The experiences outside your app matter just as much as those inside it.
The Honest Company recently faced allegations of making it impossible to cancel their subscription service. Customers complained of being misled into free trials, forced to give over their credit card information when redeeming a gift card, and put on hold for consistently long periods when trying to cancel. All this frustration stems from one business decision: subscription cancellations must take place over the phone. Unfortunately this decision isn’t uncommon for subscriptions services, especially services that don’t provide a service valuable enough to keep people from cancelling.
Another one of these shady services is Handy, documented in this episode of Reply All where they try to figure out why it’s impossible to cancel continuous home cleaning appointments via the app. Their service issue can gets summed up in one line:
“You sign up for recurring appointments, they come to your house once a month and you give them money until one day you die.”
We expect this sort of runaround with mustache-twirling purveyors of human misery like Comcast and Time Warner Cable but expect more tact from flashy startups that promise to make the world a better place. Why do so many companies let their customer experience devolve to the point where a very common request, cancelling, throws the user into a purgatory of dead ends, unanswered emails, and hold music?
Designing for experiences you don’t control
Arguably every experience a user has in one you can’t control. Less literally, all the experiences outside of UX likely don’t involve you as part of the decision-making process, so are ones you don’t control. If you’re reading this, you’re probably familiar with User Experience, or UX. UX traditionally focuses on the digital and involves things like usability testing, visual design, information architecture, content strategy, and interaction design. However, all this design and testing is usually focused on one or a few digital environments. For Netflix or Amazon this refers to website, mobile apps, TV apps, etc. But there is much more that a user experiences outside of what happens within certain applications or on a screen at all. This is where Customer Experience, CX, comes in.
Think of UX as one area of CX. It covers most of the digital interactions with a user where CX covers everything from customer service to SEO, to whether or not your batteries cause the phone to catch fire. These of course have a direct relationship with each other since they are all facets of one product. If your user has a poor experience with any one aspect of a product, it will affect his or her perception of the rest of the product. Executives and product leaders have more control when it comes to affecting the entire environment around a product, but that doesn’t mean an individual team or designer is powerless to improve the overall experience.
Digital interfaces are the primary touch point for most users of web based products today. Yet a primary interface doesn’t mean we can pretend others don’t exist. It seems sometimes like the teams that create mobile apps are completely divorced from the companies that hold them. Just because a communication or process isn’t headed by your team doesn’t mean you can ignore it completely.
A common disconnect between customer and product comes in coupons and promo codes. Some restrictions always apply, but that communication isn’t always clear in the ad. There are always flyers around town advertising promo codes for Uber or Lyft sometimes mentioning that the code is only for new users. Similarly, products know that users are always searching for their own promo codes on third party sites. These codes usually don’t appear with whatever legalese accompanies traditional ads or any sort of communication of use restrictions.
Within both Uber and Lyft however, they offer a clear line to communicate to the user why the code isn’t valid. This simple error message provides a better overall customer experience. This bright point doesn’t absolve these companies completely as there are still huge lapses in UX and CX like when customer service laughs at a rider claiming to have been sexually assaulted by a driver. Is it fair to expect such large companies to have complete control over their employee? No. However, improving the process on the digital front can help mitigate points where less predictable pieces of the puzzle cause harm. These points can include people, shipping, defects, advertising confusing, etc. Let’s look at the most prominent player in this sort of disconnect.
If you’re looking for the gold standard of customer dissatisfaction, look no further than any telecom. Telecoms like Comcast, Mediacom, and Charter consistently rank lowest in customer satisfaction surveys. Most of these issues come from two areas: poor cancellation and service experience, and inconsistent communications. Is it pure greed that’s to blame for the archaic cancellation processes at these companies? Horror stories abound of customers getting floated around from support rep to support rep in search for answers. Some companies attempt change and Comcast even offers multiple options for beginning their cancellation process. How shady are these practices? Is it naive to think that all it takes is a little communication between teams to solve these headaches, considering they’re usually the only game in town?
Communication across teams and departments is essential to creating positive experiences. Ideally there would be a team or person tasked with overseeing the end-to-end experience for individuals. Even with such a team in place, communication and understanding across teams is essential for building a product culture where the user is at the center of all of these interactions. Dogfooding along with regular audits can also help too. Such a system where the people creating a product are using it the way a user would allows for informal checks and tests that keep a product fresh. It’s impossible for one team to manage all the interactions with a customer. The first step comes in recognizing all the ways a customer experiences your product outside of the product itself.
For many, and ad is often how a user first interacts with your product. These ads develop a tone and most importantly a promise to the consumer that your product needs to deliver on or risk dissatisfaction. Regular communication with the people who handle ads for your product can quell such disconnects.
One of the most broken pieces of products is email. Look at the gem above from PacSun. These types of misleading emails lead users to distrust your company not matter how great or usable the actual product is. Regular communication with the people who work on not only transactional but marketing communications can help sort out things that devalue your product. Email cadence and content can have a much greater effect on whether or not a user comes back or has a positive image of your product than the length of time it takes to checkout.
Word of mouth
Not everything your user experience gets generated by your company. If a lot of people hear that your app foments racism, that has a major impact. Public relations is part of this issue, but in the case of Airbnb the interface itself can mitigate issues like these. Learning about other areas of your product and communicating regularly with real, diverse users keeps you in the loop of how real world people receive your product.
Products that do it right
This focus on whole customer experience doesn’t always mean a dip in revenue. Companies like Amazon and Apple are obsessively focused on the experience both on and off of screens. Consequently, both of these massive companies have subscription programs that offer dead simple online cancellation for other peoples’ products.
What makes these products different? Having a focus on customer experience doesn’t always work out so well for the workers, but the culture of user-first experiences needs to come from the top and it needs to come from the start. Offering in-app chat, clarifying text next to input fields, and offering places for feedback are all helpful solutions. Some take more support from other areas of development and cooperation across business units. If you’re creating something new, the user is at the center of everything. Pushing the user to the side early on can have big consequences once your product scales and it can be difficult to reign in bad practices one they’re ingrained.
When creating, don’t stop at the app. Think about how your product fits into the user’s life. When you look at the world and how your product fits into it, you see your product as your user sees it, and you starting treating them the way you like products to treat you. Only then do you end up with something worth using.