Designing the customer experience

Clever design thinking can make experiences so outstanding that the competition is quashed

This article in the Wall Street Journal has defined design thinking as drawing "lessons from the world of design in the pursuit of innovation". It's an outlook which involves filtering your ideas through a human lens. By that we mean thinking about new ways to do things that will be enjoyable, or at the very least seamless to interact with. Unlike technological advances that change every business, design thinking enables some to gain a competitive edge by improving the customer experience they offer.

Invest in customer experience above all else

The modern consumer is discerning and impatient, so delivering something memorable will encourage brand loyalty. Organisations need to take a step back and closer examine what value they are providing and the quality of the customer experience they deliver. Often the aim is simply to get repeat business, but this needs to be realigned so a great experience is the goal everyone is working towards. The return on investment will follow.

Amazing customer experiences raise expectations elsewhere too. They help customers enjoy giving you their business and once they've had a good experience, there's no going back.

Brilliant design thinking – on a commuter train

Design thinking has become a buzzword, but it's actually a very simple concept. For example, one train operator has introduced a simple, elegant service innovation that should be an inspiration to others.

Some bright spark, perhaps noticing that passengers use the overhead baggage racks less and less, has reserved space on each one for passengers to leave their used newspapers. So instead of collecting on seats or overflowing bins, the end of the racks are for recycling only. And it works.

This simple innovation utilises spare capacity in the system, solves a problem (reduces litter), and probably speeds up the cleaning team turnaround at either end of the line. What's more, its almost free to implement. On a very low key scale, this is design thinking in action.

Thinking big

Many companies are deploying design thinking to solve their business problems and leap ahead of the competition. In 2013 the Chinese retail firm, Alibaba made history by becoming the first company to sell and deliver $6 billion in goods and services on a single day. Well known for global advances in e-commerce Alibaba created a holiday, Single’s Day, kind of a Valentine’s Day culturally adapted for China. On Nov. 11, people who are single give each other gifts through Alibaba at either 11:11 a.m. or 11:11 p.m., because all of the 1’s add up to many “singles.”

Capitalising on the desires on China's growing middle class, Alibaba are a good example of clever design thinking at scale – taking insights and transforming them into ideas with huge return on investment. But what makes this different to any other retail day and why is it so much more successful than promotions like Black Friday?

In addition to cultural insight Alibaba are closely focused on the customer experience, using the associated app Alipay to make shopping easy and social - allowing consumers to interact with friends as well as merchants. The app enables people to pay for their shopping by having a merchant scan a barcode or QR code.

The latest version has been described as a "super app", Fan Zhiming, President of Ant Financial’s payment business unit, said: “[It is a] platform which will change the way you shop, the way you spend and the way you manage your finances.” Alibaba are using design thinking to re-imagine how things will be done in the future and creating a knock on effect on their industry.

Setting a new standard

Design thinking has fuelled the most disruptive changes of recent times, Uber and Airbnb being the most talked about. But what the most groundbreaking innovations have in common is that they are creating convenient and smart experiences for customers. It doesn't have to be some great master scheme, it's about taking a step back and thinking carefully about the whole experience you're serving up.

When done well design thinking uses technology to transform experiences so they become the standard people expect. Products and services that don't meet the new standard are on their way out.

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