Forget ‘customer experience’. How about ‘human experiences’?

Reflection on the 10-year-old forecast.


ekaterina khramkova

3 years ago | 9 min read

A man remains an enigma both in the technical and social sense.
Today, we don’t know the limits of human capabilities,
But it is exactly that the shape of the future depends on it.

~Sergei Kurdyumov, outstanding Russian scientist, one of the contributors of the concept synergetic and theory of non-linear evolutionary equations.

Ten years ago I wrote an article ‘Forget ‘customer experience’. How about ‘human experiences?’ which later became part of the chapter ‘Design: From Making Things to Designing the Future’ contributed to book “Sustaining Cultural Development: Unified Systems and New Governance in Cultural Life”, published by Routledge, London in 2013 and republished again in 2016.

In 2009, it was too early (and too crazy) for the idea of refusing such fundamental and widely used term as ‘customer experience’, but now I can see signs that the ice is being broken. Does that mean we go through a sort of a paradigm shift which implies lots of implications for businesses and society?

I think so.

For example, in 2018 Deloitte Digital announced their strategic shift from developing ‘customer experience’ to elevating ‘human experiences’. Here is a nice video explanation of what it means for Deloitte in words of Deloitte Consulting’s Principals — Anthony Stephan, Amelia Dunlop and others.

Human Experience is about meeting people’s — not just customers’ — fundamental values.

Interesting enough, in May 2019 I encountered an article with a very similar to my own headline ‘Forget customer experience, human experience is marketing’s next frontier’in Australian CMO, featuring Deloitte Digital’s new way of undertaking consulting services:

Customer experience (CX) is being superseded by human experience (HX) and it is those companies who recognise this that will have an advantage. Or so says Amelia Dunlop, US head of customer strategy and applied design for Deloitte Digital.
A year ago, Deloitte Digital changed the way it undertakes consulting services, bringing anything to do with the customer and marketing under the one roof. This means CX, digital strategy, innovation, digital transformation, human-centred design and all that goes with these, sit together and lead into the sales and marketing groups.
All of this changes hinges on a new focus for Deloitte Digital: Human-centric design, Dunlop told CMO.

Below is the text written in 2009. I still think we are only in the very beginning of the shift and companies like Deloitte are first ‘seagulls’. Similar to that from ‘Jonathan Livingston Seagull’, they are only paving the way, often in the dark, but the sunrise is unstoppable.

Moving away from such notions as ‘customer experience’ will help us overcome tunnel thinking limitations that impede our understanding of the most important question: ‘What does it mean to be human after all?’

I believe that the whole survival of civilization depends on the answer to this “simple” question, in the face of which a fierce debate unfolds about the future of AI.

What is the most significant change in people’s minds that we all witness nowadays? The change that heavily influences all spheres of human activity? I think it is the growing consciousness with which people start approaching their life experience. Following Peter Drucker’s prediction of almost 20 years ago, we are now taking responsibility for better knowing ourselves and finding the right place to develop our being. In other words, more and more we will aspire to comprehend the needs of our inner state rather than be obsessed with the external symbols of prestige and status prescribed by the culture of consumption. The shift obviously began in the West some time ago, but still waits in the wings in countries like Russia.

What does this existential transformation mean for businesses?

One of the implications is that in the near future we are going to witness indicative changes in such a determinant for modern marketing construct as ‘the consumer’. As a consequence, we will transcend customer experience to arrive at ‘[total] human experience’. And it is here that the new opportunities for further development lie.

There has already been plenty of discussions, especially among design consultancies, about how we should approach the category of people who buy and use our products and services: the ‘users’, ‘customers’, ‘participants’ or even ‘co-creators’. But what I would like to stress here is that regardless of the name we play around with, we still aim at creating and ultimately managing experiences which, in our opinion, would suit all possible and impossible people’s needs in order to make them our customers. However, this generous intention has obvious problems, for, according to Harvard Business Review article ‘Marketing Malpractice’, ‘every year brings 30,000 of new products. About 90 per cent of them fail despite thorough and expensive market research (Christensen et al).

Every year brings 30,000 of new products. About 90 per cent of them fail despite thorough and expensive market research.
~Harvard Business Review, Christensen et al.

The convergence of marketing segments on the one hand and their endless proliferation on the other, a complex media environment, thousands of players and endless product choice, pervasive uncertainty, principal unpredictability of the customer’s journey and, as a result, low Return On Investment (ROI) in New Product Development (NPD), are just the tip of an iceberg.

At the bottom is our habitual (Aristotelean) mode of thinking in terms of opposition and rigid boundaries: there is a corporate world at one end and there are those whose raison d’etre is to consume everything businesses produce.

The latter may have their needs but it is only the former with its global system of production and distribution that can satisfy them. Ironically, as Raymond Williams puts in his ‘A vocabulary of Culture and Society’, ‘in almost all its early English uses, consume had an unfavorable sense; it meant to destroy, to use up, to waste, to exhaust…’.

It is useful to remember then that the modern ‘consumer’ came into contemporary lexicon following the evolution of a large-scale industrial economy, and its necessity not only to supply goods and services, but also to plan well in advance its production. Thus along with the development of modern commercial advertising, the machine creating needs and wants came into existence.

Today, when people are getting more and more self-conscious, I think we will see the transformation of ‘customer needs’ into ‘human lessons’ as a basis for future businesses.

It seems not to be a bad way out of the impasse in which the global economy found itself after having tried for the last 50+ years to catch up, predict, meet, guess and, of course, create these notorious ‘customer needs’ with — let’s be honest — a questionable result.

After all, ‘customer experience’ in its exact sense is just a small part of the total human journey on this planet called Earth.Narrowly defined ‘customer journeys’ limit our opportunities, reducing them to those mainly unpredictable moments when people think they have the sort of product or service upon which we try to establish our business.

As a human, I am always on. But as a customer, only when I want to be and, of course, I do not care about how I increase my loyalty to some particular brands or help your business outperform your competitor!

What if we try to reconfigure ‘customer touch points’ along the ‘customer journey’, as well as ‘customer needs’ and ‘customer intelligence’, into ‘human touch points’, ‘human needs’, ‘human intelligence’ and so forth? If we follow this approach we do not construct anything new but follow life in all its complexity and richness. This, I would say Zen, approach means we start seeing the world as it is beyond the boundaries of different market segments and product categories, but as we usually see it when leading our day- to-day life. That immediately means we abandon a ‘customer’ approach in favor of a more holistic, more ‘human’ one.

This is, for example, what Virgin and Starbucks did when they expanded the apparently fixed boundaries in their industries’ ‘customer journey’. From a marketing point of view they initiated a kind of revolution, but from a human point of view all they did was just to follow people in their life journey. It is so natural; when we fly or drink coffee we do not stop thinking, talking, communicating and enjoying life regardless of the industry to which these activities can be ascribed to.

It is this that IKEA does when displaying its products in environments rather than as solitary and isolated pieces of furniture. It went beyond the boundaries of products thinking to lifestyle thinking in the same way that we fill our living rooms with all sorts of objects — furniture, textile and dishware, lighting, paintings and electronics, food, clothes and souvenirs easily find themselves together in our personal space without paying attention to what product categories they belong to.

In the same way approach taken by Nike+ and iPod shows a more complete understanding of people’s lives overstepping the limits of ‘customer experience’ in garments and gadgets taken separately. Did they create something really new when they suggested people put on sportswear and listen to their favorite music while running? No, millions of people around the globe nowadays wear sports shoes and turn on music players for their morning run. And, of course, they do this simultaneously. Nike+ has become so popular only because Nike and Apple have synchronized these two (from a marketing point of view, different) product categories that already existed in exercise experiences and simply added some nice features like calorimeters, website and so forth. After all, as Nobel prize winner Albert Szent-Györgyi once noticed, ‘Discovery consists of seeing what everybody has seen and thinking what nobody has thought’.

Discovery consists of seeing what everybody has seen and thinking what nobody has thought.
~Nobel prize winner Albert Szent-Györgyi

But all these examples are just the first step on this path to break all the boundaries we have in marketing today. The point is that a lexicon of opposition between companies and customers, not to mention competition, is very much there. Today’s marketing vocabulary resembles that of war reports: ‘how to allocate appropriate resources’, ‘how to retain customers’, ‘how to build marketing databases to analyze customer buying patterns’ and so on and so on. If somebody from Mars looked through the headlines of business magazines, they could deduce that ‘companies’ and ‘customer’ are two opposing parties leading a constant battle against each other; while the former try to find, reach, ‘become closer’ and make their opposition buy and retain, the latter tend to escape, to slip away, become invisible for marketers and finally to make their ‘final decision’ regardless of the company’s business aims and objectives. And billions is spent on advertising campaigns. Bearing in mind the emergence of an advanced, very well-informed and experienced customer, it is no wonder that companies seem to lose the battle…

The imbalance between those who can change something in this life — big brands, global organizations and influential corporations — and those who can only accept, consume without any significant influence upon the situation has reached its maximum.

From now on we will witness how ‘average customers’ will raise their voices, saying that they also want to actively participate in the process and impact upon decisions critical to them, their children and future generations, human civilization and the environment. Businesses will not be able to compete with this exponentially increasing number of people worldwide and will have to change their mindset and create organizations based on partnership and participation.

My understanding of the future is that we are going to experience a significant shift in business languageas a result of emerging aspirations of people both inside (workers) and outside (consumers) the company to make the most of their potential, to learn more about their strengths and limitations, to be fulfilled as friends, lovers, parents, neighbors, thinkers — you name it. That means they — we! — will work and spend mainly to experience new lessons during our life-long journey and not to just to satisfy some vague ‘wants’, ‘needs’ and ‘norms’.

And all that is a fundamental change to make us stop thinking in terms of ‘they’ or ‘us’ and start thinking in terms of ‘us’.

Why? Because following people’s changed aspirations, we will have to reject the division, the segmentation of the market as useless since in front of us we will see different groups of people, whose aim would be to learn how to become more daring, or loving, or self-controlling, or able to think more creatively and imaginatively. Thus marketing’s goal, which is today to reach consumers in order to make them decide to buy and to manage their customer experiences, will be transformed into how to help people raise their consciousness and realize their full potential. One of the biggest challenges I see to this is that marketing professionals of the future will have to think not so much in terms of profit but of fulfillment — their own and that of those whom they are surrounded by in the market place. But anyway in this game there will be no providers and consumers, only partners, since everybody will want to learn his own lessons!


Created by

ekaterina khramkova

Founder at design research and innovation consultancy Lumiknows, TEDx speaker, author.







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