What is an Experience Anyway?

There’s a lot of talk about “customer” experience today.  In previous posts, I’ve mentioned our working definition of the customers’ experience:  how the customer reacts both rationally and emotionally… across their end-to-end process… of achieving one or more goals that are important to them.   If you think about it from this customer-centric perspective, what actually makes it a “customer” experience?  It’s really just an experience a person has that, while in the course of trying to accomplish something, that person ends up in the role of “customer.”

The fact is, you can’t really understand “customer” experience without understanding the fundamental nature of “human” experience.  How do people experience things?  How does it work?  You have an experience just about every minute you’re awake (and arguably when you’re sleeping too).   You have experiences driving to work, talking with your colleagues, having lunch, going shopping, parenting, getting a cold, taking out the garbage, etc…  You get the picture; the list is endless.

How you experience anything is intimately connected with the way your mind works…. how your mental machinery perceives, interprets, and evaluates the situations you’re in… and how this process influences what you do.  You might say that every human being has about 4 pounds of experience (approximate weight of their central nervous system).

For years, we’ve been helping clients design customer experiences from the “mental model of the customer” rather than the “mental model of the company.”  In order to do this effectively, it’s critical to understand the capabilities, limitations, and idiosyncrasies of human perceptual, affective, and cognitive systems.   Without getting into too much technical detail, I’ll describe a couple of the key points that have had a profound impact on the effective design of outstanding “customer” experiences.

First, your brain is optimized to filter out more than 99% of the sensory information you are continuously exposed to.  This allows you to pay attention to a small number of the most important things.   Your hierarchical neural network is continuously and automatically comparing the flood of sensory information to what it predicts it will experience.  If that sensory information roughly matches what was expected, the information is dealt with subconsciously.  Often this subconscious process involves running automatic behavioral scripts.  For example, if you walk up to the front door of your house… key in hand… and the lock and door appear to behave as expected, you unlock the door and walk in without having to consciously “figure it out.”

If, on the other hand, the sensory information isn’t what was expected, it gets passed up the hierarchy for additional processing at the next level.  Eventually a small number of features of the current situation bubble up to the level of conscious processing.  If an element of the current situation catches you by surprise, it creates an “orienting response”… your attention is turned to it.  Research has shown that conscious processing is severely constrained based the limited capacity of short term memory.  Generally, a person can only consciously attend to seven (plus or minus two) pieces of information held in short term memory.

The most effective experiences are designed around: 1) the brain’s short-term memory limitation and 2) people’s ability to subconsciously run automatic behavioral scripts.   Whether you like it or not, customers filter out… or at least deal with subconsciously…  virtually all the details of every experience they have and only pay attention to a small number what appear to be the most salient things.

The trick is to deliberately design an experience that naturally maps to customers’ automatic behavioral scripts while reserving a very small number of salient differences; things we call the “Signature Elements” of the experience.  These signature elements are the small set of things that get the customers’ attention and are consistent with the brand story the experience is designed to tell.  For example, the Signature Elements of the Whole Foods experience include:  quality natural/organic products; artful food presentation; novelty-seeking assortment; educational product signage; mission for each department; extra mile in-store helpfulness.  These deliberately designed elements form the story that people tell themselves and others about their experience with Whole Foods.

Unfortunately, most companies do exactly the opposite.  They interrupt their customers’ automatic behavioral scripts.  For example: frequent changes to a travel company’s online storefront interrupts the automatic behavioral scripts of their frequent travelers;  or a bank that “greets” customers as they come in to the branch to make a deposit creating a valueless distraction from their customers’ “doing it on automatic pilot” activity and interrupting their train of thought on the six other things that were more of a priority.   In addition, if you’re going to do something different (get the customers’ attention; interrupt their train of thought; create an “orienting response”), you’d better make it good!  Most companies have a hard time being creative and focused on the small set of things that will actually make a difference to customers… and be consistent with a differentiated brand story.  So, as a result, the actual experience customers have with many companies can be summarized as varying degrees of being difficult to do business with.

Well, this post is going on too long and has just scratched the surface of something that is very important.  The key point is design the experience from the “mental model of the customer” not the “mental model of the company.”  This is the essence of Cognitive Ergonomics.  The next logical question is:  “What is a Mental Model?”  And, what does one look like.  I’ll discuss that in one of the next posts.

Cheers,  Frank

One Response

  1. […] Customers’ Mental Model Posted on November 2, 2007 by Frank Capek In a previous post (Cognitive Ergonomics:  What is a Customer Experience Anyway?), I discussed the fact that a customer experience exists only in the mind of the customer.  We […]

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