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When Designing Customer Engagement Programs, Remember: Style Matters

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In 2005, Harris Interactive did a study jointly commissioned by Toray Ultrasuede and Intel called “The Intel/Ultrasuede Laptop Style Study” (duh). As bad as the decisions were on what to do post-study, the study itself provided some interesting insights. Here are a few:

• Seventy-three percent of U.S. adult computer users want to buy technology products that reflect their personal style.

• Seventy-six percent of computer users who admit to glancing at someone else’s laptop PC are checking out its style or design.

• Forty percent of U.S. adult computer users find their laptops to be generic, boring, dull, sterile, or lackluster.

What this showed is that people care about style—i.e., look and feel. How often have you looked at a mobile device and thought, “I want that,” without even knowing how to use it? The mere look of it and, perhaps, how it felt in your hand were enough to trigger desire and interest. We’ve come a long way from the purely utilitarian crushed keyboard look of the original Blackberry to the beyond-the-pale celebrity bling of the mobile Vertu, whose Signature edition Clous De Paris Red Gold included polished 18-karat red gold, black leather, polished ceramic pillow, a ruby Vertu key, and polished black sapphire face and keys for a mere $46,600. And it functioned like a phone, too—though it wasn’t terribly well received for its mobile qualities, which, among other things, led to Vertu’s eventual demise in 2017.

This wasn’t just an early-aughts trend. In Nielsen’s 2014 “Connected Life Survey,” 62 percent of respondents said they wished wearables came in forms besides wristbands and watches, and 53 percent wanted wearable devices that look more like jewelry—meaning look and feel mattered when it came to how they thought of technology.

That principal carries over to engagement programs, too, because the look and feel of the systems of engagement that are used as program interfaces matter a great deal. Infor certainly thinks so; the $5 billion enterprise software firm hired more than 100 creatives to work on its interfaces and user engagement design. What makes this internal group—an organized practice called Hook & Loop—unique is that the 100-plus staff members are almost all not tech-world hires; they include the chief creative designer for Michael Kors and, to warm the hearts of movie fans all over the world, the guy who did the special effects for the first few Transformers movies (the good ones). Infor’s logic is impeccable—you can teach tech, but you can’t teach creativity. The results were and still are the most beautiful user interfaces of any technology vendor’s offerings. What makes Hook & Loop so intriguing is that it’s a competitive practice but also strictly an internal design agency for the company and its customers. As of 2020, this design focus is increasingly part of the thinking of many large companies, from the obvious (Disney) to the less so (Oracle).

But the bar is high. Think of it this way: When YouTube first began, the novelty was such that anything uploaded was the subject of interest and everyone watched it. As YouTube became a commodity and homemade videos became an easily available format for communications, production values began to matter. No longer will you (or anyone else) accept grainy, close-to-unviewable videos. How it looks, not just the content, is part of what makes us watch.

And so when it comes to customer interfaces, they are expected to be simple in conception and intuitive in navigation on the one hand, and visually appealing on the other. How should we think about customer-engaged user design then? Let’s take a crack at it.

ELEMENTS OF CUSTOMER-ENGAGED USER INTERFACE DESIGN

At a high level, then, how should interface design look and feel? What will make it appealing to customers, making them want to use it again and again?

• Frictionless interactions and navigation: Navigating the program via the interface should be easy. If your customers need to find something, it should not require digging through screen after screen. A “contact us” button should be where the customer expects it to be.

• Convenience: You are well served if you can engage customers where they are, not make them come to you. It’s often a real opportunity to foster engagement. Something as simple as adding delivery to what has been strictly carry-out yields significant opportunity.

• Personalized content: Not every customer is looking for personalized information—after all, customers might still be learning what your company provides—yet the more loyal or long-term or interested the customer, the more likely they’ll want personalized content. But since you may not know all details about every individual, you can use customer advocates to build case studies, tell stories, and operate as extensions of your marketing department. Laura Ramos, a Forrester Research analyst and thought leader, identifies four types of effective advocacy content:

content that validates—case studies, references, social media sharing;

content that educates—customer communities and user forums;

content that rewards dedication—MVP programs, referrals, speaking engagements for customer advocates; and

content that inspires—customer advisory boards, co-creation, and other forms of collaboration.

As you can see, content can be more than just written material or videos; it includes customer activities and rewards.

• Systems of engagement that are fun to engage with: Systems that are designed to foster communication and interaction between companies and customers are sort of obvious requirements when it comes to developing engagement programs. If customers can’t interact with you, what kind of programs are you designing? But when designing a program, consider (a) how the customers want to communicate with you, and (b) what’s in your best interests to provide to customers for that communication. And remember: Customers will interact with you if they enjoy the interaction. That opens the door to things like gamification or customer communities to foster relationships among customers and between customers and management. But engagement systems should be interesting in themselves. For example, creating an informal back channel for your best customers to communicate with your management team—and making designated members of the management team easy to reach via Skype, Facebook, Twitter, or WeChat—should provide engaging and relaxed communications and make the interactions fun and special. Systems of engagement coupled with programs that make specific customers feel valued are a win for everyone concerned.

• Visually, aurally, and emotionally appealing; consistent across communications media but not necessarily identical: The idea that something is cool is sensate; feeling good is exactly that, a feeling. We know that beauty, when it comes to what we are interacting with, isn’t skin deep, and it makes a difference. When you see a site where the landing page is crowded with images, the text appears in a small, hard-to-read font, and typos and misspellings are everywhere, your response is simple: ugh! But when you see stunning visuals that are highlighted by just enough text to help convey the meaning, and the text is presented in a font that is large enough, colorful enough, and sharp enough, then you not only become engaged with the meaning of the visuals and the text, but you feel good because it looks good. The images are eye-catching but not distracting, the headlines are clear, the blocks of text as big as needed. But there is another consideration. Something that looks good on your PC doesn’t necessarily look so great on a phone with a 4.7-inch or even a 5.5-inch screen. So while the look and feel (logo, colors, etc.) must be consistent, the presentation must take form factor into account. The content needs to be consistent, too, but not identical. How you present an idea in an email is going to be different from how you present it in a video. A phrase that is meaningful on a website may look stilted and the exact opposite of engaging in an email—even though it’s the exact same phrase.

FIND OUT WHAT WORKS AND TEST, TEST, TEST

Recognize that your customers’ activities, moods, and behaviors are going to be fluid; their interests and passions will change, and their relationship to your company will change as surely as time marches on. Some of your customers will churn, some will be inert, some will be best left alone, and some will be enormously responsive. That means what you design today as a program for engagement might be great for a while but eventually become, let’s say, not so great. Thus, you should spend all the time necessary to measure the results of customers’ activities, track their journeys, query their thinking, find out their likes and dislikes, and rinse, repeat. And design and redesign accordingly. 

Paul Greenberg is the author of CRM at the Speed of Light, called the “Bible of CRM.” His latest book is The Commonwealth of Self Interest: Business Success Through Customer Engagement (2019), available on Amazon.

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