Supercharging CX using Nature

Close your eyes and think about your most memorable positive customer experiences (CX) from your past. 

Hopefully you’ve opened your eyes by now.

Now ask yourself, where were you?

Were you working in an office cubicle or classroom?

Were you on an airplane or in your car?

Were you shopping or at a restaurant?

Probably not. I bet most of your great memories were in some way connected to nature.

It might have been that moment of silence on the water or on a tranquil desert mountain peak where you could hear your watch tick-tick-tick. It may have been the crackling of an outdoor fire enjoyed with friends or the sound of the surf hitting the shore. Maybe it was braving the rapids or being out in the crisp chill of autumn amongst rustling leaves and the faint smell of burning leaves. Perhaps it was seeing a shooting star for the first time.

As a species we appear to have a special bond with nature. We have a deep-seated need to connect with mother earth to feed our happiness. In conducting research last year on micro-housing one of the consistent findings from experts and the literature had to do with access to nature. Urban planners advise on giving close access to parks and the outdoors. Experts in urban housing emphasized the importance of access to at least some kind of view of the outside world when confined to small confine spaces. 

Windows in spaceships are expensive and hard to design, yet NASA has consistently afforded astronauts a view of this big blue marble from afar, despite having no real rational need to do so. In fact, the international space offers the Cupola which offers a spectacular 360 view. The Cupola was repeatedly cut off out of the budget for being “unnecessary” only to brought back at a cost of $27 million dollars[1]. Apparently, it is important to have a view, especially when orbiting at 17,130 mph, 254 miles from the surface of the planet.

My interest was further sparked upon learning about biophilic design[2]While I had long held a fascination and respect for environmental design ever since my graduate school days, biophilic design takes this to an entirely different level. The basic idea of biophilic design is this: in architectural design we need to take the outside world (i.e., nature) and bring it inside.

It seems to have some of its origins in the design of zoos. Zookeepers started noticing that the animals in traditional enclosures were, well, unhappy to put it mildly. Many animals sat in corners or hid out of sight without moving. Breeding for many species was a near impossibility. They were in clinical terms; depressed. In the late 1990s zoos started rethinking how they cared for animals. Instead of cages and pens they created habitats for the animals. This had an instant impact on the animals and visitors alike. Animals became healthier both mentally and physically and visitors enjoyed seeing animals in their “natural habitat” even if it was a bit contrived.

We Are Just a Bunch of Animals

At some point we have, for some reason, come to think of our natural habitat as an office building or inside a modern home with artificial air, light, sounds, textures, and smells. It’s not. Notwithstanding the last 200 – 300 years, we have always been mostly outdoor pets. Sure, we might have slept in a shanty or a cave, but we were hunters and gatherers for 95% of existence and then a mostly agrarian society the last 12,000 years. As recently as 1900 more than 60% of Americans lived in rural areas and 40% of Americans lived on farms. Today, less than 20% of the population lives in rural areas, and just 1% live on farms.[3]

With more people now working from home and taking advantage of morning walks or lunchtime strolls, home workers are realizing it’s not just missing the commute that is improving their mood, Many have had time to slow down and literally smell the roses. There is ample evidence we like being outside and that people in rural communities are systematically happier than those living in urban communities. Virtually, every study I have conducted in CX where we can geocode home location, people are just less happy in cities…not just with insurance and coffee…but with life[4].

Likewise, there is growing peer-reviewed research that shows that people live and work in more natural environments enjoy many mental and physical advantages. Data appears to support biophilic designs reducing stress, improving cognition, and learning in Universities, and shortening patient stays in hospitals.[5] Cost saving per employee are estimated by some to be $2,000 per employee per year or $93 million in annual health cares…just by providing views to nature[6].

What it Means for CX

So do we all move to the country farm, commune, or kibbutz? I don’t see that happening. However, there are some pointers we can take and apply to experiential design.

1. Get the Outside, Inside

The implications for a customer experience design are evident. Creating warm inviting natural settings is going to make customers feel better about their experience and want to come back more often. From a retailing standpoint, we can make our retailscapes more appealing by incorporating nature in the design. Ever go to a greenhouse or garden store? It’s filled with living things, that generally make people smile and feel at ease.

Imagine a grocery shopping experience that looked more like a foraging event, then walking down sterile aisles with boxes and boxes of copy and paste “food”. Not possible? A working prototype for this concept is your local farmer’s market. Other stores are experimenting with different aspects of bringing the outside in.

The Apple Store in San Francisco has large trees lined inside the store with earth tones and wood floors. The 360 Mall in Kuwait looks like an indoor forest in places with massive windows allowing natural light to flow in.

Source: WikiCommons

Fashion retailer H&M is experimenting with biophilic designs in their store in Hammersmith, UK with many plants and natural stone floors featured as part of the retail space[7]. Skin, hair, and body care retailer Aesop has beautiful clean stone floors and walls…with some large boulder place strategically which gives a sense of calming and peace[8].

Bass Pro is well known for its amazing indoor tanks and life-like staging of outdoor scenes, complete with real plants (and in the case of fish real animals). Yeti uses campfire scents its Austin flagship to store to get shoppers in the right mood[9]

Source: WikiCommons

Ever wonder why everyone wants to have outdoor seating when the weather is nice or why that little restaurant at the beginning of the Pirates of the Caribbean ride (Blue Bayou) looks so appealing? Nature calls, especially when we are hungry. Restaurant proprietors have taken notice. 

Source: WikiCommons

Agritourism has enjoyed an enormous boom as well and is expected to continue from $70 billion today to $117 billion by 2027[10]. Inclusion of nature into dining has grown substantially and new farm-to-table has also flourished where you can eat your salad literally yards from which it was picked. 

2. Mimic Nature

If you can’t bring nature into your retail and service setting, perhaps an approximate simulation will do. I always enjoyed the beautiful pond and giant bamboo groves embedded in the lobby of Westin at the Detroit Airport. What better way to escape the claustrophobia of the inside of an airplane by walking into a huge Asian inspired atrium. Sure the 60’ timber bamboo grooves are fake, but they look real enough. It provides a peaceful oasis in the middle a bustling and stressful airport.

Furniture providers have caught on too. Whitney Brothers has launched a new study pod for students that features various outdoor scenes and also provides separation from other students in this age of social distancing[11]. While using natural elements is always preferred, sometimes it is not reality or possible, so mimicking nature is the next best thing

3. Use Nature as Analog

We are hardwired to understand aspects of nature. We know red means danger and green generally means good. While there is some social conditioning (such as stop lights), those symbols in turn may be embedded in our genome. Red, is fire, and generally is something you want to be cautious about and green is general something good and positive, such as a nice sprig to chew on. Related, the science of biomimicry[12] uses nature as a teacher on how best design systems and solve problems.

Biomimicry is used to inform control systems as well as designs itself. Research into the humpback wales flippers allowed Whalepower to re-engineer blade design to increase electrical production by 20%.[13] The Wright brothers flying machines was inspired by pigeons. The profile of the B-2 bomber looks almost identical to the profile of a hawk while in flight. Velcro was modeled after annoying burrs from the burdock plant led to the hook and loop structure we use every day[14]. It’s hard to beat millions of years of evolution, so why not use what nature has already learned?

4. Sustainability

In my youth, the sad Mutual of Omaha Native American and Smokey the Bear were the extent of true sustainability consciousness for most Americans. Flicking cigarette butts out the window of your car or ditching garbage on the side of the road was not unusual to witness on American roadways. During most of the 20th century nature was seen by most Westerners as something to conquer, abuse, and use as we please. Thankfully, that sentiment has dramatically changed. 

Sustainability has come to the forefront of companies, governments, and organizations around the world. From biodegradable cups and cutlery to clean energy, the world has slowly turned toward respecting the environment as something that can be damaged and need of care for it to thrive. This has also come to forefront of consumer decision making. In a study conducted by Nielsen, 81% of consumers stated it was “extremely” or “very” important that companies implement programs to improve the environment and nearly 1/3rd said they would be willing to pay a premium to do business with companies that carry through on their sustainability commitment[15]. Customers are now making the decision on where to buy, and not to buy, based on how green the company’s policies and approaches are. Companies that do not embrace this consumer prerogative suffer the consequences.

Naturally Nature

While there are many excellent recommendations on how to create memorable experience in the abstract such as being surprising, emotional, etc., I have noticed relatively little written on what elements to actually use to make those moments memorable. I would submit that including nature in your experiential design is a foundational one. Of course, using nature doesn’t make sense for everything. In some cases, it may be difficult to determine how to incorporate it into your design. However, thinking about the physicality of nature as well as the process of nature may help bring inspiration in rethinking the experience you provide for your customers, members, and employees.



[2] [2] Kllert, S.R., & Calbrese, E.F. (2016). The Pracitce of Biophilic Design. Downloaded from



[5] Peters, T.& D’Penna, K. (2020). Biophilic Design for Restorative University Learning Environments: A Critical Review of Literature and Design Recommendations. Sustainability, 12, p1-17.











Stop Wasting Time on Making CX Frictionless

“Good night Clarence I had a truly w o n d e r f u l evening,” Alabama said on the steps of her front porch on a beautiful August evening.

They had just had a lovely dinner at a fancy restaurant and then enjoyed some live music afterward. The full moon glowed on the couple as cicadas quietly chirped in the distance.

Clarence looked down nervously, anticipating this first date moment of truth and carefully planning his next move. He gathered his courage and his breath and then went for it.

“Alabama?” Clarence stammered as he looked deeply into her eyes.

“Yes, Clarence?” swooned Alabama.

“On a scale of zero through ten, how likely would you be to recommend this date to a friend or relative?”

Sound ridiculous? It is, yet we subject our customers to this kind of non-thinking metric abuse much more often than we should.

That’s not to say measurement isn’t important. It is and is largely responsible for me making my mortgage payment and beer budget for the last 30 years. However, so much time and energy is spent on measurement, I have concluded that most Customer Experience (CX) programs are lacking something else very important.

In Praise of Measurement

One of my favorite management gurus, Peter Drucker, was reputedly fond of saying “only what gets measured, gets managed.” And managed the customer experience has been over the last 50 years, all too often focusing on metrics vs. true outcomes. Most CX programs (many of which are really Voice of the Customer (VOC) programs) focus on asking customers about their experience in very specific terms. They ask how promptly you were greeted or how well was the representative able to answer your questions or resolve your issue. As such, that level of detail has been often the main focus.

While there is a place for the details, perhaps we are being too atomistic and reductionistic in our measurement. I have conducted thousands of ‘driver analyses’ where the independent variables were aspects of the experience (e.g., prompt services, comfort of blah blah blah) where the dependent variable was some form of “overall experience” or “would recommend”. Most of these models come up short on explaining the variance in these outcome measures, even with the benefit of mono-method measurement bias. Why is that?

Attributes vs. Experiences

Imagine for a moment designing a traditional VOC measurement to evaluate your partner or romantic interest. You might provide a rating on attractiveness, witty repartee, intellect, and so on. Does such an approach really provide a good measurement of your interest and attachment to that person? Would it be predictive in continuing the relationship? Probably not. In that scenario you are measuring attributes of your romantic interest, not the experience that you had with them and what makes you look past dirty dishes in the sink or dirty socks left on the floor and instead remember those piña coladas together at O’ Malley’s.

The truth is, most VOC programs are compliance-driven and operate just one rung above mystery shopping programs. While those mystery shopping programs can tell you, with some certainty, is if the bathrooms are clean, and today’s orthodox VOC program will tell you if that cleanliness was pleasing to the customer. What neither of them does is tell how to create an amazing memorable experience in the first place.

Revisiting “Quality”

Noriako Kano (1984) addressed this issue nearly forty years ago with the method now known as the “Kano” model. Building on Herzberg’s (1959) two factor model, he had four “satisfaction drivers”: must-be, attractive, one dimensional, and indifferent. 

“Must-be quality” or “Basic Needs” are those things that we are disappointed by if they are not there (such as a car not turning on). They do nothing to make us love the experience if it is there. They are expected. “One dimensional” quality as known as “Satisfiers” have a linear relationship between satisfaction and the attribute. For example, as price decreases satisfaction increases. “Indifferent” drivers are those that are largely irrelevant to the customer and so, therefore, has little influence on consumer behavior (loyalty or otherwise).

The final dimension is what Kano called “Attractive Quality”. It has also been referred to as “delighters”, these are the unexpected things that happen that make the experience exciting.

Given “basic needs” are satisfied, the “delighter” measurement dimension was seen as the holy grail amongst VOC folks. While you are unlikely to revisit a hotel with no electricity and a lukewarm shower, it is hardly going to make you want to come back just because when you turn the light switch on it works and the water in the shower is warm enough (“must bes”). Also, you can only get the pillow and sheet so soft and get the price so low (“satisfiers”). So “delighting” customers became all the rage. But the measurement of this became somewhat of a challenge.

VOC’s Eldorado…

Delight is after all, by definition, undefined so you can’t exactly put it on a survey. It’s that surprise that you didn’t expect. Some folks tried just measuring it directly, but that tends to be an awkward method and probably does not capture the true essence of delight. For some reason asking, “On a scale of 1 to 10 with 1 being undelighted and 10 being truly delighted, how delighted was the experience today?” doesn’t seem to cut it. Others have tried a more organic approach by asking open ends about “most memorable” experiences to limited success.

The true problem in measuring delight in this fashion is that it cannot be measured at the atomistic level nor should it be measured as an attribute, but as an experience as a whole. In fact, I don’t think you can directly measure “delight” at all. You must create delight, not be preoccupied with measuring it.

While traditional CX metrics have a critical role in assessing the success of these experiments, as an industry we have become too dependent on fixing problems versus creating experiences. You’re not going to frictionless your way to creating memorable “peak” experiences. While you could probably capture what happened via voice to text and text analytics, the only way to measure it really, is as a behavioral intention or business outcome.

Designing Experiences

As an industry we need to put less emphasis on compliance and incremental improvement and more focus on experience design. Sure, we still need to monitor how the experience is going, but are you going to really differentiate your brand by having really clean bathrooms or really soft pillows. At some point, there are diminishing returns. We need to think bigger.

Thankfully, traditional product development research techniques combined with more human-centered design thinking approaches can move us from compliance to creation. It starts with understanding the current customers (and their manifest and latent needs) and their current customer journey. While we can look at the current journey and say “where can we reduce ‘friction’ points?” that will only get us so far. Are you going to really win people’s hearts by spackling over annoyances? You may well just be created a frictionless but also boring experience.

In their excellent book The Power of Moments the Heath Brothers (2017) talk about this concept extensively. They talk about ‘building peaks’ rather than ‘fixing potholes”. The idea is that customers remember the awesome stuff and that is paramount in creating amazing experiences (and returning customers). They don’t remember the long lines, humidity, and bad smells of Disneyland, but do remember the 16 minutes on the Pirates of the Caribbean or the 3 minutes riding Space Mountain. Experiential time, it turns out, is not proportional to the actual time. 

Of course, no amount of roller coaster rides or pictures with costumed actors will make up for the spoiled chili dog that made you wished for mercy from above, but the point is, just removing ‘friction points’ makes Jack a very dull boy. The Heath brothers provide many fine examples of reimagining the experience from the first day on the job journey or the Popsicle Hot-Line at the Magic Castle Hotel where guests can order a popsicle free of charge delivered on a silver plate. That’s where experiential magic lays.

This really is the essence of moving us forward in customer experience. We should focus on creating, prototyping, and deploying minimal viable product experiences rather than getting mired down in the measurement of atomistic attribute benefits of products and services. There is a larger Gestalt here.

Where to Start?

This can start with what Farhad Manjoo (2003) of the Wall Street Journal calls the Andy Rooney business plan. It goes like this: “first, find the most annoying, obvious problem that millions of people deal with every day. Then ask if things really have to be that way.”

If you pay attention, these opportunities are everywhere.

  • Does landscaping equipment (i.e., leaf blowers, etc.) need to be so loud?
  • Why is health care and insurance in the United States so bewilderingly complicated?
  • Why do we need professionals to help us with taxes?
  • Why do we need to drive to a giant warehouse and go down aisles to put a can of beans in our cart that are identical to 50 other cans of beans on the shelf?
  • Why do I need to drive to work every day, only to sit behind a computer most of it?
  • Why does higher education have to be a pursuit where the professor lectures and the students listen?

Sweat the Small Stuff

Changing a classroom and changing an organization are magnitudes of scale different. If you are feeling like experiential design is a monumental task requiring immediate large scale organizational change, let me allay your concerns. While organizational commitment to change is a pre-requisite for improvement, these changes can be made over time. Large scale change needs to be made in a series of boot-strapped successes (or at least learnings) building on one another.

Second, little things can have a big impact. An unexpected box of chocolates or 6 pack of local beer for hotel or Airbnb guests can create an inexpensive and memorable surprise for guests. A cook inviting a young aspirational chef for a quick tour of the kitchen in an upscale restaurant, or perhaps even the wink of an eye from a professional athlete to fan can make a huge impression. You can’t necessarily plan all of these experiences, but you can select, train, and empower your employees to do so. Experiences aren’t necessarily designed; they are, many times, improvised with customers in a shared experience.

Learn by Doing

While a bias for experimentation is important there are circumstances where that proposition is too risky. Funerals, weddings, and emergencies are probably not good times to experiment with new concepts ‘live”. In these cases, or if you simply don’t want to rush into just “doing”, you can adopt a more conservative approach by conducting concept testing first. Good ole fashion experimental design and storyboarding can go a long way in ironing out the kinks of a new way of doing something and mitigating the risk with customers.

While traditional CX metrics play a critical role in assessing the success of these experiments, as an industry we have become too dependent on fixing problems versus creating experiences. You’re not going to frictionless your way to creating memorable “peak” experiences. We need to figure out where those underlying needs and desires are and then use our creativity to enable and create experiences that keep customers coming back again and again.


Heath, C. & Heath, D. (2017). The Power of Moments. Simon & Schuster.

The Wabi Sabi of CX: Shoot for Authenticity not Perfection

As a child I always marveled at my mother’s recipe box (handed down from her mother). It is an overstuffed box that is an amalgam of at least three generations of culinary experimentation from parents, aunts, uncles, friends, and neighbors across the continent. From Welsh cookies to something called Syrian Pie…reviewing these recipes is truly a trip across time and space. Some recipes are scrawled on yellowed index cards, others are written on tissue-thin paper neatly folded into the box. Some are typed others are on old yellowed clippings from newspapers.

Laura Captor’s Recipe Box

On one ordinary day, for no particular reason, my mom gave me the recipe box. I started pulling cards out one-by-one and she provided some thorough explanations of their origin, other explanations were admittedly more probabilistic in nature. It was a great gift as it connected me to my past and to who I am today.

In general people like to be part of something bigger themselves. Whether that’s a family, a church, a club, a company, or any group at all, it is part of the human condition. It provides certainty of who we are and how we are connected to larger whole of society[1]. As you think about creating experiences this holiday season, there are a few lessons in this recipe box that may be useful in experiential design.

Be Who You Are

I oftentimes see people and organizations trying to be someone they are not. Take for example the Geo marque developed by General Motors in 1989. At the time GM was fighting a two-front war. On the luxury side, Cadillac was getting assaulted by European rivals as American consumers’ preferences turned to more Teutonic in nature. On the mass market size things were worse. Inexpensive and high-quality Japanese imports were cutting into their core business.

GM’s solution was Geo[2]. The goal of Geo was to get the ‘youth market’ which had turned to smaller, sportier, and more fuel-efficient vehicles. Since the GM product pipe was a bit thin, they decided to accomplish this goal by rebadging existing nameplates from Japanese manufacturers. The Prizm was a Toyota Corolla, the Spectrum an Isuzu Gemini, the Storm an Isuzu Impulse, and the Tracker a Suzuki Sidekick. Did it work? Some will argue it accomplished its goal, but according to Automotive News GM anticipated 400,000 sales in 1991 and achieved 297,000[3]. The nameplate struggled until 1996 when it was discontinued. It was an unimaginative solution to a tough competitive situation.

Image result for saturn car
1996 SC2 from Flickr Creative Commons

In 1990, rather than mimicking someone else, they did something surprising and started the Saturn brand. Saturn was a car company based on the customer experience and had a cult-like following amongst customers[4]. Saturn started from scratch; creating new vehicles, new manufacturing, and a new dealer network. Rather than putting the car at the forefront, GM decided to make the experience the centerpiece of the brand. Sure, there was some product innovation, but the dealer experience was amazing and the focus on the holistic ownership experience resonated well, in particular with younger buyers. Starved of new products for years, it marched on nonetheless until it met its demise under the corporate bureaucratic weight and bankruptcy of GM in 2008.

Connect to Your Heritage

If you ever toured the Guinness Brewery in Dublin, Ireland you will quickly conclude two things; 1) they make excellent beer, and 2) they know what they are doing. As one of the oldest breweries in the world, they have a fairly simple line up and have pride in their product. The brewmasters at St. James Gate continued their work as the American colonies proclaimed their independence and later their own country’s independence from England up to today. While they have made small adjustments to the product over that span to adjust to consumer tastes, the spirit and core product have changed very little.

If you go into any respectable Irish pub today (or perhaps any pub in general) you will always be able to get a Guinness. There will usually be Guinness memorabilia on the wall. The brand strength of Guinness is incredible and inextricably connected to an entire country’s heritage. While Guinness is taking a beating from the COVID pandemic (Guinness is enjoyed in pubs most often), I have no doubt we will be seeing that “black stuff” for years to come. [5]

Many large companies are guilty of complacency in the face of disruptiv

Image result for guinness beer
Guinness Goodness from

e competition from startups. While start-up are nimble, responsive, and sometimes more innovative than their older rivals, they many times lack two important assets: 1) a large amount of capital and 2) a heritage of success.

While many times that capital is financial, it is also can take the form of social capital. There is a ton of wisdom in many large organizations. This is a blessing and a curse. The curse is that wisdom can blind the organization to what is possible, the blessing is a basis of knowledge that startups don’t have.

Likewise, if a company has been around for a while they are, by definition, a success. It is worth asking, what made your company a success in the past? This very thing will be what will continue to make you a success in the future. It might not be the same idea or product that will make you a success in the future, but it will likely be the same competency. If your company has a history of optimizing systems, do that. If your company has a history of being excellent in sales and marketing or production do that. Embrace the past to figure out the future. The trick is not letting the past blind you to opportunities of the future.

There is Beauty in Imperfection

If you listen very closely to Led Zeppelin’s ‘Fool in the Rain’ you can hear John Paul Jones ever so slightly fat finger multiple keys in his solo (or at least it sounds that way). At the beginning of the Police’s Roxanne, you heard a slight flange of Andy Summer’s guitar, likely due to a loose recording tape[6]. Mona Lisa’s imperfect smile, Marilyn Monroe’s mole, the Leaning Tower of Pisa, the asymmetric design of the Millennium Falcon, the inconsistencies in The Shining, and countless other objects of beauty are well…imperfect.

Like my mother’s motley and tattered collection of old recipes, beauty can be found in the imperfections. The Japanese call this wabi-sabi[7], which is a perspective that accepts and embraces the temporary and imperfect. It recognizes that the dogged pursuit of perfection can many times lead you to only anxiety and sadness.

While I have often written about the importance in being consistent in providing a customer experience, you can “six sigma” the beauty out of the customer experience. While consistency is important, it is just as important to have some room for improvisation. The colorful bartender in the hotel bar or the unusual swirl in the wood veneer of a coffee table or tabletop is remarkable, but certainly not conforming to perfection.

While some things you definitely want to be perfect (such as the functioning of an airliner or nuclear reactor) other things people want to have some character, something different and new, something…well imperfect.

It’s worth thinking about what the imperfections in your customer experience are today and whether they should be removed or preserved. Surely, a long wait time is something you will likely want to remove[8], but perhaps that waitress with a sassy attitude that offends 15% of your clientele and makes 85% of them smile is something you may want to keep.

Turn Liabilities to Assets

So often employees (particularly younger ones) look at companies with long heritages as slow, stuck in their ways, and lacking innovation. Sometimes these allegations are valid. However, it doesn’t have to be that way. If you work for a big company, you can transform your size and age from a perceived liability to an asset. These large organizations can look to their past to understand the brand essence and find inspiration to apply that heritage to the future. These companies should be wary of blotting out all of their idiosyncrasies without first finding out if they are cherished by customers. Likewise, corporate ‘resets’ rarely work. Culture is tenacious stuff, if you really want to reset your company, best to spin off a subset of it somewhere isolated from the mothership.

Likewise, if you work at a startup or younger company there is learning here too. You don’t need to be perfect to be loved. Take solace in that you too have a history, and that history is usually in the passion and infectious zeal of the founders. Use that to your advantage and don’t act how you think startups should behave. You don’t need ping pong tables and lattes or wear hoodies to work every day. Lean into the DNA of what your company is all about. At the end of the day being authentic to who you are will win the day.









[8] But perhaps not, if it is something that adds to the memorability of the experience (e.g., waiting to get into a rock concert with friends)

How to Build a Successful CX Program

Much has been made about the lack of progress in CX and the impotency of ‘Insights’ in making a meaningful difference to the business. That lack of effectiveness isn’t for a lack of effort or investment. Markets and Markets predicts that spending on CX will balloon from $8.5b in 2020 to $14.9b in 2025. There are millions of ‘CX’ programs out there…but it seems only a precious few seem to really move the needle. According to a study by Acquia in 1999, nearly half of all customers globally said that the brands they engage with don’t meet their expectations. 

While there are certainly many reasons, I think the blame for this failure may rightly lay right at our own doorstep. I am often asked to recommend if there is a good ‘starter’ manual for CX for those interested in learning more in the field. While there are many excellent books, programs, and classes that help neophyte CX professionals become more acquainted and skilled in the tactics of being in the field, I have yet to find a good definitive ‘how to’ guide on building one from the ground up. Many of the ones that attempt it, seem to get caught up in cool frameworks, principles, ‘best practices’, concepts without getting down to brass tacks; how do I practically build one? Those wanting to build a greenhouse, don’t want ‘best practices’ in building one, they want an actual plan so they can build one[i].

To fill that void, I decided to write one (on building CX programs, not greenhouses).

I hope in some small way, my upcoming book “The Customer Experience Field Guide: A Practical Manual for Getting Things Done”, will help those struggling with getting started (or reinventing their program) and help our efficacy challenge. In the book, I lay out a step-by-step process on how to get a CX program up and running from the ground up. Based on the unapologetic cribbing from my many amazing colleagues and my own experience in building these programs over the years, I broke the “Playbook” into three major stages: PlanKnow, and Do.


In the planning stage we have three important steps. First for any organization starting their CX journey getting organized and coordinated from day one is important. Provisional and permanent governance will set the stage for moving forward, eventually working my way to a discussion of the heralded Chief Customer Officer. While others have done a thorough job on discussing the topic, I tried to also advance the topic a bit by exploring the role of the CCO in the context of a larger group dynamic. It usually takes a team (whether part or full time) to make CX efforts move forward.

As Ferris Bueller once said, “life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while you might miss it.” While not discussed much, in planning your customer experience revolution, it is good to heed Ferris’ advice and look around at what is going on by examining both what the competition is doing and what others are doing in other industries. For example, if you make bowling balls, maybe look at what other ball makers are doing…or what other “lane sports” consumers are doing. Explore the trends and potential disrupters. It’s fun and informative work and can be a great inspiration to both motivate folks and draw inspiration for CX design work. We call this an environmental scan and it is a combination of secondary and observational research sometimes supplemented by expert interviews. 

Also, in standing up CX programs sometimes overlooked is the art of communication. Getting off the block right with a holistic, inspiring, and comprehensive communication plan can make or break a CX program as it signals to the organization how serious senior leadership is about the effort. A solid internal communication plan should be run much like an external campaign focusing on the areas of education, excitement, and engagement. Even great content gets overlooked if not marketed well.

I’ve seen the “Plan” process in real-time several times and it always follows roughly the same flow. Take for example the rapidly growing Midland States Bank. The C.E.O., Jeff Ludwig, and the President, Jeff Mefford had a hunch they did fairly well on CX, but they were on an acquisition spree and had no on-going formalized method to get concrete feedback from their growing customer base. They tapped Aaron Rios, Head of Operations, to get the ball rolling quickly set up governance and a series of actions of teams.

Provisional governance was composed of people from across the organization representing marketing, operations, human resource, retail operations, call center, and other areas across their business units. They selected Curiosity to help with their overall CX playbook, provide advice on internal communications and structure, as well as their metric strategy. As of this writing, they are in the process of deploying VOC metrics across the organization by business line and already generating value from the feedback they are getting on an ongoing basis.


This section has traditionally been the heart and soul of most CX programs, so much so that for some VOC and CX are used interchangeably (they are not the same thing). We use quite a bit of ink on this topic blending traditional market research principles with design thinking approaches. 

First stop in this process is understanding the market. No one has ‘one’ kind of customer; by understanding differences amongst groups and individuals you can further fine-tune both your products and communications. Even Customerthink has many different readers; folks from VOC, Call Center, Marketing, Technologists, and so forth. Understanding their difference (and similarities) is key to designing and delivering a good experience.

Partitioning the market by common needs is achieved through the orthodox market research methodology known as consumer segmentation. With that in hand, we turn to a more traditional topic in CX; Journey mapping. While familiar territory our approach is a bit different than others in that we incorporate segmentation into the methodology and philosophically view Journey Mapping not only as a way to understand the customer’s points of pain and opportunities but also as an organizational change catalyst. The act of getting folks in a room from disparate areas of an organization and working on journey mapping initiatives can result in magic for moving the organization forward.

One initiative we worked on for a grocery delivery initiative brought together at 7 departments from across the globe. Working together on the initiative from the eyes of the customer created many ‘oh wow’ moments in understanding what others were planning for their portion of the project. In essence, it helped everyone see the whole elephant and mitigated many missteps in the limited market launch.

We also spend a fair amount of time talking about metric strategy and architecture. We answer questions such as: What is a relationship study? What is a transactional study? How should they be organized and harmonized? What about text analytics? How does text analytics fit in? These are all questions we address in great detail through my usual juvenile parables and non-sequiturs.

Many in hospitality use basic segmentation well in their VOC programs. They look at business traveler vs. pleasure travelers and distinguish amongst their gold and platinum customers vs. those who just stay occasionally. In many cases, a small loyal base can make up the majority of the volume, and this happens often in hospitality. Splitting out your sample to understand differences in both needs and evaluations is not only motivational for your front line operators but also critical in knowing what assets to allocate to improve the customer experience.


Probably the most neglected aspect of CX is, ironically, doing anything with all the great information generated. Why? Because it is really hard, and it can seem almost overwhelming to unjam an organization stuck in well-worn ruts of the organizational inertia of we’ve-always-done-it-that-way-ism.

We lay out an approach, called AgileCX® whereby change can be enacted through a series of small incremental experiments that can be run in parallel. After all the fork didn’t arrive as is in its current form out of thin air, it started as a two-pronged stick and evolved through iterations of refinement and improvement to the four-pronged wonder we take for granted today. 

We can run these experiments in the petri dish of market research concept testing or just jump right in and start messing with stuff in isolated corners of the market. This process consists of four simple steps borrowed from Design Thinking and software professionals everywhere. First, frame the problem; ensure you are solving for the right problem. People (and I noticed anecdotally especially guys) love to ‘fix things’. It takes some discipline to hold back and really identify the problem and get alignment. Not doing so can result in rework or quite possibly in failure.

Next, we dream. Brainstorm and document it. We can generate thousands of ideas for a problem, most will be bad, but a critical few will be good. We only need one. Then we move to the prototype stage. Why develop a full-blown product when you can explore a basic prototype or even a mocked-up concept for feedback? While many think of a prototype as a physical object, it doesn’t have to be. Food trucks are excellent prototypes for full-blown restaurants. Blogs are great prototypes for books. Meetings are good prototypes for conferences. Finally, you build something and then tweak it ad infinitum.

Recently we have been engaging more and more in helping brainstorm solutions. As my friend and colleague Greg Iszler commented “rather than leaving the client with a folder of problems uncovered in the research how much better would it be to leave them with a folder of solutions!” I really think this is where the emphasis needs to be placed more squarely rather than worrying about scores and return rates. Besides, it’s more fun.

Your Thoughts

While still in the editorial process I am excited about the new book and also would encourage your feedback. I hope to provide a useful go-to reference guide for the practitioner. What do you think? Did I miss anything? What would you like you or your end clients like to know more about? I am interested in your feedback and am passionate about moving efforts from an emphasis on a study of the problem, to an emphasis on creating great solutions to improve the customer experience.

[i] If interested, here is an excellent plan for building a greenhouse.

A Holiday Challenge: Experience the Day

Christmas used to be my favorite holiday. I remember it as a day of giving…or if I am honest with myself, a day of getting. As a child, I remember getting up early and trying not to look too anxious waiting for the wave after wave of gift mania to wash over our household. Grandma, then Friends, then topped off at Nana and Pop’s house Christmas eve. As a child that’s what you are concerned about. Stuff.

As I grow older, I look forward to simpler things. Things I used to hate I now enjoy. I no longer dread a five-hour car drive or just doing nothing on a rainy afternoon. I don’t mind futzing around an antique store or dreaming up things to build on a scratchpad. I try everyday to make an active choice to try and be present with my family, even though I often failed at that goal. 

That’s why Thanksgiving is now my favorite holiday. It doesn’t have anything to do with Native Americans, Turkey (the bird or the country (no offense Funda)), or burying a piece of fish on a kernel of corn. I enjoy Thanksgiving because it is a time when you can fully concentrate on yourself and those around you. It is, in essence, the quintessential experiential holiday. Notwithstanding the Canadian version, it is somewhat ironic it that it is a uniquely American holiday.

America the land of stuff. The land of things and status. The latest gadget. The newest game. The latest fashion. Ugg boots. 

Amidst this maelstrom of materialism sits this 24-hour period of reflection and introspection in the eye of the storm between candy and stuff. Hats off to retailers who restrain from tempting customers and allowing their employees a day of rest before the hectic holiday season.

Thanksgiving is a time of family. Of old traditions and political arguments. It is a time where people, for just maybe even a day, forget about their own bullshit. For just maybe a 6 second prayer or moment of silence holding drunk Uncle Mike’s hand, people think of others. We remember and mourn those who were here last year and are no longer at the table. We spend just a bit of time considering our own unique assets versus a focus on what we don’t have. Many have the ability to look at their own situation and think, ‘god damn, I have it pretty good’. Because by and large most of us do.

I like this time of year. I like zenning my brain out. Maybe taking a run. Maybe playing Monopoly or Risk with friends and family. I like re-connecting with myself and with others. I like sitting on the couch on the cusp of a long-forgotten feeling; boredom.

As I get older, somehow my parents get wiser. Quiet observations my mother made oftentimes now hold the profundity of Yoda. I think the same can be said for our society as a whole. We should look to our past for guidance in these days of kinetic impulsiveness and sectarian angst.

There was (and is) a reason for the downtime of Sabbath beyond spiritual observance. Those long-bearded guys in the desert knew that people needed a break to be mentally healthy. They thought, perhaps rightfully so, that break should come weekly. The Amish shun technology not because they are Luddites (well they are I guess), but because they believe it gets in the way of family. It puts things between people. Between relationships. 

The protagonists of Thanksgiving, the Puritans, regarded things as an abomination to God. In their view, it put something between them, and their creator. Perhaps one the worst forms of idolatry took the form of the gold coin.

While I won’t be contemplating what particular patina of black to put on my buggy or to forsake shellfish anytime soon, I will say those ancient belief systems make an important point. It is, in fact, a gift to be simple. To just take it in for a bit of time. To take a mental time out. To be here.

So, if only for a day, take a step back. Look at your life and relish it for what it is. Stop texting and for god’s sake stop looking at LinkedIn. 

Mop up the experience of today with the fervor of that croissant roll in that turkey gravy mash potato mess you made on your plate. Fling a spoonful of cranberry goo at cousin despite getting a rash of shit from your mom. This is what you will remember in the days and years ahead.  In short, experience the day…and if you can… every day after that.

Pax vobsicum.

Disco and Unstructured Data…Ya Dig?

Tony Manero is the president of the burgeoning vintage clothing store Disco Inferno. What started off as a passionate hobby blossomed into a national chain of second-hand clothing stores in just 10 years. A few years ago, sensing he could extend his reach, he launched Inferno’s, his online clearinghouse for secondhand clothes and other memorabilia from groovy decades past.

While always customer-focused, Inferno has grown to a point where Tony can hardly visit all his stores in a year, let alone talk to every customer. Although he tries to get out and talk with his customers, he feels increasingly isolated as the day-to-day demands of running a successful national chain make his time scarcer than The Oakridge Boys on the dance floor.

Talking to some colleagues, he decided it was time to start a Voice of the Customer program. In this way, he could get systematic feedback across his different channels – from retail, to online, to his call center – and that’s exactly what he did.

He worked with his team and designed and deployed short, friendly, and on-brand post-purchase surveys. In some cases, he even put a coupon for completion to double-purpose his VOC program as a retention program. When he was done, Tony had three different transactional surveys in place: retail, on-line, and call center. 

One day, looking at his dashboards, he noticed something odd. All of his Key Performance Indicator (KPIs) were green, but the number of customer complaints seem to be growing from his call-center metrics. More alarming, he noticed a slowdown in sales. He cracked open a fresh TaB diet cola and pondered his situation. 

“This makes no sense,” he thought.

Undeterred, he started reading the comments in the retail survey. The problems seemed to be all over the map. Some were about rude staff, others about return policies, still others about damaged or dirty clothing. Becoming frustrated, he reached for his hand grip exerciser and starting squeezing. With his free hand, he clicked his mouse to start reading the thousands of lines of feedback from his online survey. While intriguing, he again becomes overwhelmed with the amount and variation of feedback. 

What was more perplexing was what trends he could make out also seemed to involve other channels. For example, he saw one instance where there was a complaint about a customer returning platform shoes he bought online in the online survey. However, reading through the comment, it was obvious the store associate was unaware of how to handle the return when the customer showed up in a store to return his shoes due to bad fit. He sighed and stopped his handgrip exercises, throwing the device on the table. It was getting late, so he decided to quit for the day, go back to his pad, and get a good night’s sleep on his waterbed. “With a clear mind, I might be able to sort this out tomorrow morning,” he thought to himself.

Freaky Deaky

How to help Tony out? Here’s the skinny: what Tony needs is a common categorization framework. The goal of a common categorization framework is to standardize the coding of your unstructured data. Unstructured data typically consists of comments in your surveys, review sites, and other places where people talk about your products and services.

By standardizing feedback, you can look for trends, incidence levels, and sentiment without regard to origination. Common categorization frameworks have the following advantages over stand-alone “tags” and within survey taxonomy coding approaches:

  1. It standardizes unstructured feedback so that it is analyzable at scale

The most basic advantage for common categorization is data reduction. Most people cannot wrap their brains around thousands of comments to discern any patterns. While it is great to be close to your customers and read everything they write, it is a bit daunting to do so on an ongoing basis when responses number in the hundreds or thousands.

  1. It Is Channel Agnostic

Rather than just understanding what is going on by siloed channels, you can understand the customer from their perspective. It reduces the need to be a CX detective since the evidence are rolled up by issue rather than by functional area, although you can still refer to the channel (or channels) affected.

  1. It allows to for multiple levels of specificity

Good code structures can allow to change up or down in terms of specificity. For example, in Tony’s case you might have a code called “returns”. You could then reference all comments that were coded as “returns” and look at trends for across Inferno as a whole. Alternatively, you could look at “returns > disco balls > damaged > chain” and be able to look at the incidence of that specific product, service, or for the entire enterprise, by certain customers, and so forth.

  1. Backcasting

Say Tony starts carrying new type of wool afghan throw blanket at Inferno. He realizes a few months later that his clientele might not be as familiar with the care and cleaning of wool products which is very different from his usual inventory of velour, nylon, polyester, and suede products. Tony simply adds into his taxonomy and can backcast any issues that might have happened in months since launch regarding his afghan rug customers. Likewise, as new expectations or technologies emerge, he can add those new categories too, and then project it to the past.

Coding and Emotions

Categorization frameworks usually have two features: coding and sentiment. Coding is applying numerical values to an aspect of the business such as “service”, “fees”, or ‘delivery”. Coding is the ‘what’. Sentiment is typically the ‘good-bad’ continuum of affect. For example, if a customer is unhappy or happy this can be determined through sentiment coding. 

While the continuum for sentiment coding is usually based on a bi-polar affect (like-dislike), other methods look at a more holistic emotional framework to code comments. One such framework is the PAD framework, which was originally pioneered through research by Mehrabian and Russell. In this framework, rather than one dimension, you have three: pleasure (affect), arousal, and dominance (or control). Pleasure is essentially affect (like/dislike) whereas arousal is the activeness of the emotion. Dominance (or control) has to do with how much control the customer feels they have.

These can be arranged in three dimensions. Typically, the first two dimensions are most informative (arousal and affect). Someone can be elated (active, pleasant), depressed (unpleasant, passive), angry (active, unpleasant), or satisfied (passive, pleasant). Consumer behavior might be different considering these different emotional states.

Developing a Common Coding Taxonomy

Assuming the upfront work, including journey mapping and appropriate listening posts, has been implemented, the next step is to develop the coding taxonomy. In days of old, this was done manually. We would collect a large number of comments and then code them into a hierarchy. With advent of new technology, there is already some really good independent text analytic engines (LexalyticsClarabridgeMegaputerSAS are just a few). While these new technologies help tremendously in automating coding, they need to be properly configured and trained to be of any use. Here are the generic steps in setting up your common category framework

Step 1: Standardization of Terms

Like painting a house, the first step in creating a taxonomy is prepping the data. This involves standardizing terms. First, just simple spelling corrections are needed; it is unbelievable the number of ways people can spell ‘license’ or ‘knowledgeable’. If these are not corrected, you will have a mess on your hand. Secondly, standardizing acronym and short-cuts such as “mgr” for manager and “act” for account. This terminology tends to vary by industry, so many CX providers already have CX standards for different industries to give you a bit of a head start.

Step 2: Developing a Taxonomy

The next step is developing an initial taxonomy. Certain text analytic engines offer “trending words or phrases,” but they are limited to just that. A taxonomy is a framework that is fixed over a period of time so you can monitor changes in incidence and intensity (sentiment). The best way to set up your initial taxonomy is, of course, with data. 

To help Tony, we would grab a cross-section of Inferno’s voice of the customer verbatims and go to work with text analytics. As mentioned, many CX providers have industry “head starts” that you can use, but it is always wise to develop yours organically as well. Afterall, Inferno is completely different from other retailers and even different from other clothing stores, so some tweaking is required.

The output from text analytics often looks something like the illustration below. This is just a sample of the suggested coding structure around “return”. The links indicate common associations (or co-occurrences). The more co-occurrences, the closer they are together. In this way, you have the data drive your coding structure rather than imposing a structure arbitrarily. You can see clearly that too small belongs to size and size belong to returns.

This is stage is not done automatically by the machine, though; it requires the involvement of analysts and business owners working together iteratively to refine the code to get one that is both actionable and consistently repeatable (i.e., reliable). In the end, this approach results in data that is more consistent with Tony’s customers’ ways of viewing the world and is much more accurate and consistent than machine coding. Better, in fact, than what human coders could do. Far out.

Step 3: Implementing Automated Coding

With your coding in hand you are now ready to apply it to your database. As mentioned, these coding structures are typically hierarchical in nature with some coding taxonomies. Most coding structures have at least 3 levels, with some having eight or more. Those are usually very technical coding structures such as quality studies with highly technical products. 

Once the data is coded, you can also do some really helpful analyses. For example, driver analysis is common in customer experience to understand what aspects are more (and less) important to customers. This can also be applied to coded text, where the codes are the predictors and the dependent variable (what you are predicting) can be something like NPS, retention, or some other important business metric.

You can see here from Inferno’s results that price is the most important, followed by quality, and selection. We can also see the subcodes’ relative impacts within category. For example, “clean/stain free” is a big part of quality and is a bigger driver than even rebates in the pricing category. You can also slice and dice this for sentiment and by channel, or even geography. In this way you don’t have to go the retail survey and then the web survey and other sources to get a picture of what is going on. It’s all together. Also, once trained, well design taxonomies can be coded consistently and fast. Best of all, once implemented, they are fairly inexpensive to maintain.

Step 4: Revisiting and Updating the Taxonomy

Once your taxonomy is rolling, you should revisit Step 2 from time to time. How often? Well, of course it depends, but, usually every few years, unless you are in a rapidly changing industry – then once a year or even more frequently. The hard work of building a common categorization frame is the initial set up. Updating and running the program is a relatively small investment.

A Move Toward Unstructured

The world of CX has slowly been moving toward unstructured data for a few reasons. First, it is easier for customers to just say what they want and put the burden on codifying that information on the analysts. That means more people responding and better-quality data. Secondly, computer power and sophistication in text analytics methods have matured to the point where they are reliable, inexpensive, and produce high-quality results. Do we ditch structured questions? Nope. They still have a place in our VOC programs, but text continues to take a stronger and stronger role in providing insight to businesses and CX professionals. We know Tony is digging it. Peace out. Catch you on the flip side.

Authors note: In writing this article I am indebted to the brilliant dance moves and expertise of Brion Scheidel of InMoment, Mike House, formerly of Maritz Research, and Randy Brandt of Northern Kentucky University for sharing their thoughts and giving me the skinny on this topic with me over the years.

Why Market Research has Failed and How to Fix it

The biggest failing of the market research industry over the last 100 years is in its impotency in exacting meaningful change. Sure, it has it wins here and there. It help deliver the World’s Most Interesting Man and apparently was integral to the conceptualization and launch of YouTube. But according to the 2019 Insight Practice Grid Report only 27% of research buyers are completely or very satisfied with “suppliers ability to recommend business actions based on the research”. That’s tied for dead last in satisfaction.  Now read that again slowly. Ability to recommend. Not to do anything about the issue but even have the ability to recommend.


That’s horrible.

According to Greenbook the industry was about $29 billion dollars in total size in 2019. Does that mean the industry wasted $21 billion dollars on in-actionable research? Maybe.

The good news is it doesn’t have to be that way.

Over the years I have collected, learned, and refined some useful techniques that can help increase the odds of your insights to be used. Below is a rough roadmap.

1. Clearly define what you are trying to solve

You can’t achieve a goal if you don’t know what it is. I have waxed on about this topic ad nauseum so I won’t spent too much time here. Needless to say; defining the problem is job one. I have found the Dr. Leticia Bristos Cavagnaro’s “stakeholder >needs >insight” tool to be immensely helpful in that endeavor. Here’s a simple example from a mass transit project we worked on a few years ago.

Source: CuriosityCX Example

First, we start with the customer. Who are we designing this solution for? Many times engineers design stuff for engineers and don’t always take into account the customer. This helps get some focus on the end user and other stakeholders.

Second, what are we trying to solve? This can seem straight forward until you start thinking about it. In this example it wasn’t just moving people around, it was getting them to and from their doctor’s office without having the indignity of waiting for hours in a waiting room to be picked up.

Finally, we put the two together to get the insight. Presto. This is a great time to argue and debate. Albert Einstein once said, “If I had had an hour to solve a problem I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solution”.

Einstein was a smart dude. Get to your problem statement and get alignment on that before going any further. You can’t solve what you haven’t defined and agreed upon as the problem.

2. Bring Everyone Along

Never view your initiative as a “research project”. Research projects are done by the market research group and get ignored or discarded. They are nice to knows in many cases. You are working on a change effort and, in the case of CX, that is usually an organizational change effort. 

Second, get people involved from day one. The worst-case scenario is the client writes a check, the supplier does market research, and then the supplier presents a 60 minute PowerPoint while everyone checks out their Facebook and Instagram feeds.. That’s a recipe for certain failure. Avoid that.

First, as the CX leader or researcher you need to get very invested. Not so invested you lose your objectivity but invested in the domain to be investigated. I have done projects on everything thing from candy to luxury yachts. Lawn tractor tires fascinated me. I learned all about elevators and holiday light sets. Get interested. Get invested. Get curious. If you can’t, you probably need to pass on that project.

You also need other team members invested and participating in the project. The most successful projects I have ever worked on are ones where 1) where there is a very high level of engagement from all stakeholders on the client side 2) there is a relationship of trust and respect between team members (this means client and supplier side), 3) where there are clear roles defined, and 4) there was an implicit or explicit expectation that change would be the outcome of the project.

One way to make sure this happens is holding sessions that aren’t just customer feedback report outs but also problem definition, creation, and testing phases. As the CX or Insights person, you don’t need to quarterback everything. Tag others in as you manage the process. Nothing pulls a team together like a common goal of building something

3. Create Stuff

So, you spent a bunch of time finding out what customers want and what the problem is, now it’s time to solve it. It’s time to create. The fun stuff. It’s also the stuff that makes people super nervous. Nervous about exposing their own brand of crazy on the world or anxious they aren’t creative. Pfft. Nonsense.

Everyone can be creative. It’s not only the domain of guys with sleeve tattoos and purple hair who can doodle like Degas. You just need to give people a chance to be the wonderfully true weirdos they all are. Some people feel that being creative is the frivolous domain of children. It is. But without creativity, we would still be living in holes in the earth and eating bugs with a long stick for breakfast. No one wants to eat bugs for breakfast.

Creativity (and of course the associated curiosity) is what defines us a unique species. We are the only species that can improve on the solutions of others. The best other animals can do is let the ones who can’t adapt die off. Rather than adapting to our environment…we change our environment instead. 

The tools you use to get creative isn’t super important. There are many great brainstorming platforms…but essentially all you need is a platform where you can ideally 1) see each other 2) talk to one another and 3) have a place to doodle and put ideas down collaboratively. I recently have been using Mural. It has a bunch of great features like voting and timers and is pretty intuitive to newbies…but there are many others as well.

4. Build Stuff

Now it’s time to take it over the hump of where most traditional market researchers get a bit nervous. Building stuff. This is clearly out of the traditional domain of the voice of the customer and market research, but there is no reason why the research team shouldn’t be front and center and this is a mandatory role for any CX leader to be involved with.

In this stage you start developing concepts. These concepts can vary in their fidelity from sketches and “paper prototypes” to working prototypes. The goal here is to start to get real. I had my students create all kinds of zany stuff using cardboard and plastic borrowed from milk cartons. They felt silly at first but then really got into it.

Source: NASA and JPL (flagged for reuse without modification )

Even rocket scientists regard low fidelity prototypes as serious business. For example, NASA and JPL created a collapsible robot scout paper prototype inspired by Origami.

I prefer to use a storyboard approach before going to prototype. They are cheaper, quicker to make, and relatively easy to alter. They are also very portable. The other nice thing about storyboards is… well you can tell a story. 

In the Cohen brothers film The Hudsucker Proxy, the mailroom-entrepreneur-wanna-be protagonist Norvell Barnes had a great idea for a new innovative product. Excited to share his great invention he would sketch it out on a napkin and show to people.

It looked like this

He would smile and say then “you know, for kids”. Every thought him to be insane hayseed from Muncy, Indiana. His lack of connection stemmed from sharing how it was used and from whom it was for. Norvell’s invention was a Hola Hoop and it went on to be smashing success for the fictitious Hudsucker Industries. Folks “get” innovations when provided context of why they would be useful. As a species we have been telling stories long before we could read or write, so it is an intuitive way to communicate information quickly.

There is also a reason why humans started adding graffiti to cave walls long before writing…we are an extremely visual species. Studies reveal that more than 50% of the cortex is devoted to processing visual information. In writing and reading, there is a fair amount of encoding and decoding that must occur. This places more of a cognitive load on the viewer and is just…well…harder. Seeing pictures interpreting information much easier. That’s why kids generally prefer comic books to regular old boring books.

Making Story Boards

The first step in making a storyboard is to create a narrative. I usually do this by creating two columns. The first column is the “dialog” and the second is labeled “visual” and I list a suggested picture or scene to show. If you have even a little bit of drawing talent (I don’t) you can do it yourself. 

At Curiosity we are blessed in having a cadre of incredibly talented folks who can make something that is presentable for customers to view. The finished product is usually 3 – 8 pane storyboard. There are a variety of choices from black and white sketch to the use of vector graphics. We have also on occasion done short videos and animations for more complex concepts that require 3D or movement.

Source: CuriosityCX presented June 10, 2019 at CX Talks in Dallas

4. Test Stuff

With your prototypes and/or storyboards in tow, it’s now time to test stuff with real customers. Please don’t just use your buddies, they won’t want to spend to the social capital to tell your ideas stinks. Worse yet, your buddies are probably similar to you and may like your ideas just for that reason.

For that reason, it’s important to go out and do some actual research. For concept development I generally recommend a qualitative route…if you are fairly far along on refinement you can also move to quantitative, especially if you are testing smaller variations or require a “bake off” of concepts. This approach can cost anywhere from a few thousand bucks up to hundreds of thousands depending on what and how many things you are testing.

If you can’t afford more formal and rigorous market research, you should minimally go out and do a bit of field research with users. I find when designers get in touch with the end users something magic happens; empathy. They start to understand what their end users want. 

Famed electric guitar inventor Les Paul knew what guitarists wanted because he was one, albeit one with a bit of vision where he could take it. Leon Fender, on the other hand, couldn’t play a note. But he hung out with a ton of guitarists and he listened very closely. He made a damn fine guitar (and in fact beat Gibson to the punch in launching a successful electric guitar).

5. Refine

If you are of a particular age you will remember the first mobile phones. They were large, had very little battery life, worked in only certain areas, and the fidelity was quite poor. In short; they sucked. However, if we didn’t have those, then flip phones, then Blackberry’s and iPhones gradually evolving over the years we wouldn’t have the pleasure of our kids complaining how they can’t stream YouTube videos for more than 8 hours on their phone on a single charge. Products and services like species evolve over time. Sometimes that evolution is gradual and sometimes it is discontinuous, but it is always a journey…usually one of two steps forward and one back.

Getting Away from Reports

When I was on the client-side, I remember a supplier asking me “so how many pages should the report be”? I knew then, I didn’t want that company doing my reports. That “research by the pound’ mentality is thankfully less prevalent today than in the past but persists in some of the more remote bywaters of the market research industry. 

It’s time for the industry to evolve. Those in the CX and Insights business need to move away from viewing themselves as passive collectors and disseminators of information. First, we need to get better at communicating (also tied for last in the Greenbook report at 27% somewhat or very satisfied amongst insight buyers). Large boring text-heavy reports with no narrative or story are dead. More visual and dynamic reporting is now required. People like beautiful things. Make your information beautiful.

Second, and more importantly, the industry needs to move to a more active stance as creative change agents armed with data. Otherwise, we are going continue lack of efficacy and a loss of interest in customer insight, not because it isn’t relevant, but because nothing is done with it.

I am optimistic. Design thinking and agile approaches such as the ones I reviewed here on are on the rise in practice. More forward-thinking creative agencies are starting to invest in data and strategists versus just fulfillment. Likewise, some emerging boutique research firms are also crossing the aisle to engage in brainstorming in prototyping versus just slinging data on both supplier and client-side. I think this is a great step forward and hope to see it continue.

What You See is What you Believe: Experience and Mask Adoption during the COVID-19 Pandemic

As is the case with so much of the world, my life has changed dramatically since COVID-19 swept across the globe. For the last 20 years I have been on the road or in the air at least 2 times a month, usually much more often. My personal habits have changed dramatically too. We don’t go to the few restaurants that are open, we don’t go to outdoor concerts, we don’t do team sports, and we usually don’t travel farther than a few miles from home. We, and many other, have seemingly become of nation of hermits.

Retailers too have change dramatically.  Walmart recently put into play a mandate that requires customers to wear masks, and was quickly followed by Target, CVS, Kroger and other larger retailers.  In our small town, home of Walmart Headquarters, my observation has been consumers have largely been voluntarily compliant. 

In March it was a rarity to see someone wearing a mask in a store. By the end of June, it was typical to see most shoppers at any given store wearing masks voluntarily. My working hypothesis was that as people viewed others wearing masks, they felt more comfortable doing so, to the point where not wearing a mask was almost socially unacceptable as lighting up a Pall Mall in the cereal aisle.

I assume this was a “new normal” for the country

We’re Not in Bentonville Anymore

Last week we were passing through a rural town in Oklahoma where I had to run into a local store to pick up a few things. I masked up and went into the mass merchandiser to quickly conduct my business and was surprised to find not a single customer  wearing a mask or face covering. Moreover, employees with masks on had them pulled down around their necks while talking with customers. This was completely different from my hometown experiences and what was portrayed on the nightly news. However, everyone shopping in the store looked content. Their experience of reality was the one they had created and reinforced for one another.  

Cloistered realities are not confined to the square footage of rural mega marts.  As has been documented elsewhere social media serves to reinforce our own worldviews with powerful validating feedback loops by similar others.

This was brought home to me when I started following my state and local government social media feeds. It turns out these feeds attracted all manner of citizens, along with their disparate world views. Perusing comments in response to the governor or local official I observed a non-trivial number of people who were not only strongly opposed to wearing masks, some had indicated that they thought the whole pandemic was exaggerated or even a hoax.    

I could not foot my reality with what I was seeing and reading. What was the true general public sentiment about the pandemic and what were consumer attitudes around wearing masks?  In other words, were these attitudes aberrant outliers or more common than I thought amongst the general public

I took to the internet and could not find much recent information on consumer attitudes.  The Pew Research Center conducted a study on mask wearing in retail setting in June (prior to most retailers requiring it) and found that 65% of Americans wear a mask “most of the time” while in stores or other businesses. However, as of this writing 28 states now have requirements for their citizens to wear masks under a variety of circumstances.

I was interested to learn what was the public’s behavior given the new urgency of wearing masks and what do people really believe about the pandemic in this new media swirl of conflicting reports about the pandemic? So on July 23rd, CuriosityCX conducted a study to find out.  Using a nationally representative sample, Curiosity conducted a poll of 1,914 people between the ages of 18 and 86 in United States.  Here’s what we found.

The Results

It appears most of the country believes that the pandemic is not a hoax. A full 97% of Americans believe that this pandemic is legitimate (i.e., ‘real’).  However, there is varying degree of belief in the veracity of claims around the pandemic.  About a quarter of the population think the threat of pandemic is exaggerated (27%), slightly more than a quarter think it is accurate (28%), but a plurality of the nation believes it much worse than most people think (43%).

Individual differences in beliefs are also telling.  Men more than women think the threat is overblown and Latino and Whites much more so than Asians and African Americans, the latter of which has been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic in the United States.  Education also plays a role in differences of opinion, with the more educated having a much more concerned view of things than the less educated.  There is little relationship between income and perceptions of the threat of COVID-19.

Attitudes also vary by age, with younger people much more suspect of the veracity of the pandemic vs. older people.  While a sense of invincibility is not uncommon amongst youth, the other factor at work is that they are not as apt to get seriously ill for the illness vs. older more vulnerable populations. 

Looking to regional differences we see more lax attitudes in the South, an area more rural and only recently impacted by the full force of the pandemic. More concern is noted in the Northeast, many of whom have already weathered the storm and are have maintained a tenuous grip of continued spread. 

Supporting our hypothesis there are large differences based on where you live. In rural areas, where people are less likely to have first-hand evidence of the threat, there is much more doubt.  In Metro areas, it is much higher as they see more evidence of the pandemic every day.

What about wearing a mask or face covering?  Based on our data it appears only a small fraction of the nation is refusing to wear one under any condition (3%). About a quarter (24%) only wear a mask because a store or other entity requires them to but for most of the nation they are worn except when they can’t social distance (27%) or all the time (46%).

We see some similar patterns in the data with males less likely to wear masks, except when compelled to, Whites, in particular ,are less likely to wear masks unless required and those with higher degrees generally being more likely to wear a mask under all circumstances.  Lower income groups also are less likely to wear one.

While youth are more likely to doubt the threat of COVID-19, they do not vary much in their conformity to mask wearing.  The notable difference in age is in the tendency for older people to be more conscious about wearing masks under most circumstance.

Wearing masks varies by geography with South and Midwest more begrudgingly wearing face coverings on a consistent basis than the rest of the country. If we look at the relationship between urbanicity and beliefs about the pandemic, we can see a clear relationship.   The more urban an area is, the more likely the population will have more views consistent with the pandemic being a threat and compliance in wearing a mask.

What you see is what you believe

As former Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill was fond of saying “all politics are local”.  The same seems to be the case for consumer behavior regarding beliefs about the coronavirus and wearing masks.

The human species is distinct in that they are likely the only one that has the ability to think in abstraction.  However, in times of crisis we tend to revert to our more basic extinct of being devout empiricists. If we don’t experience it or know some who has first hand, it must not exist. This bias is turbo charged by the politicization and confirmation bias which ultimately results in these divergent attitudes and resultant behaviors.

What is the bottom line for businesses and policy makers? It’s a tough nut to crack as entrenchment on the issue for some is intertwined with political loyalty and self-identity.

If we look to past successful social policy on how to influence consumer behavior we can look at the United States’ succession attempt to at smoking cessation which is now at an all-time low (14%). A combination of sharing consistent scientific data from legitimate sources, organized and orchestrated changes in national and regional public policy, public-private collaboration, and time brought smoking from 45% of the population in 1965 to 14% today. It took the nation nearly 50 years to quit smoking.

With a vaccine likely not available until 2021 we have limited tools and time to manage the pandemic but much at stake.  A study by Victor Chernozhukova of MIT, Hiroyuki Kasahara and Paul Schrimpf of the University of British Columbia’s School of Economics concluded that a national mask mandate would have save 40,000 lives in April and May of 2020.  According to a recent study from Goldman Sachs lack of mask adoption nationally would wipe 5% off our Gross Domestic Product by year’s end or about $900 billion dollars, slightly more than the entire GDP of Turkey.

What federal and state public policy will ultimately be is unclear and so therefore so is our future.  Based on our data it does appear, however, there is a high degree of (self-reported) of compliance in wearing masks and a belief in the seriousness of the pandemic by the majority of Americans.

Unboxing: The Forgotten Gift in CX

It was Easter morning. My wife always tries to make things special for our two little girls. Today was no exception as she prepared to have her favorite chocolates delivered in advance to our home all wrapped up as a big surprise.

Easter morning our chocoholic girls (9 and 11) bounced down the stairs to tear open their Easter baskets. They ripped through the packaging to reveal the content of the box.

“Gross! “said my oldest opening up the box.

Her wrapped chocolate set look like the Vulcan from Star Trek who had a transporter malfunction. It was one melted mess. 

“Ack!” said my youngest. Same melted mess.

My wife looked utterly devasted. I realized the store screwed up, but I didn’t know how bad they screwed up in the eyes of my wife. To me it was melted chocolate, to her something much more profound.

For her there was meaning behind this brand of chocolates. They were connected to her childhood memories of when her rather health-conscious Aunt and Uncle gave this same exact same high-end brand of chocolates as a rare treat to her during a difficult time in her life.

The melted chocolates were symbolic of a special and emotional moment in her life. One that was sullied by the molten mess before all of us that morning.

When it comes to out of the box experiences you can’t un-ring the bell.

Great Boxes and Broken Boxes

Many companies unknowingly completely blow it through just plain neglect. This results in disappointment, lack of use, and in some cases, outright defection from the brand.

It’s a shame, as this is a critical moment of truth that when done wrong can flush millions of R&D, marketing, and distribution efforts down the drain with one wrong mishap.

The “unboxing” experience has long been well researched and respected in CPG, but much less attention has been paid in other industries. Apple is one of the masters of the unboxing experience. Their packaging looks high-end, it is simple, and you are up in running very quickly after opening the package.

Others such as Stitch Fix make the unboxing experience the experience; even more prominent for some customers than the contents of the package. Perhaps not accidentally, this also creates a nice social media buzz and free media.

The unboxing experience is not relegated to hardline and softline goods, but can also be applied to experiences. Disney Resorts does a fantastic job of getting their guests excited for their vacation by providing a Welcome Package


Other verticals have floundered. For example, it is not unusual to buy a $50,000 automobile and have it delivered with a 20-minute walk around tutorial from a salesperson with little fanfare, leaving customers confused and a bit let down. With the increasing amount of technology piled into a new vehicle, this can become a real issue in usability and adoption as well.

The most expensive items you will buy in your life — your education and your home — also can have a dismal on-boarding experience. Newcomers approach these large and complex purchases for the first time and must interface with a half a dozen different unique entities to complete their purchase. They are unsure of the flow or the people involved. Intermediaries such as agents and registrars can help, but even their oversight is inadequate in creating a seamless experience.

So, how do we make the out of the box experience better? Here are a few hints.

Do your Homework

This may surprise you, but I would recommend the first thing you do is try and really understand your customer. This involves two preliminary steps: understand your different customer personas and then understand their journey. For example, this is a generic and simplified journey for typical traditional college student.

Looking at this journey, first ask: How might this journey look different for those engaged in distant learning, for working students, and non-traditional students. Is it the same journey or slightly different? Are the steps the same or are their additional ones or ones that are skipped.

Secondly, identify where things can be made better by persona. Where can we eliminate ‘friction’ or provide an opportunity for the client that benefits both the University and the student. 

As I have written in the past, this does not need to be an arduous prolonged process. A good plan acted upon is better than a perfect plan that takes months. There are better and worse ways of doing this, but the main point here is this; get it done.

Reduce Complexity and Clutter

Which of the following packaging is more appealing to you?

I have asked this question at conferences all over the world. Guess which one people prefer by a 5 to 1 margin? It’s not hard, but it’s amazing how many very large companies are just plain bad at it.

Likewise, don’t just think about the appearance, layout, and information displayed, it is also about opening the package itself. Ever try and open a well-engineered blisterpack? While it does keep the product well secured, it is a maddening enterprise to open and almost an impossibility for the very young or the very old. It’s not only annoying, some estimate this clever packaging result in nearly 6,000 trips to the emergency room in the US every year.

Finally, think about waste. In this day of delivery and fear of damage during transit, there is a lot of packaging waste. How can you minimize the amount of packaging required? For example, do we really need to wrap up fruit when it is already encased in god’s own wrapper?

There are many good strategies for reducing waste such as using bio-degradable and recyclable materials. The best strategy to reduce waste, however, is to reduce packaging material.

However, keeping it simple isn’t limited to just product packaging and modulars, but also very much applies to websites. is infamously bad. While few approach Ling’s sensory onslaught, there a numerous UX experiences that certainly approach that level of visual mania.

When it comes to ‘out of the box’ or onboarding experiences, less is more. Figure out ways to very simply communicate how to people the information they quickly and effectively. 

While Cox Communications has some challenges in other aspects of their CX, I have found their installation guides to be simple and easy to use. This has the benefit of saving Cox the expense of sending a tech out to do something 95% of Americans can do and doesn’t require the customer to sit around waiting for that tech to show up in a 12-hour window. With available call in support techs, this approach likely reduced cost while increasing CX.

Always keep in mind the key question; what is the customer trying to do? Then make it simple for them to do it.

The Art of Surprise

One day I observed my then 8-year-old daughter spend about 6 hours watching other children opening cheap plastic eggs on YouTube. Besides mulling over the fact that I will never win the Parent of the Year award, I also reflected on the trance-like state it put my normally loquacious daughter in. She’s not alone, these short 5-10 minute videos attracted views in the billions. Billions of views of a low res, amateur video of other kids unwrapping eggs. 

What can we learn here?

First, we might conclude our society is going to hell in a handbasket. Setting that fact aside, we might also conclude that people really, really, like surprises. In fact, research shows that it is an emotional turbocharger, creating much more pleasurable feeling than when just presented with something pleasant that is expected. Why do you think you find so many people at the gambling table late at night in Vegas? It’s not just the free booze folks, it’s to get that one last gambler’s high feeling of winning. An unexpected blackjack or a serendipitous roll of the dice. That’s what makes Vegas…Vegas.

Ask yourself; how can inject that surprise into the out of the box experience? Put a pleasant variable element into your delivery. Some use a gift, but that’s kind of boring and really has no surprises associated. Why not do what stitch fix does and build the surprise into the offering. Own a lawn service? Maybe some customer randomly receives other ancillary services with having the overall cost structure built-in across customer to minimize risk.

At our AirBnBs, we throw a random six-pack of local craft beer for some of our guests…and local chocolate for others. They don’t expect it, and it’s a small expense…but it sets us apart in a highly competitive environment.

Consistently Deliver

An unpleasant surprise is equally unwelcome as we opened with. You MUST meet the minimum requirements for out of the box usage very consistently. Delivery services rarely lose packages but when they do, there is hell to pay.

Before working on simplifying packaging and creating surprises, you first must ensure that basic blocking and tackling is covered. Products cannot be damaged, they shouldn’t be late, and they shouldn’t be out of stock. Even small incidences of this can seriously damage a brand and the related deleterious consumer behavior consequences.

Thinking Out of the Box for Out of the Box Experiences

If you haven’t thought about how people first interact with your product or service, you should. First impressions are powerful and will predict whether you win or lose that customers business in the future.

There are many simple ways to make the out of the box experience better. From simplifying the process to making it more celebratory and fun for the customer. However, whatever you do, don’t screw it up and melt the chocolate. Good luck on your out of the box reinvention.