OPTIMAL USER EXPERIENCE
Cheryl Harris, Ph.D.
Cheryl Harris 2001. All rights reserved.
customer is the foundation of a business and keeps it in existence.
Because it is its purpose to create a customer, any business
enterprise has two - and only these two - basic functions: Marketing
and innovation." Peter Drucker, The Practice of Management.
research- and customer-centric approach recommended in this brief
is designed to facilitate the relationship that will be built, and
hopefully, maintained, with customers over time. A website should
be seen as a vehicle for converting customers to "brand evangelists",
the most effective form of marketing. A "Brand Evangelist" or "Brand
Fan" is one that has a consistent and overwhelmingly positive experience
each time he interacts with the brand/company/website, and is highly
motivated to share his positive experience with others. This is
clearly the most powerful form of marketing and one that the internet
is uniquely positioned to facilitate. Yet few companies know how
to build an online brand that is oriented toward creating and replicating
of thinking of products as fixed items with set features and a
one-time sales value, companies now think of them as 'platforms'
for all sorts of upgrades and value-added services… The idea is
to use the platform as a beachhead, as a way of establishing a
physical presence in the customer's home or place of business.
That presence allows the vendor to begin an ongoing relationship
with the customer." Jeremy Rifkin (Wharton School Executive Education
Program), The Industry Standard, 3/2/00, p. 205.
There is increasing evidence in the era of intense pressure for
internet companies to show quick profits and high customer conversion
rates, that attention to Relationship Equity values result in a
greatly increased Lifetime Value (LTV) of a customer. Young & Rubicam's
well-known "Brand Asset Valuator" study, first released in 1998,
studied the brand assets of both successful/emerging/momentum brands
and brands that appeared to be failing or declining. Y&R discovered
that four factors made the greatest independent contributions to
brand (and hence, sales) success.
brand success factors were, ranked in order of their importance:
was careful to point out that the success factors they revealed
in their analysis of profitable and "momentum" companies stand in
direct opposition to the success factors assumed to underpin effective
marketing in the past. In the current marketplace, buyers have much
less time to seek out products at the same moment as many more products
are available and competing for the purchaser's dollar. Buyers use
the purchase decision moment, and the sales cycle in general, to
achieve personal distinction or "identity difference". They look
first at the brand for its uniqueness or "specialness" and must
be assured that it is highly differentiated before they begin to
evaluate its personal relevance to them. This is indeed a big difference
in buying behavior from the past.
for the brand is built from experience with it, but will never be
accomplished without satisfying the customer's differentiation and
personal relevance goals first. Only lastly is product knowledge
(what used to be called "brand awareness") a factor in brand success.
According to this study, regarded by many as groundbreaking, merely
knowing about the brand is far from assuring its success. Eventually,
a mature "leadership" brand achieves high rankings on each of the
success factors, but the hierarchy of importance described above,
if reversed, signals a declining or failing brand.
would we apply this model and create measurable success factors
that can be used to track its brand development as the online venture
matures? First, many sites have built their business plans upon
the assumption that each holds a highly differentiated brand. However,
true brand penetration, in terms of traditional awareness/exposure
measures, is probably quite low and in any case significantly less
than the market that the brand now wishes to address by going online.
There appears to be no objective measure demonstrating that the
brand is perceived as highly differentiated even within its circle
of brand-aware readers. Of course, this assumption and many others
could be tested with a properly administered market research program.
Bottom line: all website strategists must think carefully about
how it will clearly communicate its brand uniqueness and not assume
that its identity attributes are already known or understood.
second most important success factor, Relevance, can be manipulated
partly by rigorously controlling the quality of the user experience
once a potential customer initiates an interaction with the brand
and also by careful market messaging that targets by segment or
user type. This targeting must be precise, and must present an argument
for personal relevance of the brand/products for the individual
user in terms that are "natural" to the user. Again, the degree
of certainty and the mitigation of risk of this marketing approach
is greatly increased by appropriate research that confirms the user
segments and each segment's personal relevance criteria. We must
understand how each user type evaluates a brand/product in the target
category, verify each criteria and process used, refine these into
messages, and test the communicative effectiveness of these messages.
Furthermore, as previously stated, we need much more information
concerning the channels (and their perceived credibility/relevance)
which each user type looks to as a source for brand/product information
within the target category. This research must be quite specific
in order to be effective. Esteem will be built by managing customer
interactions with a high standard of excellence - we'll shortly
discuss some tactics for establishing relationships effectively.
brand knowledge could be argued to be an artifact of proper management
and growth of the other three success factors. To establish widespread
brand knowledge by itself requires huge marketing spending and is
almost always a mistake in and of itself. One has only to look back
at the dot-com advertising spending excesses of the past few years,
and the correspondingly low return-on-investment (ROI) to see ample
evidence of the futility of building simple brand awareness without
delivering on these other three success factors. The Y&R model,
which advocates brand building on the other three levels first,
does in this light appear to be the more fiscally sound.
model for capturing and holding customer attention is suggested
by research conducted over a 10-year period by the author. In this
view, complementary to the Y&R perspective on brand-building, customers
learn to bond with a company within an interaction continuum. The
process is quite similar to the journey which a "fan" undertakes
as he/she establishes an initial "connection" with an object or
subject of interest (be it rock star, movie star, athlete or sports
team….) and gradually moves the interest forward across a spectrum
of activities and actions. Applying the model to the branding and
customer relationship process provides a means of moving the customer
through this bonding process and managing satisfaction with the
relationship at each phase.
of Specific Initiatives in Building the Brand
--->IDENTIFICATION ----> RELATIONSHIP ----> COMMUNITY
that a brand takes steps to better and more comprehensively identify
and understand its user types, and is able to create and align its
marketing messaging with this knowledge (and of course, deploy it
effectively) it will have the opportunity to stimulate product trial
and thereafter develop longterm and profitable relationships with
these new customers.
simple continuum illustrated above is an illustration of the major
relationship-building (and therefore, Brand Building) touchpoints
which the website user experience is in a position to stimulate
Incentives to trial (in this case, indicators of trial are visits
to the site…) will be primarily driven by choosing the proper messaging
channels and targeting appropriate messages to potential customers
within those channels. However, customer trial can be further motivated
by making it clear that …
product/service features are generated from in-depth market knowledge
and feedback from users like me
site visitors, even first-timers, have an opportunity to contribute
site is 100% error-free and clearly built with an ease-of-use
goal in mind from the ground up
site's homepage reinforces the individual user's "personal relevance"
evaluation by reiterating what is there for the user, in terms
the user will understand and with which she will be identify
site offers personalization/customization options even to a first-time
visitor, and clearly explains the benefits.
process should be quick, painless, and error-free. Once a user
invests the time to establish a custom experience with the site,
the likelihood of repeat visits more than quadruples. Once the
initial trial barrier has been overcome, the site must maximize
the potential for a return visit.
mentioned above, personalization/customization options are utilized
by relatively few website visitors, but once a visitor is pushed
to participate in building a custom experience for herself using
the site's tools, and assuming that the process meets the criteria
described above for ease of use, the likelihood of returning and
therefore repeat usage and further movement along the sales cycles
Identification Successful Brand/Product trial should lead the user
to a positive evaluation of the initial experience - and the challenge
then is to provide a context in which the user can begin to personally
identify with the site and brand. This can happen (and be encouraged)
on many levels - ideally, the user finds content and experiences
that meet or exceed her personal relevance criteria, that are immediately
useful and speak to an immediate perceived need. Personalization
and customization options, reinforced by proactive content (such
as an emailed newsletter or alert program) can go a long way toward
solidifying the user's sense of personal identification with the
acceptance stage should move the user toward the next stage of involvement,
which is: Relationship.
In this stage, the user attempts to build a relationship with the
brand, either through regular usage/visitation or through a transaction
such as a purchase. For most brands, this is a fragile encounter
because the potential for small errors to destroy the relationship
is high. Poor customer service is probably the most efficient killer
of relationship potential at this stage, and this is often cited
as the prevailing reason many e-commerce companies fail. It is rare
that a customer, particularly in an online environment where it
is quite easy for competitors to offer trial and identification
opportunities, will attempt another transaction after having been
disappointed in an initial transaction trial. Yet if the service
arena is planned and managed carefully, the brand can cement a relationship
and assure a higher Lifetime Value (LTV) for that customer during
the few moments it takes to complete a positive transactional experience
through its online systems.
The company must clearly work hard to make the customer experience
optimal from beginning to endpoint, and this is decidedly a challenge
for a small company stretched thin by many other activities. The
ways in which a company can excel in customer experience include:
Insuring that the website exemplifies the highest standards of
usability and user experience throughout, and has truly been conceived
and built with customer-centric values and knowledge
The site deploys multiple levels of customer support, multiple
methods, and escalates problems appropriately and immediately
Insuring that the site uses all appropriate devices to reassure
and protect the customer throughout the sales cycle and in each
The company establishes a regular customer satisfaction research
program and routinely tracks customer satisfaction in a variety
of ways, including follow-up immediately after a transaction (even
if the transaction is incomplete)
Transactions are "guided" - clear step-based or one-step action
is used, and the customer has the sense of being aided during
the entire transaction as well as having help available after,
Setting customer satisfaction objectives and making certain that
these are clearly understood throughout the organization; employees
must be incentivized based on customer satisfaction results.
Customer feedback, on an ongoing basis, is available to everyone
in the company. · Everyone in the company feels that they are
in touch with the customer and have impact on customer satisfaction,
whether they are directly involved with customers or not.
Customer satisfaction ratings are consistently favorable in all
the key areas: service quality, product quality, product selection,
pricing, and convenience.
Customers clearly see how to give feedback and are presented with
opportunity · The site protects the customer's privacy and security
at the highest level of implementation and uses best tools/safeguards
to maintain privacy/security. Plus, the site makes sure it gets
the word out about its efforts in this area.
The company uses customer feedback and all related data to make
improvements on a continual basis. It doesn't just collect data
- it actively seeks to interpret and apply learning based on what
customers say they need and want. The company takes steps to insure
the quality of feedback they are getting as well, such as hiring
research professionals to design customer feedback/satisfaction
tracking programs, so that the data they collect is as valid and
reliable as possible.
important is a clear plan for what happens when things have gone
wrong. The company must establish clear policies of problem escalation
that are understood throughout the organization, virtually all employees
must have power to take steps to escalate and solve customer problems,
customers must be shielded from difficulties in resolving problems,
and employees should be rewarded for creatively solving customer
there is a real challenge in providing this level of customer service
within the small organization. Some companies have successfully
outsourced certain aspects of customer service (organizations such
as www.ivus.com exist to "timeshare" customer service support) but
this can be problematic as it creates a division in responsibility
and it is difficult to integrate the outsourcer's efforts and policies
with those of the brand.
the service structure which it finds viable, it must set the priorities
of its customer relationship management and defend them vigorously
and without interruption.
online usership is mainstreaming, users and particularly business
users as currently conceptualized are upscale and affluent, almost
without exception, and will have very high expectations of service.
This is the one area which - if improperly managed - could easily
destroy both the brand and its growth potential. This danger cannot
that the customer's transaction experience is favorable, the company
has the chance to build loyalty - repeat transaction opportunities.
This of course has a positive influence on sales growth, but perhaps
more importantly for the bottom line is the subsequent opportunity
to stimulate the customer to become a Brand Fan. Brand Fans promote
the brand on their own and with evangelical fervor. They seek out
increasingly higher forms of identification and relationship with
the brand, and with other brand users. They become interested in
and utilize community forums associated with the brand. The positive-
and powerful- word of mouth that Brand Fans create is very often
the "secret ingredient" that propels companies into hyper-growth,
what Y&R called "Momentum Brands".
this stage, called in the example continuum the "Community" stage,
the customer is looking for opportunities to increase their commitment
to the brand, and the company should have planned to provide appropriate
venues for this. Steps that the company can take include:
relevant community or communities within the site that are precisely
targeted toward the types of customers, their needs/desires, and
which allow them to create relationships with other emerging brand
fans. An example of this are forums or other environments where
synchronous or asynchronous communication can occur. These could
be carefully seeded, themed, and tools such as collaborative filtering
could also be used to assign customers to certain communities
and enhance their experiences.
Providing increasingly personalized experiences, such as advanced
personalization options or premium tiers of service based on known
characteristics of individual customers.
Creating opportunities for the customer to develop a "curated
consumption of the brand" - "fans" seek out opportunities to display
their brand identification through such channels as acquiring
or buying and using branded merchandise (t-shirts with the company
logo, tote bags, notebooks, etc.), patronizing sponsored company
events, identifying with brand-related personalities, and collecting
memorabilia. This element of customer relationship management
sounds simplistic, but it is powerful and should not be underestimated
as a tool. The key is to offer the "curated consumption" opportunity
at the right time and to the right customer. Very influential
brand evangelists can be developed with this strategy.
The company should provide incentives for customers to engage
in forms of "viral marketing." The online brokerage industry,
for example, has found its customer referral programs ("customer
get a customer") to be very effective, given the proper incentives,
which can usually be offset as a reduction of fee (discounts on
purchases) or upgrade to a premium tier of service. The company
should take steps to create and nurture an ongoing relationship
by deploying multiple forms of contact outside the website: for
example, emailed newsletters, invitation-only events, gifts for
reaching milestones, Direct Mail contact, opt-in promotions, and
passing on special benefits as a result of partnerships, etc.
is interesting that the recent "internet bust" has presented opportunities
for "old line brick and mortar companies" to make inroads in the
online world. These companies have traditionally and heavily leveraged
market research as a way of reducing risk and leading research &
development decisions. Their strategies as they move into online
environments will include research programs aimed at precisely matching
customer needs with online products and experiences. They are unlikely
to design from a visceral, arrogant "they'll like whatever we give
them" standpoint (as so many internet companies, to their detriment,
have done) and will also carefully track the effectiveness of all
design, feature, and functionality elements as they relate to sales,
profitability, and growth targets.
Harris, Ph.D., is an experienced e-business executive and entrepreneur,
as well as a respected educator. A former professor at California
State University and Parsons School of Design, New York, a published
author and frequent international public speaker, she is well-known
as one of the leaders in user experience and usability research.
In 1996 she founded Northstar Interactive, an online research
and consulting firm, and led the firm to its successful acquisition
in February, 2000. Northstar developed web-based software and
usability tools and consulted on strategy + design issues for
such clients as Procter & Gamble, Motorola, Sprint, IBM, Netscape,
Sony, AT&T, Time Warner, Roadrunner, Ogilvy & Mather, Grey,
Modemmedia, Monsterboard, Mastercard, Citibank, eBay, Office.com,
Insweb, Ziff Davis, Conde Nast, NBC, HBO, Discovery, and CNBC.
She was also SVP, Interactive Strategy at Datek Online where
her redesign of the online brokerage's site resulted in a doubling
of customer accounts in less than four months. The new site
was recognized or received top awards from Money magazine, TheStreet.com,
Gomez Advisors, PC Computing, Red Herring, and several others.
She is on the boards of several institutions, including the
Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, the University of Massachussets
IT initiative, WNET reelnewyork, and is a juror for several
digital media festivals. Her publications include three books:
An Internet Education (International Thomson Press, 1996) Theorizing
Fandom (Hampton Press, 1998) as well as numerous articles. She
received her Ph.D. from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst