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UX should not be just a digital experience

In the tech space, UX has become this ambiguous term: part product design, part marketing, part user research, part visual design, so on and so forth. Let’s pause for a second, and consider what exactly “user experience” really means:

The goal of user experience design in industry is to improve customer satisfaction and loyalty through the utility, ease of use, and pleasure provided in the interaction with a product.

Which begs the question, what is the product?

As I progress in my design career, I find my beliefs have shifted away from the old-school model where products and brand were two separate entities. In fact, with the invention of modern technology, our demands for brand transparency have grown to the point where we are reverting back to “small town rules.”

Simply put: if your brand doesn’t do the right thing by the consumer, everyone will know and your business will suffer. That being said, I’ve come to the conclusion that user experience, product, and brand, are rapidly merging into one.

User Experience = Brand = Product

There are many implications for brick and mortar operations here. UX design needs to be applied from start to finish. Every interaction an end-user has with the brand needs to be carefully considered.

Consider the following scenario:

It’s a wonderful blustering 40º night in New York. I quietly watch lazy street lamps pass slowly out the passenger side window. The dreaded check engine light had come on a couple days ago (triggered by a my poor maintenance habits I assume) and my fear of getting stranded overthrew my dislike for visiting the mechanic. My boyfriend stepped in (as he typically does in these situations) and said let’s go get the code read, and pick up the oil.

Excellent. Side stepped that landmine.

We pull into a dimly lit parking lot with a storefront outfitted in dingy orange and white. The store looks like it has seen better days. Two little sad windows flank the decrepit front door. I feel slightly apprehensive, but it’s too late to turn back now.

He gingerly reaches over and kills the ignition. After a couple minutes of scrambling to collect my various items, we go in.

The store is clean enough, a small stack of flyers to the left of the entrance tells of which items are on sale this week. We grab one and thumb through on our way to grab oil. The shelves are lined with rows upon rows of day-glo bottles organized in no particular order at all. The choices are almost overwhelming. Luckily, my boyfriend-the-expert steps in, selects the correct item and sets about looking for the oil filter next.

“Where are they” I hear him whisper softly to himself. Looking to the left and right of where we were standing, he grew quickly aggravated. A short walk to the opposite side of the store reveals a whole wall of various colored boxes, each promising to contain the most long-lasting, cost effective, and top quality oil filter.

“Let’s check the book so we can grab it, I forget which filter we need.”

Where’s the book? Sighing in mild annoyance, he shifts the bottle of oil into a more comfortable position under his arm and proceeds to the front of the store, where we are greeted pleasantly by a young man.

We ask him where the book might be so that perhaps we can locate the correct part we need. The young man we’ll call Mike said “I’m not sure, but I can look it up for you. We used to have one but I haven’t seen it in a while.”

We nod politely. And so Mike asks us the usual questions: what make, model, year, engine size, etc. It takes 5 minutes to finally find the correct part number, 10 minutes to locate it within the store, and another 10 minutes for the program to unseize itself long enough to complete the check out transaction. Finally, we make it out of the store. The entire transaction took at least 25 minutes longer than it should have.

Truthfully, the entire situation wasn’t the worst shopping experience I have ever had. But it was definitely unpleasant enough for me to not want to return to the store.

Now, the interesting thing is I could have easily gone onto this store’s mobile website, order the part, and picked it up in under 5 minutes. And saved myself the aggravation of the in-store experience.

Let’s think about this for a minute. I could have shopped for the world’s most common car part on my phone and had an exponentially better shopping experience than I had in store.

How does this major chain auto part store not recognize this to be a problem?

Correcting User Experience Across the Board

As I transition further into tech world I begin to question the true meaning of UX design. More specifically:

  • Are we focusing too much on improving digital user experiences at the sacrifice of improve in-person experiences?
  • Should user experiences with the brand be consistent across all mediums?
  • Have we forgotten that real-life interactions should also be considered a medium?

I propose we start taking a hard look at the companies we work at (or with), and really consider user experience as an integral part of the product and brand.

Let’s stop paying lip service to how your company “cares about the customer.” You don’t care about the customer if you only care about making better digital user experiences to sell more stuff at the expense of real-world experiences. I might believe you care, if your in-person experiences are just as good as your digital experiences.

User experience is not the same thing as customer service.

We’re talking about the entire experience. From storefront to exit. In my situation, the customer service point of contact did not do anything wrong. He was the most pleasant part of the transaction.

If you read my little story above, here are some of my questions and concerns regarding my user experience:

  • Why was the store so dingy and darkly lit?
  • Why are sales items easier to locate online than in stores?
  • Why are related products not located near one another?
  • Why are products not segmented logically within the display?
  • Why is your computer system so slow in stores it takes an employee so long to locate the correct part number?
  • Why is there no simple way for the end user to locate a car part and find the correct location within the store?

These questions are in no particular order of importance. I am confident if I had this particular experience at this store, it is likely someone else has as well. As a UX designer, I’m not comfortable with the idea of end-users having poor experiences anywhere.

In the digital space, all of these considerations would have been accounted for. There would have been tons of user research into consumer behavior, testing, and design iterations until the UX was perfect. Then, periodic auditing would have occurred, spurring periodic adjustments to compensate for evolving technology and consumer behaviors.

I challenge brands to put a little more care into user experiences across the board. While it may be true you initially had a specialist who helped design stores, how long ago was that? Do you have any teams in place whose sole job is to design the end-user experience? Is this team embedded within the overall UX team? Are you adjusting to the times? Or are your still treating your consumers as you did 10–30 years ago?

A New Approach

Let’s take a step back, and package our brand experiences as part of the end product. Let’s stop treating user experience as the sole responsibility of customer care, and bring culture to the forefront. As a sole proprietor, we believe that who we are is inseparable from our business. You don’t get to lose that care just because your business has grown.

While there is no way to definitively pin point the ROI of improved user experience. But let’s not all be about the numbers and just consider this logically:

Wouldn’t you (personally) patron a business more frequently if you had a good experience instead of a bad one?

If the answer is yes, I strongly urge brands to take a closer look, and start making moves to build a complete story, before you start cannibalizing your own business.

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