At its core, the customer experience is measured against your audience’s expectations.
These expectations are shaped from past interactions with companies and technology.
For example, making reservations through OpenTable is quick and easy, while getting clarification on your cable bill is often a trial meant to test your faith in humanity.
In an increasingly digital world, the concept of liquid expectations best describes how people develop and evolve their concept of a satisfactory customer experience.
Understanding the forces that shape your audience’s preconceptions is the key to designing a customer experience that keeps pace with your market and assures your organization stays competitive.
What are liquid expectations
You can’t browse any business blog for too long without getting a lecture on the importance of the customer experience. Far less attention is paid to precisely what’s setting the bar so high.
Here’s what happening: we’ve entered a golden age of technology usability. This new era is being ushered in by customer experiences so striking and intuitive they leave a permanent impression on the user.
Now that person has a new standard for customer experience, and that expectation permeates every other interaction they have, regardless of industry. Your customer experience isn’t measured exclusively against your industry competitors, but rather against technology pioneers like Apple, Airbnb, Uber, and so on.
Fjord, the design agency who coined the term liquid expectations, visualizes this phenomenon nicely.
For decades upon decades, competition has been defined as businesses that sell products and services that are directly comparable to your own.
Photo Credit: Fjord
Now, the convergent nature of technology has given rise to experiential competitors. These organizations don’t deal in products that are like-for-like with yours, but rather offer experiences that could replace you entirely.
The rise of WeWork
Renting office space has always been a job for companies rather than individuals. But the emergence of the gig economy, and the accompanying army of freelancers, side hustlers, and startups, means individuals needed office space too. Or at least a desk in an office space.
In a textbook example of experiential competition, WeWork seized on the gap in the market. Instead of cordoning off entire rooms for companies, WeWork provides a coworking environment where anyone can rent a desk for a set fee.
While the model of renting space to then rent to individuals may not seem revolutionary, WeWork understood that the experience of a coworking space is what millennial professionals working in digital jobs were after.
Sure, WeWork clients save money by getting access to lightning faster internet and other workplace essentials. But the culture created in each coworking space — where professionals mingle with like-minded peers every day — is what launched this Brooklyn startup to a valuation of over $20 billion in 2017.
The communal expectations young business professionals had established through social networks directly translated to what they wanted from a real-world working environment.
Rather than selling a like-for-like offering akin to traditional office spaces, WeWork sells an experience that makes traditional cubicle farms redundant.
The end of the line
In what could be the first whispers of a perceptual shift among consumers, the immediacy of hailing a ride with Uber may spell the end of lines at grocery stores.
Amazon is already trialing multiple Amazon Go stores in the Seattle, Chicago, and San Francisco. Equipped with a range of technologies, the stores allow shoppers to walk in, scan their phones, and walk out with the items they’ve selected.
This project is still in its infancy, and the current Amazon Go locations are much smaller than traditional groceries. Still, the parallels to other self-service technology are striking.
The phone is the only necessary technology for customers. Users arrive and choose only what they want. And there are no lines, because the entire experience is constructed to cater to each individual user.
These stores are only a start, but they could be the first indicators that the expectations built through ride sharing apps will make waiting in line at the grocery an antiquated experience.
As tolerance for lines decreases, the old fashioned stores that still have lines will be victims of perceptual competition.
How to future-proof your customer experience
The winds of technology innovation can be swift, and keeping pace with liquid expectations an intimidating endeavor. However, there is a proven strategy for building and maintaining an exceptional customer experience: human-centered design.
I’ve used the terms users and customers interchangeably because the importance of someone’s experience is universal. It doesn’t matter if it’s a product, service, or employee-facing application.
Investing in user experience design means investing in the customer experience, and there is an ample body of research that supports the heavy investment in UX.
No one is immune from changing customer expectations. But adhering to a set of human-centered design principles will support an ever-evolving customer experience.
Here are three important tenets for optimizing your customer experience:
Ongoing User Research
More often than not, a poor customer experience is born of assumptions rather than knowledge what your customers actually want. Taking a human-centered perspective affords users a central role designing the experience they’ll have with your organization.
Seasoned UX designers will employ a myriad of research techniques to develop a context of use, ideate ways to optimize the experience design, and validate the design direction with users.
However, the most important characteristic of your research is that it’s iterative and ongoing. By using wireframes and prototypes as vehicles for feedback, designers can shape the customer experience to match the real-world needs of your audience.
Building your customer experience on a foundation of user research is a surefire method for keeping your finger on the pulse of your audience’s expectations.
Personalization is serially undersold. Too many marketers consider dynamic text the forefront of personalization, when AI and machine learning are opening the doors to substantially deeper personalization opportunities.
Two main types of personalization are gaining ground: behavioral and role-based.
Behavioral personalization is what you’re familiar with in most ecommerce stores or in digital advertising platforms. After you view certain types of content or complete specific behaviors, you’ll be greeted by content curated to meet your interests on your next visit or log in.
Role-based personalization utilizes a set of firmographic and demographic data, often established when you set up your profile, to personalize the user experience. Each role relates to a certain workflow, so the experience changes according to the needs born out by research into your particular priorities.
Any personalization strategy must be informed by stringent research to ensure that the content actually helps users accomplish their tasks and overcome challenges. Otherwise, customized content will quickly descend into irrelevancy.
When designers talk about increasing the usability of the customer experience, they’re planning to improve three particular areas:
1: How easily the user becomes familiar and competent with the user experience
2: How easily users can achieve their objective
3: How easily they can recall the user interface in subsequent visits
Taken together, these three standards form the core of any intuitive customer experience.
What’s more, these usability are not solely qualitative in nature. Usability testing can create baselines for data points like time-on-task, success and failure rates, and the amount of perceived effort as measured by clicks.
These quantitative metrics build a framework for the usability of any particular task in the customer experience, giving you a specific idea of exactly what interactions need to be optimized in the customer journey.
For anyone even remotely concerned with the customer experience, liquid expectations are the new normal. As innovation cycles speed up, customers’ expectations will be reshaped on a regular basis.
However, there is a way to adapt, and even thrive. The human-centered design process isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution; it’s a methodology for uncovering exactly what matters to your audience and designing solutions to meet those standards.
If the customer experience is the ultimate competitive advantage, giving customers a role in shaping their experience is simply the most logical move to make.