Defining “Experience” – Part 2

In the previous post, I discussed the dictionary definition of the word “experience” and offered my own definitions for the phrases “customer experience” and “good customer experience.”  Now, let’s talk about a much more important and practically relevant definition of customer experience – the operational definition.  That is, how are we going to measure experience?  We need an operational definition here because “experience” is not a physical object or property that can be perceived and measured directly.  Unlike temperature, which we can perceive directly through our senses and have devices for measuring directly (thermometers), “experience” is a concept, a construct, or more simply put, an idea.  As such, we need to all agree on valid and reliable ways of measuring it.

Before we get to that point, however, we need to address another fundamental question – when it comes to “experience”, are we talking about a single property, aspect, dimension?  I submit that we are indeed not!

Customer experience is a complex, multidimensional concept and anyone who says the opposite runs into the possibility of sounding like one of the cast of characters of the Blind Men and the Elephant fable:

The gist of the story is the following.  A group of blind dudes were tasked with describing what an elephant is.  Each man touched only one part of the elephant.  Then they reported to the group their definition of what an elephant is …

After each one presented his vase as to what an elephant is, there was no agreement:

– For the one who felt the trunk, an elephant was a snake

– For the one that felt the tusk – a spear

– …. a fan

– … a wall

– … a tree

– … rope

Needless to say, they were all confused and not too productive …  We do not really want to be in the same position when it comes to defining “customer experience.”  If one person defines experience as the intent to recommend a product or service (Net Promoter Score), another defines it as usability or ease of use, another as “perceived value”, etc. things can get messy pretty quickly.  The results will be an uninformed approach to measuring this key business metric, lack of reliable and valid data, and ultimately lack of the desired business results.

Now that we have established that “customer experience” is a multidimensional construct, what are the dimensions.  Do we just pick some out of this air?  Nope – here we are lucky to have a well-researched, validate and widely accepted model from Psychology – Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs:

Following Maslow’s model, I am offering this visualization of the structure of customer experience:

If we make the analogy between a product or service and a person (in Maslow’s model), we can see how the model is applicable to the topic at hand.  If a product/service does not satisfy a customer need, it will not survive long in the marketplace – just like a human’s chance of survival are limited if her most basic physiological needs of food, water, sleep, etc. are not met.  In the marketplace, big companies with deep pockets can keep a useless product on life support through expensive marketing means for quite a while, but this is mere survival and not thriving.

If the product/service addresses a customer need, the next question is: What is the experience like?  Does it just meet expectations by working as promised and being easy and intuitive to use?  If yes, this corresponds to the middle three layers of Maslow’s hierarchy.  Through longer-terms use, if the need is persistent and the product performance is acceptable, a usage habit can develop which can increase the product’s Lifetime Customer Value.  That is, people will purchase it year over year or will keep subscribing to the service.

And finally, if the product or service goes above and beyond customers’ expectations, it will generate strong positive emotions resulting in loyalty and positive word-of-mouth.  An experience like that results in customers spontaneously saying “Wow that was so good!”  The next day, around the water cooler, they will recommend the product to their friends and colleagues.

All of the above are, of course, hypotheses based on research from the field of Psychology and years of practical industry experience.  These hypotheses need to be tested, both with the rigor of academia, and the pragmatism of the business world.

Tagged , ,

Defining “Experience”

‘You cannot manage what you cannot measure’

Kaplan and Norton, 1992, “The balanced scorecard: Measures that drive performance”, Harvard Business Review, Jan – Feb, pp. 71 – 80

‘You cannot measure what you have not defined’

George Kaempf, 2006, Personal Communication

The term “experience”, used in the context of business, design, innovation, marketing, and so on, has become so trendy and so overused, that it is in danger of becoming a meaningless cliche.  You will probably agree with me that it is worth stepping back and defining the meaning of the operative word in important phrases like: customer experience, consumer experience, user experience, experience design, experience research, and so on and so forth … Why should we care about the meaning of this word?  Simply because nowadays “customer experience” is one of the major levers for achieving business results.  In other words, it is widely belied that the bottom line is positively affected by: improving user experience, creating great customer experiences, measuring consumer experience … you get the point.

Lets start with the dictionary definition of the word and take it from there.  Here is what the Miriam-Webster Online Dictionary tells us about some of the meanings of the word (below I have listed only the relevant ones):


Middle English, from Anglo-French, from Latin experientia – “act of trying”

– the fact or state of having been affected by or gained knowledge through direct observation or participation

To relate this dictionary definition of “experience” to the business meaning of the word, I offer the following two definitions:

cus·tom·er   ex·pe·ri·ence

– the state of people interacting with products and services to complete jobs, achieve goals, get value and, in doing so, having emotional reactions

good   cus·tom·er   ex·pe·ri·ence

– the state of people interacting with products and services to complete jobs, achieve goals successfully with ease, get value and, in doing so, feeling positive emotions and sharing them with others

What do you think of this definition of “customer experience”?

In subsequent posts, I will examine the operational definition of the term, or the way in which we can measure it.

%d bloggers like this: