Theodore Wolff, Danfoss
October 15, 2019

A few weeks ago, I spent three increasingly frustrating hours assembling a new TV stand with one of those fancy mounting stands on the back of it. I started the evening full of hope that I would soon have a new, safer way to display our TV and reduce the danger to our two-year-old son. Best of all, the conditions were perfect. Our son was away that evening, as well as our two dogs. Our two dogs, by the way, are the best way to gauge my frustration as I try to assemble things. If my increasingly audible sighs aren’t obvious enough indicators, the slinking away of the dogs and their sunken tails will tell the story.

By the end of the evening, having assembled the stand and mounted the television, I was too tired to fiddle with the angle of the television as it kept tilting down. Instead, I sat there wondering if this thing was going to topple over in the middle of the night. If I had any sense of relief it was that I wasn’t adding any more undue stress upon our dogs.

Now, I’m perfectly fine admitting that I’m not even close to being the world’s greatest assembler of furniture. But I think my slow and frustrating assembly had more to do with the following:

  • The instructions were not included in the furniture box
  • The only instructions I could find through Google was a collection of videos
  • I had to pause, skip back, and replay the videos multiple times

The result: a poor customer experience. How could this be a poor customer experience if I was able to assemble the TV stand? Yes, I did successfully assemble the TV stand. And if you worked for the company that developed this furniture, you might think you, as a company, succeeded. TV stand sold? Check. Furniture assembled? Bonus check.

However, this perspective, which I’ll call the inside-out perspective, ignores the customer’s actual desired outcome. My actual desired outcome was peace of mind that I would successfully assemble this TV stand to keep my son safe from a falling television. To understand this desired outcome is to take what I’ll call the outside-in perspective.

The outside-in perspective was the basis of my presentation at this year’s Best Practices Conference. The key question is this: How do we understand, as information developers, the customer experience? If we can develop a way to understand the customer experience, then we can measure and improve it. This is what world-class organizations do, and it’s what we must also do as information developers if we are going to be valuable contributors (and honor our own expectations as customers ourselves).

So how do we begin to understand our organization’s customer experience?

Here are two ways not to begin.

  • Ask internally about what is the process to create product information
  • Review the workflows and standards that govern your processes

We don’t begin by looking at what’s going on inside because your customers are not inside your organization–they are outside! (Even if your customers are internal, the same approach applies.)

Instead, we need to look at this from the outside and how customers interact with our organizations. Then you write down every interaction your customers have with your organization. The interactions might be obvious, such as a call to customer support or logging into your company’s app. Others might be less obvious, such as a customer’s software interfacing with your organization’s REST API.

Here’s an example from my TV stand story.

  1. Google “XYZ TV stand”
  2. Click the link to “XYZ TV stand” web site
  3. Find local retailers on XYZ web site
  4. Unbox TV stand
  5. Search the box again for instructions
  6. Google “XYZ TV stand instructions”
  7. Click the link to 3rd-party web site
  8. Click to play Introduction video
  9. Click to play Tools & Hardware video
  10. Re-watch the “Table Top Console assembly” video for the 8th time
  11. Call XYZ customer support to fix mounting issue
  12. Adjust mounting bracket
  13. Wait 1 day and frequently check to see if TV is still aligned

You might be thinking: “I have to write down every single interaction?” Yes. Every. Single. Interaction. Why? Because whether it seems silly or excessive to you might be a matter of choice, it’s certainly not a choice for your customers (unless they choose to take their business elsewhere).

But stop and think about a few of the interactions in the TV stand example and see how important it is to consider each one. Also, notice how easy it becomes to spot even the smallest possible improvement to the customer experience.

Step 1 – Google the instructions. Why do customers have to google for instructions? Because the instructions were not shipped with the product. (It turns out, you have to call to get a PDF copy. What year is this again?) Possible solutions: include the instructions in the box or make it obvious where the customer needs to go to get the instructions online.

Step 2 – Click the link. This might seem like a trivial interaction that can be skipped. But think about how many times you click a link and it is a) broken or b) takes you to the wrong site. The point here is that the customer must make an additional calculation about which link to click. This interaction, big or small, adds to the customer experience, nudging it toward good or bad.

Let’s skip ahead to Step 14. Now we’re on a 3rd-party web site watching an introduction video. Personally, I’m trying to figure out if the TV stand in the video looks like the one I just bought. And I’m wondering if this 3rd-party site is credible. But it’s getting late and I want to assemble this TV stand tonight because tomorrow my son and dogs will be home, and this supposedly simple task will become more difficult.

Wow. Steps 1 and 2 were simple. But by Step 14 there’s a lot going on inside my head. This is what we need to consider (not for me, but your customers). And it’s hard to consider our customer’s feelings, emotions, and unstated desires if we don’t start by looking at the picture from their perspective. It is this outside-in perspective that we need to take if we want to create positive customer experiences.

After you understand all the interactions your customers have with your organization, you can begin to measure the customer experience. The keynote speaker to the Best Practices Conference, Doug Hubbard, defined measurement as the “expressed reduction in uncertainty based on observation”. If you were uncertain about how to measure your customer experience, now you have a starting point. You can count the total number of interactions as your measurement.

To improve the customer experience, take the total number of interactions and start working to remove as many interactions as possible. Why? Because every interaction is a possibility that the customer experience will fail. The fewer interactions, the easier it is for you to manage and improve the customer experience.

There’s another reason: If your customer’s interactions are 10+ or 20+ or 30+, then think of how many internal processes must occur within your organization to make possible those interactions. The fewer interactions your customers need to have, then the fewer internal processes you need to maintain and support. This is how process improvement should happen: from the outside-in, not just looking at a process and saying, “This needs to improve”. You need a reason to improve, and your customers are that reason.

As information developers, I think we have a head start here. Best practices from UX and technical communication have always encouraged us to “know your audience”, consider the user’s environment, and deliver the right information in the right way. A lot of what I’m saying, I hope, is not surprising.

But we often think about our information development practices only within the scope of our processes. We also need to think about how our work fits into the entire customer experience. Then we need to fight and champion on our customer’s behalf in our organizations. We are uniquely positioned to do this because we see most, if not all, of the internal processes. We have stakeholders and partners across different functions. We have the capability to work across different silos and processes.

Ultimately, what the customer experiences is the outcome of our internal processes. To see that, we have to start with an outside-in perspective of our customer’s interactions. Because it is the outside-in perspective that is going to help your organization attract and retain customers. And if you’re not meeting your customers’ needs, then someone else can and will.