Experience Innovation vs. Product Innovation

What’s up with all that “User Experience” talk, you ask?

Customer Experience
Customer Experience (image source)

So, what do you do?

Sometimes people ask. And usually I reply “Well, I’m a UX designer.” The most common replies are:
– Oh… That’s nice…
– Ah, web design!
– Is that like User Interface?
– What is that?

Usually, UX design is confined to IT space; colloquially, it does include software UI. Frequently, people neglect workflow design and almost always overlook the “experience” part of it.

However, that’s where things spill over the borders of IT and overflow into Customer Experience territory.

User Experience is essentially Customer Experience within the confines of a software product or service

Customer Experience is a journey – from the first encounter with a product or service, up to the last interaction. It’s precisely the experience of that journey that UX/CX designers work on. It’s what a customer perceives, feels, goes through and, ultimately, remembers afterwards.

Once you sell a product, it’s up to the experience to keep the ball rolling. Once a customer accesses a service, it’s the experience that steps into the spotlight.

When a room is not a room

Well, a room is a room, just as much as a ride is a ride. After all, it’s not a product that sets Airbnb apart from a hotel; nor is it a product that distinguishes Uber from a cab company.

It’s the experience.

Much of recent growth – and excitement – is largely due to the evolution of customer experience, rather than to the invention of new products and services. Naturally, we cannot ignore the development of novel healthcare products (e.g. Google’s Smart Contact Lens), alternative interpretations of existing paradigms (Halfbike), or the brave hearts who hack a rigid system (TransferWise), but the numbers pale in comparison to the myriad innovations in usability, convenience, practicality… CX is all over the place!

Moving beyond the “What”

Many Whats have been answered – a “What” being an existing problem (remember needs and wants?), looking for an answer. Also, as new Whats are identified (or created – yay, marketing!), they are quickly offered solutions; vacuum doesn’t survive long in a free market.

The reason we’ve been seeing so much UX/CX/Design Thinking/User-Centered and Human-Centered Design talk recently lies in the “How” – as experiences evolve, improving existing solutions in order to make them more enjoyable and more efficient.

Ultimately, it’s not so much Product Innovation that we’ve been witnessing; its Customer Experience Innovation.

Service Design and Customer Experience (including UX) Design – closely overlapping fields – are going through a growth spurt. We will start seeing more and more Chief Experience Officers, Service Design Teams, Experience Improvement Programs, and so on, and so forth.

Customer-Centered will become the de facto Design paradigm, as older products and services upgrade, in order to fit in and to successfully compete against newcomers (we have already witnessed taxi companies introducing Uber-like models).

Next up – Human Experience Design

Service Design has always existed; it’s just that it has always gone the way of least resistance for the Service Provider – the abstract entity that is a company or an institution. It is shifting to User-Centered Service Design, where it is the end-users, as beneficiaries, who are being courted.

That, however, is just part of the road. It is highly likely that we will witness a further shift of focus, where all stakeholders are taken into consideration. This includes the following groups:

Investors/owners (as it always has) – in that businesses will aim for returns;
Customers (as we just covered) – in that businesses will provide the best possible customer experience;
Employees (as can be seen in some startup and tech companies) – in that the experience within the company will be optimized in order to create a progressive culture and sustain a positive medium;
Community (as companies with strong CSR programs demonstrate) – in that the social and natural environment will be nurtured, as much as possible.

Maybe the next steps will include advanced levels of product and service design, where not only the current stakeholders will benefit, but also future generations? The common pattern is definitely increasing levels of responsibility. What comes after Human Experience Design?

“potential” is a bad word!

work sucksI am no more (or less) crazy than the next guy, but I am here to tell you that “potential” is a bad word.

It’s seductive. (Or we’re easy.) It’s misleading. (Or we’re misreading.) It’s deceitful. (Or we’re dupable.)

Back when I was still in high school, my parents went to a parent-teacher conference. They had talked to many of my teachers, and a recurring pattern had emerged:

“He is really smart, he really has potential…” – so far, so good – “but he doesn’t study!”

They came home and told me all about my great potential. About how smart I was, and about how much my teachers liked me, and about how I needed to study more. How I had to work!

This is when “potential” showed its true self to me.

Potential is shorthand for “now you no longer have excuses for not working hard”. You know? It’s the “you got what it takes and it’s all up to you, and only you!” It is not the end-all to your 9-to-5, but may very well be the beginning of a brand new 24/7/365. Especially for everyone who’s come up with a great new idea, an idea with amazing potential, and for everyone who decides to chase his or her dream and turn that great idea into hard, shiny reality.

Why am I writing this?

Well, mostly because I have seen all too many enthusiastic young people, talking about too many great new ideas. Startups upon startups, who are so enthusiastic about their fancy concepts, which will definitely carry them to greatness and wealth, mostly by way of silly VCs who are, somehow, willing to simply throw money at them for their ideas.

For their potential.

Probably everyone has seen Southpark’s Startup episode “Go Fund Yourself.” Or heard about it. If not – you should. Also, everyone should read at least one or two first-person accounts of startup failures. Such as “How quitting my corporate job for my startup dream f*cked my life up” or “Seven lessons I learned from the failure of my first startup, Dinnr.”

Potential does not equal success. More often than not, it equals having to take a first step. Out of your comfort zone. Which, in the case of business ideas, means taking a risk.

– – – –

Image by michelhrv

The other FOMOsexuals and wearable technology

smartRemember when the smartphones came? It wasn’t long ago, yet it feels like forever. I’ve personally owned more than 10 fulltime smart devices over the past decade, so it feels like I’ve had a smartphone my entire life. Every other month something new comes out, with better specs, better software, surprising new capabilities, wonderful novel materials, sometimes even advances in battery technology (or at least battery life)…

We are drawn to new devices, lest we miss out on all the rage. More RAM and multicore CPUs mean better performance of the software (hence – less waiting for things to load). Better cameras turn us into better photographers. Apps allow us to share and connect at all times. (Seriously, have you noticed how every other tech startup has something to do with sharing?)

We don’t need them. Usually. We desire them. We live in FOMO – Fear Of Missing Out. On all the fun, all the vogue, the newness and hipness of that new smartphone.

Or smartwatch.

Or smartglass.

Or smartband…

The once all-in-one smart devices are now branching out, shedding functionalities onto various spinoffs, better suited for their nominal purposes. It’s definitely easier to receive notifications on a small gadget, generally worn on your face and before your eyes. And it’s simpler to detect one’s heartbeat via a wrist-worn device with the respective sensors, discreetly blended into its wristband.

We are used to living in FOMO; we anticipate and crave updates and upgrades – even if none are needed – to hardware and software, to device configurations and designs. And we are now entering an age where a larger paradigm shift will have us waiting just as impatiently – if not more so – for the next wearable module (or device) that works with (or instead of) our smartphone. Because an AiO smartphone is already outdated – soon to be obsolete – and could not possibly perform all those many functions that the fabled IoT – or even IoE – seems to necessitate.

This Smithian division of device functionality has been naturally born out of the evolution of focused, objective-specific mobile apps. Such as when geolocation apps went jogging. Or when social networks branched out into niche social apps – most notably social (or social-based) dating apps.

Zoosk, Badoo, OkCupid, POF, Grouper, Tinder, Grindr, 3nder, Blendr…

Interestingly, with the help of these easy-to-use and, generally, fun-to-use mobile apps (and their web-based ancestors), FOMO seems to have transcended above plain technological desires and has entered the delicate realm of intimate relationships.

Again, we have learned to anticipate and crave updates and upgrades, but, now, what we have to leave behind are the outdated – maybe soon to be obsolete – relationships and people, whose novelty seems to have worn out all too quickly. We have let ourselves become fickle and capricious. Newness and its challenges have become so ingrained into our lives that we seem to have lost the ability to sink deep into a relationship and let it engulf us, like a huge bed full of down pillows…

Just sinking in and letting the pillows take and preserve our warmth, relaxing, feeling supported, enveloped in familiarity and comfort…

We are all too eager to give it all up when presented with the potential to find someone new, different – maybe even better! Yes! Better! What if there is someone better for me out there, whom I am going to let slip by, just because I have settled for comfort? Just because I have decided that being with someone means compromise for both of us? What if I miss out on all of that potential out there?


This is the other FOMOsexuality*.

Well, then, if our intimate relationships so follow the pattern of mobile devices and applications, I cannot help but wonder:

Would we be able to consciously – and happily – create the perfect modular, intimate relationship? You know – one person for perfect sex, another for marvelous companionship, a third person to passionately love, a fourth to be unconditionally loved by…

No more missing out!

Would we?

– – – –

*For reference, FOMOsexuality is usually defined as staying with the obviously wrong person, for fear of not being able to find someone better.

mundane magic


Every waking hour we experience magic. It appears contemporary and is extremely mundane, and while we inevitably fail to recognize it as such, it is there and it is magic. Every 30 or so minutes (depending on local regulations) a new organized burst of magic comes to pass by means of public media – simultaneously sprinkling pixie dust over thousands of people, largely unbeknownst to them (as to them it is just humdrum). It’s a sort of modern voodoo, a ritual of pagan descent, homoeopathic and contagious magic, a veritable spell that enchants us over and over again, hiding under the banal (thus allegedly benevolent) silhouette of advertising.

Shampoo-conditioner with pearl extract and cashmere oil” the TV proclaims, and you just know that you have to purchase this product of modern cosmetic science in order to have cashmere-soft hair and the complementary pearly shimmer.

All-natural whole-grain crackers” the ad reads, and you are convinced that you have to eat a pack a day of these little miracle-workers, in order to balance your intestinal flora.

A venerable occurrence of sympathetic magic, this demonstrates both contagious and homoeopathic magic in a split second.

– Properties are transferred by means of contiguity.
– Like yields like.

(By the way, what is “pearl extract”?)

Peoples have been known, throughout history and geography, to consume a divine being – indirectly, by means of an effigy – in order to imbibe a portion of its deific spirit. This tradition has found multiple incarnations and variants, but it is inevitably tied to the transfer of qualities, typically perceived as virtuous, from an entity, which possesses them in higher concentrations, to an individual (or a group), who desires to acquire them.

The qualities may include strength, courage, speed, endurance, youth, beauty, among others.

While one can hardly speak of divine shampoo, or holy whole-grain crackers, the homoeopathic link is, indeed, quite evident in modern marketing approaches and product (and brand) perception. Naturally, consumption in the case of cosmetic products is reduced to regular application (thus – combined with contagion magic), however, in the case of comestibles, it is, indeed, a matter of direct consumption. In fact, recent healthy-living crazes can, without a doubt, be distilled down to bouts of Mother-Gaia-centric practical magic. It’s a simple equation: consume (foodstuffs from) Mother Gaia (herself – the embodiment of purity and Nature), and you shall become as pure and natural a being as Nature herself.

While in some cases the consumption of goods can be viewed as a means of obtaining properties, pertaining to their ingredients (hair as soft as cashmere, skin as smooth as silk/milk, etc.) – homoeopathic magic, there is also strong evidence for contiguity-based pattern of inheritance (or acquisition). This can most easily be seen in the ever so popular field of wellness – especially when one takes a look at the many, mostly scientifically-unproven (or disproven), weight loss and “rejuvenation” products. More often than not, the claims behind their miraculous potency are directly tied to stories of indigenous peoples who are known for their longevity, endurance and – you guessed it! – non-obesity.

What can be observed in such instances is a real-life metaphor, where the {random exotic} berry stands for the {random exotic} tribe, whose abs are always visible, who never get tired, and who only need a handful of food, in order to function an entire week. (Also, the berries suppress appetite!) Here, contagious magic does its wonderful job, by taking the berries as a vector, which, in turn, having been consumed (touched) by the exotic tribe, will act as a carrier of this “virus” of well-being and slenderness, to anyone, willing to act as a receptacle. This is not direct, but mediated contagion, but still, it is believed to fulfill its purpose, since the vector is on the one hand a carrier of the effect, while also being a cause – albeit unproven.

Another instance of magical contagion – probably the most obvious of all – can be observed in plain old celebrity endorsement. Yes, we will all agree that a reason celebrity-endorsed brands utilize the celebrity is to gain credibility – i.e. “this product actually works, otherwise [popular sports star] would never use it!” However, one should not easily dismiss the product’s vector quality; here, once again, it could be a cause-and-vector relationship (“Maybe she’s born with it?”), but without the product acting as a carrier, the celebrity endorsement would lose its spark and the brand would get away with just anyone (“Maybe it’s Maybelline.”)

Branding works.

It works magic!

brand implants

brand implants
brand implants

Self-identification & value assignment

While a person may choose to identify him- or herself with any notion, when we examine the notions within a “range” – a category – this puts a natural limit of sorts on the potential number of ideas. While this is rather abstract as a statement, once we carry it onto the realm of marketing, it becomes an inevitable truth; while ideas may, in theory, be countless, brands always fall within a limited, and generally measurable, range. There are X brands of cars, Y brands of chocolate milk, Z brands of tablet computers, etc. And a consumer may choose each and any of these brands, which will, in turn, play its role in shaping the consumer’s own identity.

Purely theoretically, the consumer will be able to pick any number of brands, products or services, even within one and the same category, which will, in turn, help shape his or her social identity. However, a person will assign personal values to the different brands within a single category. Since a brand, in and of itself, is a synthetic construct, it does not possess noumenal value (and, as per Kant, the human mind would not possess the cognizance to know the “thing-in-itself”). It will, therefore, be assigned value as per the personal views and experiences of the individual, as shaped by his or her cultural surroundings (as personal values exist in relation to cultural values). Furthermore, as Saussure asserts, the value of a sign (and what else is a brand?) is determined by the other signs in the same semiotic system (category), in a liaison of relativity, rather than by its own essential substance. In effect, a brand cannot be given (adequate) value outside of its context, said context being all other brands within its category, known to the consumer.

In the context of virtually unlimited access to information, where comparison-, suggestion- and review-based shopping services have sprung up and blossomed, a single customer can, and often does, rely on more than just an informed guess regarding a product or brand he or she is interested in. Respectively, shopping research not only informs the potential buyer about the brand being pursued, but also broadens the category, against which he or she can assign value to the specific item, by bringing additional brands to the category. This, again, makes it harder to assign ample value to the product or brand considered, and makes choice much harder, turning it (I recommend “The Paradox of Choice” by Barry Schwartz) into a chore. That is, unless the person is a fan (or a member of the tribe, as per Seth Godin) of that particular brand; then things tend to appear different.

Once a person is a member of a certain tribe, or a fan of a brand (or sports team, party, etc.), that person’s experience regarding the (nucleus of) the tribe tends to differ from that of a non-fan, or a neutral party. This is documented by Dan Ariely in “Predictably Irrational”, where he describes an experiment, in which the subjects’ physical (neurological) reaction to the stimuli depended on the brand to which they were being subjected; more precisely, the pleasure centers of the brain were activated when subjects were told they are being given Coke, more so than when given Pepsi.

Fandom & faith

Being a fan is described by the Merriam-Webster dictionary as being “an enthusiastic devotee” or “an ardent admirer or enthusiast.” Fandom not simply expresses a positive emotional connection towards the object of fan-affection; it is actually built upon and from this fondness. Being a fan predisposes a person to expect positive experiences regarding the object of his or her fandom. In fact, fandom is a link between past positive experiences, especially compared to other similar experiences (again – assigning value based on comparison), and the expectation, and even anticipation, of future positive experiences. And as Ariely points out, “positive expectations allow us to enjoy things more and improve our perception of the world around us.” Based on the cola experiment he describes, as well as on a series of other experiments he discusses in his book, he concludes that positive expectations allow for more positive experiences. We can, on our turn, venture that, since positive expectations are based on past positive experience, this model of fandom can be self-perpetuating, as each following experience, aided by the anticipation of a positive experience, will again be perceived as a positive experience. Becoming a fan, ultimately, leads to being a fan. In fact, this can be observed in sports fans, especially soccer and football, where the fan-base of a certain team will continue to give their support to the team even if it has been on a long losing streak.

It should be noted that, not surprisingly, this statement holds true for negative expectations as well. Indeed, our premonitions of our experiences will influence these very experiences. This is all due to the fact that the human mind categorizes everything it perceives, in order to be able to recognize it, and to be able to utilize it. Expectations are, really, the basis of stereotypes. And “a stereotype, after all, is a way of categorizing information, in the hope of predicting experiences. The brain cannot start from scratch at every new situation” (Ariely, again).

The occurrence of increased gratification and positive expectations is further reinforced by belonging to a social group – in this case, to a fandom. The phenomenon of “group polarization” is a key concept in social psychology, which also explains why belonging to a larger group of fans tends to further strengthen the positive outlook with regard to the group’s “target”. This phenomenon can be described as a shift of the median tendency toward its extreme. Social group dynamics predispose a person to change his or her initial opinion in two general ways: when the choice (or opinion) of the majority is known and evident, a person is more likely to change his or her opinion so that it more closely resembles the attitude of the group; or when a person’s choice (or opinion) in an argument is supported by a group (or a subset within a group), his or her opinion is likely to strengthen and even shift to its extreme.

Respectively, if a person belongs to a fandom, his or her attitude toward the nucleus of the group will be perpetuated by the very circumstance of belonging to a group of fans (a form of groupthink). On the other hand, if a person belongs to one of two conflicting groups – for example Apple “fanboys” vs. Microsoft supporters – the very dichotomy will shift his or her attitude further along the axis, closer to the extreme he or she was already inclined to support. In both cases, the connection between the nucleus and its perception by the person will be strengthened.

The aforementioned colas study, demonstrating the dopamine link between brands and consumer experience, can be further complemented by a documentary shot by the BBC, “Secrets of the Superbrands”, in which it was shown, with the help of MRI imaging, that the brand Apple – images of their products in this case – invoked activity in the same parts of Apple fans’ brains as images of deities did for religious people. This only goes to show that the constant, self-enforcing cycle of positive past experiences and positive expectations, combined with the demonstration of shared ideas and values, can lead to an amalgamation as strong as religion. Even more, this connection can go as deep as faith: incorporate trust, hope and belief in one fruitful relationship.

Faith is, ultimately, what differentiates a loyal fan from a utility consumer. Faith that the brand stands for the same ideas and ideals as him; faith that future experiences will be as positive as past; faith that this exact brand signifies what the consumer stands for. And, naturally, once a person’s interaction with a brand reaches this Faith-state, then, it could be argued, the fan’s perception of the brand transcends above rationality. This is where convictions turn into belief. This is the ultimate customer loyalty.

The Faith-state is, however, only a marker for a more comprehensive change that takes place in a consumer’s mind. What really happens is a change in the individual perception of pre-existing cultural significations.

In her book “Managing Cultural Differences: Strategies for Competitive Advantage”, Lisa Hoecklin attempts to present a structural view of what culture is, building upon the ideas of Geert Hofstede:

  1. A shared system of meanings.
  2. Relative.
  3. Learned.
  4. About groups.

Hoecklin also offers a three-tier pyramid model, directly adapted from Hofstede, illustrating the ascending constructive relationship between Human nature (universal / biological), Culture (specific to groups / learned), and Personality (specific to individuals / inherited and learned), where each of the levels is built upon, and dependent on, the preceding stage.

Personal culture is, admittedly, shaped mainly by societal culture in combination with individual experience. Cultural signs tend to bear secondary significance with respect to the societal “pool” to which they are native. What an event, or an object, connotes in one culture, may be completely different from what it connotes in another, albeit the primary denotation may be one and the same.

For some people, meat at the dinner table could mean that someone killed an innocent animal, while for others it could mean that they will live to see another day.

Naturally, personal culture generally exists within a society and, more often than not, abides by the society’s overall guidelines. However, every person’s individual culture is different from that of other people within the same society, even within the same micro-society, depending on that person’s own experience – imagine an ordinary western-type family with two children, one of whom has gone vegan. This clearly demonstrates that cultural significations and perceptions can differ and even change; they are malleable.

Value surrogacy

This is a beneficial precondition for brands, as it allows them to interpose their own ideas between a person and his or her ideals, effectively leading to juxtaposition between the two, and, in the end, to adopting the former in lieu of the latter. For example, a person, who values creativity, might have adopted Apple’s products as a surrogate. In fact, this is one of the main notions when discussing the brand Apple: it stands for creativity.

This replacement of ideas by brands is possible largely due to a peculiarity stemming from a distinctive way we tend to use language – the metaphor: the formation of a novel sign through the combination of the signifier of one pre-existing sign and the signified of another. Thanks to this active semiosis, we manage to express ourselves with hundreds and thousands of words, instead of millions – what Richard H. Robbins calls the “economy” of language. This mode of language usage is so common and habitual that Roman Jakobson claims it is perhaps the core principle of our communication (along with metonymy). What this effectively means is that our mundane use of metaphors in everyday communication has made them easy to create and ever so hard to notice; metaphors are oftentimes perceived as primary signs, instead of signs constructed out of other, pre-existing signs.

What this leads to is the fact that the regularity with which we use metaphors creates a habitude, which, in turn, makes it easy to digest even new metaphors, and difficult to recognize customary, time-tested metaphors. Once this transfer of words and meanings has become habitual, it is no longer regarded as a metaphor; it becomes a primary implement. The connotation gains broader consensus, so much so that it transcends to denotational status – a process based on the general structuralist view that no meaning is, in fact, literal, and that denotation is but connotation, which enjoys broader consensus. In a similar way, aided by this said habituality of metaphorization, the substitution of products and brands for cultural values has become commonplace and this very routine has overcome any barriers that we may have otherwise had against such value surrogacy; again, connotation (brand) has reached a general (prevailing) consensus (convention), thus becoming tantamount to denotation (cultural value).

Thus, a person using Apple products believes that he or she is fond of, or even devoted to, creativity, and also “broadcasts” that conviction to his or her peers.

Value surrogacy is exploited by quite a few brands – the entire marketing and advertising industry has managed to contrive a scheme for hijacking pre-existing ideas, ideals and even values. Remember Bernays’ “torches of freedom”?

Consuming a brand is, in its essence, an act of expression. To the consumer, expressing him or herself through the utilization of brands substitutes an actual idea or value, both within his or her own self-perception, as well as within the image he or she “radiates” toward the surrounding world – the peers. Furthermore, by substituting products for certain cultural traits, the brands successfully immure themselves within a person’s very identity throughout his or her life, since a person’s identity is, rather than a persistent and complete entity, a constantly evolving and changing thing. We are all “programmed”, as we live and grow, by the society to which we belong – from the notions of virtue and malice, to ugliness and beauty, to the very act of interacting with other human beings. It is precisely these “layers of cultural programming” (Hoecklin) that the brands tap into, in order to parasitize on them, and to eventually engorge and replace them in the cultural “program” of an individual.

Respectively, it is through the aforementioned process of value substitution that the product – the surrogate value – is effectively embedded within a person’s own individual culture. It becomes one of his or her private (personal, individual) cultural values, which have been, respectively, shaped by the cultural values appurtenant to the society this individual belongs to. Once implanted, this value substitution becomes habitual and not only indicative of the person’s individual beliefs, but also significant as to his or her cultural appurtenance. In other words, a brand becomes not only a facet of identity, but also a symbol of cultural endorsement and social belonging; in a culture, where freedom is valued, any symbol of freedom will be just as valuable (an approach frequently used by politicians by substituting various different ideas and actions for the values of freedom and patriotism).

A brand can become a part of you.