveraging.

User Experience may already have completed research regarding which features are most important to different user personas and which workflows deliver the best outcomes. But that information rarely makes it from User Experience to Customer Education. So the Customer Success team ends up conducting their own, less structured research and designing their own best practices. This duplication is not only wasteful for organizations but creates an imbalance between the expected return on investment (ROI) that a product team might have used in prioritizing development resources and the actual utilization of that product.

Ideally, User Experience and Customer Education should also work together to understand integration capabilities, challenges, and users’ habits so they can create delightful experiences within the context of the around 80 apps that users are juggling. At one company where I worked, we noticed a large client had very poor engagement with our product. Their Customer Success Manager (CSM) did ride-alongs with a few people, shadowing a day in the life of a typical user. We had set up Single Sign On (SSO) access for users. Watching users navigate the SSO, we discovered that the security protocols required users to navigate between multiple platforms on internal sites, resulting in a difficult-to-understand workflow and dozens of unnecessary clicks. If users got stuck, there was no way to get help.

Building for the Primary Audience and Providing Workarounds for Everyone Else

Different people will use your solution in different ways. Designing with the goal of being all things to all people is a recipe for an overly complicated, bloated user experience that serves no one well. Ideally, User Experience can design for the mainstream and focus on the happy path for the 80% of customers who are similar. Then Customer Education can step in to teach everyone else workarounds for the edge cases.

For example, if your product were a Business Intelligence tool that creates lovely templated charts, but a handful of clients need special charts that incorporate their own company’s colors and fonts, Customer Education would likely step in to create a tutorial, Webinar, or guide that shows users how to export data from your system and customize charts to their specifications in Excel.

Sometimes UX teams know about such edge cases during the UX Design phase and can make a conscious decision to design with the majority in mind. However, if the UX team shared information about the user persona for whom they’re not designing the solution with Customer Education before releasing the product or feature, they could coordinate their training-materials roadmap to accommodate other users’ needs. They could then proactively communicate the information about the solution to the customers who are likely to need it. As things generally stand, such insights are typically reactive. Product teams often realize that a solution is necessary only after edge-case customers complain to the CSM or Support. The unfortunate consequence is a less favorable customer experience.

In organizations where Support, Product, User Experience, and Customer Success are not closely aligned, a product team might decide to develop a technical solution to an issue, taking up valuable engineering resources when Customer Education could have delivered better results. Close collaboration between all these teams lets your company surface all possible solutions, then choose the best one to deliver an optimal user experience.

In smaller companies, Customer Success usually wears the Customer Education hat in addition to their other responsibilities. Regardless of whether your company has a formal team for this function, such customer interactions are continually occurring. By partnering with the resources who are working on Customer Education, your UX team can enable a more seamless user experience across the entire product. 

CEO at RecastSuccess

Sonora, California, USA

Annie DeanAs CEO and co-founder of RecastSuccess, Annie is working to diversify the technology industry by helping people make career transitions, supporting mentorship, and providing fractional leadership in Customer Success for early startups at software-as-a-service (SaaS) organizations. Before making a pivot into full-time entrepreneurship in 2022, she led Global Customer Learning Operations for LinkedIn, helped launch degrees for Coursera, and built the Customer Success and Operations functions at several early-stage startups. She is a mom, living in a small town in rural California near Yosemite. She teaches thousands of Customer Success professionals annually and speaks nationally about topics such as customer education, digital customer success, artificial intelligence (AI), customer operations, and developing diverse client-facing teams.  Read More

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