As customer journeys become increasingly complex, and users interact with brands across a number of channels — customer service, retail, campaigns, websites, social media, apps, events — experience designers must navigate these new realms to create consistent, connected experiences.
Let’s take a closer look at the skills and the mindset that shape experience designers for the connected age.
Working as an experience designer in a global company has always meant pushing the bar of innovation and quality of craft. But over the last couple years, the significant transformation in the way people interact with brands has required designers to broaden the scope of channels they are able to design for — including digital experiences in physical spaces, connected devices, internet of things, wearables, social channels and whatnot.
It’s what we like to call the Connected Age.
How do we, as designers, make sure the experiences we are building still feel like they are coming from the same brand? How can we use design to ensure the customer experience feels connected and consistent across all these different touch points?
Agencies are pretty fast-paced environments. Designers have to shift from one client/project/challenge to the other fairly quickly — sometimes multiple times in the same week. But there was one week in September here at our San Francisco office that felt really unique in that sense. It reflected pretty well how the transformation in the way people interact with brands these days affects the average week in the life of an experience designer, and the types of skills they are using every day.
Let’s dive right into it.
We’ve recently kicked off our Connected Commerce Accelerator program at R/GA San Francisco, and the biggest question the program hopes to answer is: what does the future of commerce look like?
The ten startups that are now part of the program have been carefully selected amongst hundreds of applicants to provide a holistic view into the shopping journey — from messaging bots, to visual recognition and connected experience technologies, to innovations in fulfillment, returns, and staff training.
One by one, we’re helping these companies re-think their product offerings and the way they communicate them out to the world. Part of that effort includes concepting new user interface (UI) solutions for their customers — like we would do with any other client, big or small.
But the beauty of working with early-stage startups is the access you have to the founders and C-suite. Regular access to the top puts designers in a very unique situation, and makes it much easier to define clear problems and share thinking early and often. There are no layers of interpretation and games of telephone, and you get things right much faster.
Our team was sketching interface ideas on a whiteboard with the founder of one of the startups — thinking through how great design could help their users have an easier, more useful, and more delightful experience.
But with great access comes great responsibility.
Knowing the impact of design decisions becomes more and more crucial for designers in the connected age.
At the same time the designer is discussing and defending design decisions, they need to have a pretty solid understanding of the business implications of each one of them.
Because early-stage startups are still in the process of defining their business model, in many cases a simple design change can mean a complete overhaul on how the company is set up and how it engages its customers.
The week was just getting started.
Over the last few years, the scope of work of the connected experience designer has expanded way beyond websites and mobile apps. Screens and digital experiences are becoming more pervasive than ever, and designers need to understand how those experiences translate to different environments and contexts.
That Tuesday I was fortunate enough to join some of the user testing sessions our team was running for Oak Labs, a startup that is bridging the worlds of tech and retail, designing elegant and intuitive customer experiences that happen inside the store.
One of Oak’s products is an interactive mirror interface, created to enhance and augment the fitting room experience for customers who are shopping in physical stores. Our task was to understand how shoppers were interacting with their current UI and which functionalities they find most relevant to make their shopping experience more seamless, efficient and interesting.
This was no traditional user testing session — where users are sitting in front of a computer trying to complete tasks with a cursor. A lot of different factors that are far away from the screen can influence and shift perception of the experience. How do people navigate in the physical space before getting to the fitting room? How do you ensure that the product information displayed on the mirror doesn’t get in the way of trying on a new outfit? What are the most common tasks and behaviors in that context?
Being able to think about the user journey more holistically and look at everything that happens beyond the screen becomes crucial to understanding people’s motivations and behaviors as they interact with the screen.
Chatbots are the next big thing in design — and our industry has been seeing big interest from brands and organizations in exploring this space. Automated, conversational experiences allow brands to inspire, communicate with and serve their customers right where they are, in a much more intuitive, scalable fashion.
In a way, conversational experiences require a similar process to designing and crafting traditional interfaces — the ones made with pixels, buttons and menus. And as expected, prototyping plays an important role in making sure the design team is creating the best possible experience for the user.
That Wednesday one of our experience designers spent some time prototyping the first iteration of a chatbot for one of our clients.
The process required a new form of collaboration, where the experience designer works very closely with a copywriter to craft the conversation between user and bot. On one end, the experience designer’s systematic brain helps the writer plan the bot interactions in a decision-tree format, while on the other they can leverage the writer’s storytelling brain to make the conversation flow more naturally and ultimately ladder up to a larger brand story.
Awareness campaigns have evolved way beyond the traditional model of top-down messaging from the brand. Users are learning about products through different information sources (ads, influencers, friends, specialists), in different formats (videos, tweets, consumer reviews) and across different channels (social, web, retail, messaging apps).
Creating relevant awareness campaigns these days involves mapping out the entire ecosystem and taking into consideration all the behaviors people have in relation to that product or brand category.
Having to take all those factors into consideration also affects the types of brains we need in the room. One of our experience designers joined a team of art director and copywriter to help consolidate all the campaign ideas through the lens of the consumer journey, as well as organize all the possible flows in a more systematic way.
The output: a campaign ecosystem map, documenting all the touchpoints and interactions our customers might experience through their journey — and how those bits and pieces connect in a seamless and smart way.
Friday: A day of reflections
The week was coming to an end.
Looking back at everything the team had been able to accomplish was exciting and provocative. There were two inevitable truths across all those tasks and transforming the way designers operate in this new environment: a connected mindset, and a channel-agnostic skill set.
Five years ago, a week in the life of an experience designer would unfold in a much more predictable fashion, require a much more controlled set of skills, and include a much more limited range of tasks and activities. Today, we’re working across disciplines, expanding our thinking and creative know-how to connect the dots between our clients, their consumers, and the increasingly connected world around us.
If you’re interested in the topic, you should watch the presentation below, by Richard Ting and Chloe Gottlieb — Everything is Connected.