Differentiating through experience and perceived value

Rory Sutherland must be one of the finest raconteurs we have.

On a recent appearance on the Diaries of a CEO podcast he talks about the importance of customer experience and perceived value as a key differentiator for brands today.

He argues that if Eurostar wanted to improve the experience of its service for its passengers one option would be to make their trains go faster.

This feels like the best thing to do that will result in the highest levels of passenger satisfaction.

This sounds great in principle, but to achieve it would require huge capital investment, engineering innovation and lengthy timescales.

Another option to improve the passenger experience would be provide great food, free wifi, comfortable seats, clean toilets, excellent service etc.

The latter would be much more achievable than the former and would probably yield similar results from the perspective of reported passenger satisfaction and loyalty.

So following that logic perhaps customer experience is one of the most cost effective strategic areas of focus for organisations because it provides a relatively fast and cost effective way of directly improving customers perceptions of the value that products and services provide them.

Sutherland also argues this has an environmental benefit too.

By improving their perceived value of an experience we are improving something through intangible means that manifest as how someone thinks about something – so it doesn’t exist per se and thus generates no detrimental environmental impact to create, maintain and dispose of.

Perceived value is a hugely interesting area.

Trying to get to the bottom of what people perceive to be the value that they will get from a product or service helps you to focus your marketing on the things that matter the most to people.

So much of this comes from the nuance of communication, the language and imagery that is chosen and the story that is told that creates the narrative around the value of products and services.

I see this a lot in my work.

Peoples behaviours and actions are hugely influenced by what they believe to be true and how they perceive things as opposed to what the actual truth might be.

I remember a research session where a customer of a food delivery service noticed a photo of a delivery van driving in the snow and said “They look great, they will deliver to my elderly mother whatever the weather’ – the truth was quite possibly a different story.

In a recent research session I asked someone how they wanted a financial report to make them feel.

They talked about wanting to feel like their life savings were in safe hands, that they could trust the company and feel like it was something that they no longer needed to worry about.

A well designed report will reinforce these feelings and beliefs whereas a poorly designed report will quickly raise questions, unease and possibly a loss of custom.

In order to design successful things we have to develop a deep understanding of the way that people perceive the world around them, their preconceptions and beliefs as these are the things that will ultimately drive their behaviours.

Once we uncover these sorts of beliefs we can get to the bottom of what people really care about, the questions they have and what they need from the products and services they use to meet their real needs.

Managing product risks

When you create and manage products and services you face a number of risks that could result in undesirable outcomes such as:

  • Customers don’t value them enough to pay for or use them
  • Customers can’t use them
  • Your organisation doesn’t have the resources or skills to deliver them
  • They don’t result in the outcomes for your business that you need them to
  • They may cause harm and have unintended consequences
  • They may break the law

I like this idea of framing these as risks as much of the work we do in product discovery is about trying to reduce risk of failure.

It would be interesting to give stakeholders £100 each and asking them to tell you how much they want to invest in exploring each of the areas of risk.

This would to help to uncover what they are most uncertain about and where to focus you efforts in exploring further..

In Marty Cagan’s book ‘Inspired‘ he discusses how important it is to explore the threats posed by each of these risks in order to create a product that your customers will love and that also works for your business.

He identifies these as what he sees as the four biggest risks.

Viability riskHow confident are we that this product/ service will deliver what the business needs it to?

Value riskHow confident are we that people will value the benefits it provides enough to buy it or choose to use it instead of alternatives?

Usability riskHow confident are we that people will be able to figure out how to use it ?

Feasibility riskHow confident are we that we can build and deliver it with the resources and skills that we have ?

There are many other kinds of risks you may choose to explore but I think these two are really important additions:

Ethical riskHow confident are we that it will have no harmful unintended consequences for people, the economy or our planet?

Compliance riskHow confident are we that we are not breaking the law in any way?

The best time to start exploring risks such as these is as early as possible during your product discovery where you can begin to get a feel for what represents the biggest potential threats to the success of your new product ideas.

Interestingly, Marty identifies ‘value risk’ as the toughest risk to mitigate, which highlights the importance of getting ideas in front of potential customers as early as possible to understand if they solve real problems for people in ways that people value enough to find them useful and are willing to pay for them.

Introducing design hierarchies – moving from design systems to designing systems.

I was reflecting recently on how the nature of the things I’ve worked on over the years has changed dramatically in scale.

Much of my early work focussed on designing digital interfaces, typically web pages in wireframe form, focussing on content and functionality and whether people understood what I was trying to communicate within them.

This work then changed to designing entire digital things like websites or web applications that enabled people to do specific things. They were far more complicated but interesting because I often found myself inventing new businesses, products and services that were allowing people to do things in ways that hadn’t been done before.

The work then changed again to start thinking about we could make it easier for people to do complex things like plan holidays or buy complex financial products that involved both digital and non-digital components. 

More recently my work has moved from helping to design and improve services to thinking about how complex systems like the healthcare system can be improved.

It struck me that over the years I’ve been moving up some sort of hierarchy, slowly zooming out from working on discrete things to hugely complex systems. 

I’m thinking about is as a ‘design hierarchy’ (after discovering ‘ecological hierarchies’ after seeing parallels with hierarchy of complexity within natural systems) and am picturing it like this:

An example of a design hierarchy showing how impact and complexity increases as the nature of what you are designing increases in scale.

Thinking about it in this way this could represent an extension of Brad Frost’s Atomic Design work that uses its own natural metaphor to frame work within its own hierarchy (atoms, molecules, organisms, templates, pages) that sits firmly at the bottom left of this diagram.

I’ve realised that we have been slowly zooming out, shifting our focus from ‘design systems’ to ‘designing systems’.

It’s interesting to note how each level of the hierarchy exists within the one above it. This idea resonated with me after seeing this quote recently from Eliel Saarinen:

“Always design a thing by considering it in its next larger context — a chair in a room, a room in a house, a house in an environment, an environment in a city plan.”

As you move up the design hierarchy, the things you work rapidly increase in complexity, scale and the number of people they impact upon. 

The nature of the problems you are working on change exponentially from ‘what’s the most effective label for this button?’ to ‘why aren’t people attending their GP appointments?’ and ‘how can our organisation become more customer focussed?’ 

As a designer this can be quite daunting, resulting in vertigo induced imposter syndrome and leaving you wondering how the hell you ended up working on this stuff and how to handle the sheer complexity and size of the problems within it!

I’ve found that wherever you are working on this design hierarchy the classic user centred design process still works brilliantly. Whatever you are working on, start with trying to learn as much about the problem as possible from the perspective of the user before you begin to identify, prototype and test potential solutions with them.

Core design competencies

In his wonderful book ‘Imagine If‘ Ken Robinson talks about the flaws within the educational system.

He argues that what students need from their education is to become proficient in some core competencies in order to prepare them for the economic, personal, cultural and social challenges they will face in their lives.

The competencies he identifies are curiosity, creativity, communication, collaboration, compassion, composure and citizenship.

Here’s how Ken breaks them down in his book :

Curiositythe ability to ask questions and explore how the world works

Creativitythe ability to generate new ideas and apply them in practice

Criticismthe ability to analyse information and ideas and to form reasoned arguments and judgements

Communicationthe ability to express thoughts and feelings clearly and confidently in a range of media and forms

Collaborationthe ability to work constructively with others

Compassionthe ability to empathise with others and to act accordingly

Composurethe ability to connect with the inner life of feeling and develop a sense of personal harmony and balance

Citizenshipthe ability to engage constructively with society and to participate in the processes that sustain it

I’ve often thought about what being a good designer actually means and I think that these competencies would be a brilliant framework to use to help work that out in practice.

When I think about the best people I’ve worked with I realised that it is these things that they’ve been really good at.

As a designer being good at the tools and methods is one thing but if you don’t have these competencies then you’ll struggle.

They aren’t just relevant to designers of course, but feel really useful to help us to recruit people, set objectives and design our own training and development.

I would wholeheartedly recommend Ken’s book, it covers many other fascinating and important subjects such as creativity, positivity, sustainability and systems thinking.

The get a feel for his work check out his TED talk on ‘Do schools kill creativity‘.

The ‘weight’ of insight

I want to acknowledge something I’ve experienced that definitely feels like a ‘thing’ when conducting research.

I’m thinking about is as a ‘weight of insight’.

Let me explain.

I’ve been doing lots of research recently with people who are living with some sort of mental health issue.

I’ve heard some incredibly harrowing and personal stories about their lived experiences of trying to get support from mental health services.

They’ve shared these altruistically in an effort to ensure that things that have happened to them don’t happen to other people in the future.

As a researcher you act as a messenger, carrying insights between service users and the people who have the power to make things better.

The weight of insight isn’t just about the amount of insights you’ve learned, it’s the pressure of wanting to do them justice, communicating them effectively so that they have the same impact upon your stakeholders as they had on you when you heard them for the first time.

‘Weight’ feels like an overly negative term but it definitely feels like something that you carry and this can come with a cost, particularly when you’re researching emotional topics such as mental health.

Ironically the empathy that makes you a good researcher and helped you to extract the insight in the first place can also be the thing that increases the impact of the insight upon you.

Sharing this weight really helps.

Conducting research in teams ensures that it’s a shared experience that both shares the knowledge and the weight of insights.

Conversations after research sessions to debrief and decompress are also a really simple and beneficial thing you can do that helps.

Another way of reducing this weight is to ensure that your stakeholders watch the research first hand so that they hear the insights from the source.

Remote research has made this easier than ever allowing stakeholders to participate from anywhere using tools they will probably already have access to.

Good safeguarding practices also help to reduce the weight of insight, ensuring that you preempt the impact of what you might learn and how you can protect the people involved.

100 ways to make your working life a little easier

Over lockdown I had an idea for a book that was all about sharing the tips and tricks that I’ve found useful on UX projects over the years.

Survival skills for UX projects if you like.

It felt really relevant due to the difficulties we were all facing trying to work from home, while home schooling the kids and trying to avoid catching COVID.

I compiled a list of ideas in Miro and forgot all about it until I read a great article in the Guardian that both reminded me that I had created it and prompted me to do something with it!

The final list is not just relevant to UX’ers, I hope that people working in all sorts of professionals will find it useful.

The resulting article is now available on the cxpartners blog ‘100 ways to make your working life a little easier‘.

Try and break your new business ideas as quickly as possible


It’s great fun coming up with ideas for new businesses, apps, services etc.

Uber, but for [context] etc..

Many of these ideas are in reality, absolutely awful, and that’s ok as long as you don’t invest lots of time, effort and money trying to make them real.

A good habit to get into is to try and break your ideas as soon as possible by interrogating them with some simple questions like…

  • What problem does it solve for people?
  • What evidence do I have that this problem actually exists, is worth solving and that my idea will solve it?
  • What the cheapest and fastest way that I could find out if my idea actually solves this problem and that people value this problem being solved?
  • What are am trying to learn from doing this?
  • How much of my time / effort / money am I willing to invest in pursuing this idea?
  • Why will people use my idea vs what is already available? How sure am I that I am right?
  • Why might my idea fail?
  • What feels like the riskiest assumptions that I have made that underpin the success of the idea?
  • In a perfect world how will my idea work from the perspective of the people who use it?
  • What feel like the most important questions that I should ask my potential customers to explore the idea further?
  • What’s the most logical next thing to do to help me decide to pursue this or not?

So the next time a new idea pops into your head, use these questions to help you to work out which to spend your hard earned money and rare free time on pursuing!

Evaluate the effectiveness of your photos

Photos are the unsung heroes of effective communication.

If a picture paints a thousand words you need to be sure that they are painting the right words in the minds of the people who view them.

Particularly if those people are your potential customers.

I’ve been on a mission to improve the effectiveness of photos since I wrote ‘Usability of Web Photos‘ in 2016.

When writing the book I created an evaluation framework for people to use to evaluate the effectiveness of their own photos.

The framework is based on the theory of rhetoric, the art of effective and persuasive communication.

It is designed to help you work out if your photos are helping to elicit the response you intended them to from the people who view them.

You can use it like a heuristic evaluation or to help guide qualitative research sessions.

Here’s an example from UXMagazine where I use it to evaluate some holiday accommodation photos.

Best of luck with it and let me know how you get on via @chudders


Photo Evaluation Framework

1. Legibility and credibility

Can you clearly see the content of the photo? (e.g. Focus, size, composition, exposure, crop etc)

  • Focus : Are the important elements of the photo in focus? Does all of the photo need to be in focus to communicate its message?
  • Composition: Has the composition been used effectively to draw attention to the relevant part of the photo and to create an aesthetically pleasing image? Would the photo be more effective if it was cropped in a different way?
  • Exposure: Is the exposure appropriate and are the key subjects of the photo correctly exposed?
  • Quality: Is the photo legible enough to see the important details?
  • Size: Is the physical size of the photo appropriate? Does the size make the subject of the photo clear enough? 

Do the photos look credible? – (e.g.  Does they look professional? Do they suit the brand? Are they appropriate and relevant? 

  • Professionally shot: Do the photos look like they have been taken by a professional? Is this important given the context of what you are evaluating?
  • Brand alignment: Are they the kind of photos you would expect to see from this brand?
  • Appropriateness: Are the photos appropriate given the context within which they will be viewed? 
  • Believable: To what extent have the photos been manipulated? Does this affect the credibility of what they depict or the message they convey?
  • Relevance: is the photo relevant to the content that it accompanies?

2. What message/s do the photos communicate?

What does the business or product owner want the photo/s to communicate? e.g. ‘Look how spacious our hotel rooms are’

What messages should the photo/s communicate to meet user needs?  e.g. ‘I wonder if that hotel room is worth £150 per night?’

What messages do the photo/s actually communicate to users?  e.g. ‘That room looks tiny, it’s not worth £150 per night!’

3. Usefulness and effectiveness

Do the photo/s result in the desired emotional response? e.g. Is the photo funny? Does it make me want that thing? Does it have a calming effect? 

  • Desire: Does the photo represent something in an attractive way?
  • Aspiration: Does the photo communicate how a product may fit into someone’s life or help them to live the lifestyle they aspire to?
  • Aesthetics: Is it pleasing to look at?
  • Calm: Does the photo create a calming effect? 
  • Others’ emotions: Does the content of the photo result in a direct emotional response from the viewer (for example, are people in the photo smiling, frowning or angry)?
  • Entertainment: Is the photo funny? Is it intended to entertain the viewer?

Do the photo/s help the user with their task? e.g. Does the photo serve a purpose or is it really just ornamental? 

  • Useful: Does the photo serve a purpose or is it just ornamental?
  • Educational: Does the photo teach something or provoke thought about a subject in a different way?
  • Helpful: Does the photo help users with their tasks? Does it prevent them getting lost? Does it answer their questions or help them to make the right choice?
  • Instructional: Does the photo show someone how to do something?
  • Constructive: Does the photo help to mitigate a user anxiety? Does it answer a typical question or concern?
  • Prevent errors: Does the photo help users to avoid making mistakes?
  • Recognition over recall: Does the photo aid recognition to save people having to remember things?
  • Communicative: Does the photo communicate its intended message effectively? 
  • Global suitability: Will the photo mean the same in different countries or cultures? Might it offend people from other cultures?
  • Complexity: Does the photo effectively convey something that would be difficult to put into words?

Will the photo/s influence the behaviour of the user in the way you intended?  e.g. Does the photo have the desired effect it was designed to have? 

  • Gaze direction: Should the people in the photos be looking towards other elements on the page or is it more appropriate for them to be looking back at the user? Service related websites benefit from eye contact with users, whereas product sites may benefit from gaze being diverted towards specific offers or buy buttons.
  • Prompting an action: Is the photo designed to prompt action such as to donate to a worthy cause? Do the contents of the photo encourage this behaviour? Does the photo encourage users to buy or to make a decision?
  • Changing opinions: Will the photo help to change our point of view?
  • Creating desire: Does the photo make its contents (and thereby the site’s products and services) desirable?
  • Sharing with others: Will the photo encourage the sharing of content with others? 
  • Perception: Will the user attribute a particular quality to a brand having seen the image, such as quality, craftsmanship and heritage?
  • Message: Does the photo communicate the message to people that is intended?

More photo UX related goodness :

Questions are the answer

Ben Holliday’s UXBristol talk about ‘Asking Design Questions‘ really resonated with me.

As a consultant, you can often feel like you are supposed to have all of the answers.

I think it’s more about having all of the questions.

Every challenge presents a problem to solve.

You can’t understand the problem without asking good questions.

They are fundamentally important throughout the entire process.

You need to question your brief in order to understand it properly such as…

  • Why are you doing this?
  • Why are you doing this now?
  • What do you think are the reasons behind the problem you are seeing?
  • What is the cost of the problem to the organisation today?

Successful early meetings are grounded on asking questions such as…

  • What problem are you really trying to solve?
  • How will we know if we have succeeded?
  • Who should we involve?
  • What should we know at the end that we do not know today?

Questions, questions, questions.

Our research starts with identifying the big questions that are on our clients minds such as…

  • Why has our conversion rate dropped?
  • Do people understand and value our proposition?
  • What are the most challenging aspects of choosing a university course?
  • Why do people choose our competitors over us?

We explore the business context of our work by interviewing senior stakeholders and asking questions such as…

  • What are you trying to achieve as an organisation?
  • How does this piece of work contribute towards your vision?
  • What is the impact of this problem?
  • What do you want to get from this project?

Questions, questions, questions.

We explore these within our research with people by asking them questions such as…

  • When did you book your last holiday?
  • What are you looking for in a new car?
  • How do you go about choosing a new savings account?
  • How do you find out about planned changes to your local area?

Once we’ve completed our research we’re still asking questions such as…

  • What have we learned?
  • How can we communicate our learnings in the most effective way to the people who need to hear them the most?
  • How can we apply what we have learnt to improve what we are working on?
  • Which problems should we tackle first?

Questions, questions, questions.

When our work comes to an end we’re still asking questions such as…

  • What went well?
  • What would we do differently next time?
  • What have we learned?
  • Which of our initial assumptions and hypotheses proved to be true?

But it’s not just the project team who are asking questions.

Our customers are full of questions that they need answers to before they can complete their everyday tasks such as…

  • Is it good quality?
  • Do I like the look of it?
  • Do I trust them?
  • Can I return it if I don’t like it?

The best products and services second guess (and then answer) the questions of the people who use them.

What’s the most important question you need to answer to improve your own project, career, product or service?

Questions are the answer.

What are your superpowers?

I love asking people what their superpowers are.

It’s a cracking opening gambit, particularly over a few drinks.

I’ve learned all sorts of amazing things about the people I work with.

One colleague can guess the price of any banana by simply weighing it in her hands.

Another knows exactly where they are on their commute without looking out of the windows of the bus.

Since an early age I have been able to throw cricket balls unfeasibly long distances.

All good stuff!

It’s a really useful question to consider from a work perspective too.

Your superpowers are the things you find easy, that other people value and find very hard to do themselves.

Perhaps you find it really easy to build rapport with people or you might be completely un-phased by giving presentations to large groups of people.

Knowing what your superpowers are is a superpower in its own right.

I’ve started to adapt it further when interviewing senior stakeholders about their business strategy.

I simply ask “What is your organisational superpower that your customers value and your competitors find really hard to do themselves?”.

It’s a nice way to liven up what can sometimes be quite dry conversations.

Businesses should not only be trying to get better at the things they do badly, but also to optimise their superpowers – as it is these that their competitors will always find so much harder to match.

Take a moment to think about your own superpowers and ask your colleagues about theirs too.

You may never look at them in the same way again!