10 CX Principles to Make the Most of Your Company’s Setting Design

Every customer experience has what’s called a setting, the context in which the customer interacts with your organization. It can be your building or your website, your customer service phone line or your mobile app. Sometimes settings travel to the customer, like when an HVAC servicing company visits a home to perform maintenance; in that case, the HVAC company’s van provides a mobile setting. Done well, settings tell a story and create an emotional response. Done poorly, settings can undermine and destroy everything you hoped to communicate about your brand and what you stand for.

Whether a setting is physical or virtual, it helps deliver service, communicate your organization’s brand promise, and create a customer experience. It’s not just window dressing, it’s a critical component. Like all components of a great customer experience, a great setting must be designed. After all, Cinderella’s Castle at the Magic Kingdom in Walt Disney World didn’t happen by accident, it was purposefully, intentionally, and thoughtfully designed. In the course of being first software designers and then experience designers, we’ve built up a list of setting design principles, tools, and tricks that help us achieve our goal of using the setting to create a great customer experience.Everything speaks.

1. Everything speaks.

This is one of several design principles that we borrow from Disney: “everything speaks” means that every component of your setting sends a message to the customer whether intentional or accidental. Flickering fluorescent lights, dirty carpets, broken hyperlinks, and obnoxiously loud and distorted hold music all send messages of neglect, decay, and disregard for the customer experience. Smiling greeters, immaculate facilities, pleasant background music, and clear signage all send the opposite, positive message that helps create a great experience. Everything in your setting speaks, so listen and decide if you like what it’s saying.

2. Use a weenie as a focal point.

No, don’t run out and buy a gigantic frankfurter. Walt Disney coined the term “weenie” to describe the visual centerpiece of an area, the thing that can be seen from a distance and draws your eye to it. At the Magic Kingdom, it’s Cinderella’s Castle; at Epcot, it’s the giant silver golf ball called Spaceship Earth. In my neck of the woods, the statue of William Penn atop City Hall in Philadelphia is a weenie, visually distinctive and visible along most of the major thoroughfares in the city. The Eiffel Tower, Big Ben, and the Gateway Arch in St. Louis are all weenies.

If you have a physical location, is there an opportunity to create a weenie? If your customers interact with you virtually, can you create a visual centerpiece on your website or app? Create that centerpiece and draw their attention to it.

2. Use color to support the story.

A great customer experience tells a story about your company and your relationship with your customer, but in business, we tend towards the drab and neutral so as to appear “professional” and inoffensive. Color is a great tool that can both differentiate your organization and create an emotional response in your customer base. Use color! Eight percent of men and one-half of one percent of women are color blind so color can’t be the sole conveyor of information, but used properly, it can add an exceptional punch to your message.

3. Good settings behave like polite people.

In a previous post, I talked about how great organizations behave like good people, and so do great settings. Is your physical space or website full of “under construction” messages or rude warnings, or do you gently guide visitors so that they can achieve your goals? Does your website remember customer preferences? Does your physical building anticipate visitor needs? When creating a setting, take the time and effort to ensure that it behaves like someone helpful and friendly, not someone obstructive and rude.

4. Hide the implementation model; follow the customer’s mental model.

In software, the implementation model is the nuts and bolts of how software works, a terrifying and complicated world of database calls, network transactions, memory management, and algorithmic processing. At the user level, however, the user’s “mental model” is all that matters. “If I click on this button, this is what should happen,” represents the user’s mental model; the user doesn’t care about the thousands of low-level operations that occur to make that result happen. Likewise, your customers probably don’t need to know about the internal complexities of your supply chain management or your logistics system or your recruiting process. Hide the details, and present your customers with a setting that fits their model, not yours.

5. Engage as many senses as possible whenever possible; smell is the sense most associated with memory.

The Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World is fantastic at engaging all of your senses when you enter the park early on a bright spring day. Visually, the colors and design of Main Street and costumed cast member dominate the foreground while Cinderella’s Castle forms a picture-perfect backdrop. Live bands are playing music and warm breezes flow past your skin. Popcorn vendors are standing at the ready by their carts.

Wait, popcorn? This early in the morning? C’mon, I know it’s vacation, but even I don’t think that’s a nutritionally sound breakfast.

Disney isn’t making popcorn because market demand is high in the morning. They’re doing it to create the smell, filling the circle in Main Street with the aromas of fresh popcorn. It’s a smell that evokes ball games and parties, circuses and country fairs. It provokes a subconscious emotional response, and it’s by design.

Disney does this all over the place. They have “smellitizers” that create intentionally designed scents on attractions and throughout the parks. They use ambient music and sound effects all over the place, not just in rides and attractions. They even pave the walkways in different lands to reflect the theme of that area so your feet tell a different message in Tomorrowland then they do in Adventureland. And of course, Disney is an absolute master of the visual; they recognize that the daylight in Florida is less red than the daylight in California, so they use different paints in Disneyland to achieve the same effect they want in Walt Disney World.

You’re probably not going to add an aroma browser plugin to your website anytime soon, but anywhere you have an opportunity, design your setting to engage the senses.

6. At scale, design is free.

If you design something for one customer, that one customer bears the full cost. If you design it for a million customers, the design cost per customer is practically zero. As your audience grows, the cost of design per customer falls.

If you are designing a new piece of your setting like a promotional piece, or a new product, or a website that will have tens of thousands of visitors, invest some extra effort in the design. It pays off as your audience gets bigger.

7. Significant change must be significantly better.

Customers get used to the way you do things, and the better your customer experience is, the more attached they become. But progress marches on and sometimes we just need to make a change. If you’re going to make a significant change to your setting, make sure it’s significantly better than what you used to have. Facebook in its early days was notorious for making changes to its interface that didn’t seem to benefit the users; each time Facebook changed, the users howled. Remember, you don’t get to decide what’s better, your customers do.

8. Don’t make the customer feel stupid.

In my technical world, it’s very easy to make non-programmers feel stupid. Computers are so complex that they become magical boxes to most people, and people tend to be intimidated by things they don’t understand. We teach our folks to envision our clients as “very smart, but very busy; they don’t have time to know all the stuff you know.” Those of us who live in complex industries must be cautious not to make our customers feel stupid through our use of jargon or our assumptions that something should be “easy.” Your setting can gently assist your customers; don’t navigate them into a dead end or leave them uncertain what to do next. Never make the customer feel stupid.

9. Optimize for intermediates.

In a similar vein, all customers start out as novices at the art of working with your organization. How do I order your products? What do I do if I have a problem? What’s the part number for that item? But any customer who works with you more than once learns, and instead of remaining a novice they become an intermediate. You should optimize the design of your setting and your customer experience for the intermediates. Support the novices, but don’t impede the experts.

10. If it’s worth it to the customer to tell you something, it’s worth it to your organization to remember it.

Here’s another design principle from great organizations behave like good people, and this one is simple: find a way for your organization to remember what your customers tell you. The Four Seasons Hotel chain is notorious for remembering and “playing back” guest preferences. Create a system for recording the things your customers tell you, and then find a way to use that information to enhance your setting.

Make these principles work for you.

For many of us, setting is a passive backdrop  something essential but unimportant. The reality is that setting can be a tremendous workhorse and differentiator in the way you interact with your customers and a key component in the creation of an exceptional customer experience. Not every design principle applies to every setting, but if you pick and choose in a way that makes sense, these tools can help you do amazing things.

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