Designing Experiences that Fit the Customers’ Mental Model

In a previous post (What is a Customer Experience Anyway?), I discussed the fact that a customer experience exists only in the mind of the customer.  We define a customer experience to be… how the customer reacts both rationally and emotionally… across their end-to-end process… of accomplishing one or more things that are important to them.

For years, we’ve been helping organizations enable their customers to have better experiences by designing what they do from “mental model of the customer” rather than the “mental model of the company.”  In virtually every case we’ve seen, these two perspectives are fundamentally different.  In fact, we’ve told our clients, “You’ve got to be out of your mind to design a great customer experience.”  We don’t mean going insane; we do mean that you need to set aside the internal, organizational mental model in favor of adopting the customers’ way of thinking.  In most cases, people inside the organization know too much about all the intricacies of what’s involved in producing the product or service.  This makes it very difficult to get their head around the customers’ often flawed, simplistic, irrational, and biased way of looking at how that product or service fits their needs and makes them feel.

If you agree that it’s a good thing to design from the “mental model of the customer,” the next logical question is, “What the #($*&# is a mental model?”  Over the past several years, my colleagues and I have been evolving a rigorous way to efficiently describe the customers’ mental model; a way that allows you to use that model in designs that influence the way customers’ experience what you do.

In order to accomplish this, we’ve been formalizing models that define a set of Customer Cognitive Personae that describe the way different types of customers experience things.  Generally there are several Personae that must be described based on the fundamentally different customer mental models that exist within the target customer population.  Each Personae is defined by a unique instance of four models:

  1. Customer Goal Model: What is the customers’ understanding of what they are trying to accomplish?  Very often the customers’ understanding of their goals are fuzzy and ill-defined.  Although these goals may include a desire for rationally considered benefits, very often the customer has strong latent goals that involve desired emotional states and a means of self-expression and social acceptability.  Customers’ do not buy products; they buy desired states!  Obviously, you can’t design effective products, services, or customer-facing processes that work for the customer without a clear understanding of the customers’ desired state.
  2. Customer Lifecycle Model: What is the end-to-end set of activities a customer would naturally follow to realize their goals and achieve the desired state described above?  As mentioned in a previous post (The Customer Experience Does Not Happen at Your Touchpoints), the customer does a lot outside their touchpoints with your organization.  Understanding what they do is the key to understanding where you might help them have a better experience.  Although this may include improvements in the existing touchpoints, more often, it involves the creation of new touchpoints.  It’s important to acknowledge that, in the real world, every customer follows a somewhat different set of activities.  However, we’ve found there are typically a small number of common customer lifecycles that capture the essence of the natural behaviors for that different types of customer.
  3. Cognitive Schema: As mentioned earlier, a customer’s experience is that customer’s rational and emotional reactions.  In order to understand these reactions, it’s necessary to understand the way customers’ brains process customers’ experiences.  Schemaare a way of doing that.  A schema is a knowledge structure used to describe an individual’s memories and beliefs about a category of experiences.  For example, customers’ schema for the experience they have in a casual dining restaurant allows them to have that experience without having to “figure it out” each time they go out to dinner.   Understanding the customers’ schema for that category of experience is critical for understanding how to design things that really work for the customer.   The knowledge captured in an individual’s schema allows that individual to:
    • Easily identify how current sensory information is similar to or different than what they’ve sensed in past experiences.  Identification knowledge supports a pattern matching process that helps customers recognize what is familiar or unusual about the situation.
    • Quickly elaborate or fill in additional knowledge of the essential characteristics of similar experiences in order to predict what will happen and interpret what does happen.  Elaboration knowledge is related to how an individual recalls past experiences and uses that information to make predictions about what will happen this time.  Elaboration includes the customers conscious and subconscious expectations.
    • Draw inferences, make estimates, create goals and plan one or more alternative actions.  The customers’ Planning Knowledge includes not only what the customer consciously believes is an appropriate set of actions but also includes the triggers for automatic behavioral scripts that make it efficient for customers to act in an experience while consciously attending to other matters.
    • Act utilizing learned skills, rules, procedures, or automatic behaviors that appear relevant to the current situation or problem.  Action Knowledge includes the routines that customers are comfortable following.  The most ergonomic experiences don’t require customers to act in ways that are uncomfortable for them.
  4. Temperamental Profile: On top of the cognitive structure described above, the customers’ subconscious emotional reactions take place in a biochemical environment that defines what experiences different types of customers will find compelling, engaging, and comfortable.   This profile builds on work done by Dr. C. Robert Cloninger, a psychiatrist at Washington University School of Medicine.   Different customer personae will react to experiences differently based on variations in neuromodulator processes that influence their emotional state.  The most effective experiences either match the temperament of the target customer or avoid stressing the customer by providing a “temperament neutral experience.”  A simplified explanation of each of these Temperamental Profiles is:
    • Novelty Seeking is the level to which the customer is both comfortable with, drawn to, and exhilarated by new experiences.  Novelty seeking is regulated by dopamine.  Novelty seeking customers appear to have low base levels of dopamine and, as a result, experience an increased sensitivity to dopamine releases.  This gives Novelty Seekers an enhanced euphoric rush from novel stimulation.
    • Harm Avoidance is the level to which customers desire to escape from unfamiliar, uncertain, or potentially unpleasant experiences.  Harm Avoidance is regulated by serotonin.  Harm Avoidant customers are more prone to the frequent release of serotonin when presented with uncertain or potentially threatening situations.  This frequent release of serotonin leads to a decrease in serotonin sensitivity and a resulting increase in cortisol which is associated with stress.
    • Reward Dependence is the level to which customers seek approval from others.  Reward Dependence is related to norepinephrine.   Reward Dependent customer are warm, dedicated, and dependent people that seek and are comfortable with experiences that involve social contact and communication.
    • Persistence is the level to which customers have behavioral inhibition (put it off) versus behavioral activation (just do it!).  Persistence appears to be connected with prolactin.  High persistance customers are eager to initiative experiences, tend to see roadblocks as personal challenges, and intensify their efforts in response to anticpated rewards.  Low persistence customers require deliberate removal of barriers to action and more subtle encouragement to engage in the experience.

The ability to rigorously describe the “mental model of the customer” has had a profound impact on designing products, services, interactions, etc… that fit with what customers are trying to accomplish; how they go about accomplishing those things; how they percieve, interpret, and evaluate what you do for them; what they feel comfortable with, stimulated by, etc…

For example, we are currently working with a leading healthcare organization to design an integrated patient-physician experience that is sensitive to the fact that people have fundamentally different mental models for their health and the consumption of health related services.  Some customers will be high novelty seeking naturalists; some will be low persistence avoiders; some will be more high harm avoidant active consumers, etc…   The experience that works for each of the personae involve different ways of communicating, prescribing courses of treatment, reinforcing behaviors like wellness programs, etc…

Another client that is aleading quick serve restaurant chain express a desire to “Disneyizing” their experience.  What they hadn’t taken into account in developing that vision is that the current customer experience could be described as:  low novelty seeking; moderately high harm avoidant; and high reward dependent.  Some of the ideas this company had for improving the experience were brilliant.  However, many of those “improvements” would have led to an unintended shift in the temperament of the overall experience; one that would have created tension for existing customers.

Well this post has gone on for a while and, as always, we’ve just scratched the surface.  I’m happy to provide more perspective to readers with an interest in more detail.  In addition, there will an opportunity to expand and illustrate several of these points in future posts.

6 Responses

  1. […] Frank Capek created an interesting post today on Cognitive Ergonomics: Designing Experiences that Fit with the ….Here’s a short outline:For example, we are currently working with a leading healthcare organization to design an integrated patient-physician experience that is sensitive to the fact that people have fundamentally different mental models for their health and … […]

  2. […] to get at the mental model that underlies the customers’ experience and their behavior.  In Cognitive Ergonomics:  Designing Experiences that Fit the Customers’ Mental Model, I describe four major components of understanding the customers’ mental model (goals, […]

  3. […] Our working definition of Cognitive Customer Personae include models that capture:  what the customer is trying to accomplish; the end-to-end behaviors the customer typically performs to accomplish those things; a structure of beliefs and temperamental characteristics that drive their rational and emotional reactions to their experience.  Each one of these personae is described by four models that are described in more detail with a few examples in the post titled:   Cognitive Ergonomics:  Designing Customer Experiences that Fit with the Customers’ Mental Mod…. […]

  4. […] Personae Classification:  The degree to which the customer demonstrates an affinity for one or more personae classes that exist in the marketplace.  These personae classes are an extension of psychographic segments that define the predominant “mental models” in the marketplace.  These personae are characterized by shared customer goals and preferences, goal-directed behavioral patterns, cognitive schema, and temperamental characteristics.  These temperamental characteristics include the customers’ orientation towards novelty seeking, harm avoidance, reward dependence, and persistence.  (See Cognitive Ergonomics:  Designing Experiences that Fit the Customers’ Mental Model) […]

  5. […] Cognitive Ergonomics: Designing Experiences that Fit the Customers’ Mental Model […]

  6. Finally someone who can write a good blog ! I loved your post and will be telling others about it. Subscribing to your RSS feed now. Thanks

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