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Making Meaning: How Successful Businesses Deliver Meaningful Customer Experiences

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Making Meaning: How Successful Businesses Deliver Meaningful Customer Experiences
File:Making Meaning.png
Author Steve Diller, Nathan Shedroff, Darrel Rhea
Country United States
Language English
Genre(s) Business
Publisher New Riders
Released 2006
Media Type Electronic (Kindle)

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Making Meaning: How Successful Businesses Deliver Meaningful Customer Experiences is a book that argues that businesses create more value and strategic advantage over competitors by centering their design process on creating meaningful customer experiences. It develops the case for a collaborative design process focused on meaningful customer experience, and walks through the stages of such a process.

Meaning: The Heart and Soul of Innovation

The goal of this book is to encourage businesses to place meaning at the center of innovation, and so create more value. The authors hope to persuade business leaders that integrating invention, design and marketing to create meaningful experiences for their customers will produce sustained and stable growth. If you identify the core meanings of what your product, service or brand represent, you are better able to translate this experience globally and regardless of economic environment drive adoption and retention.

The term "experience" has spread throughout the business world in the past decade, reflecting a recognition that customers relate to products and services in a way that goes beyond the functional value of the offerings. In this book, the authors observe, define and suggest strategies to create meaningful customer experiences, that are applicable to all companies, whether they sell software or soft drinks.

The Road to Meaning

From Mass to Niche - Marketing in the 20th century has moved from mass marketing to increasingly niche marketing. The late 18 00's and early 1900's saw entrepreneurs focus on price and function with no product differentiation, e.g. one color, one model. As competition arose, variations were offered, which bred consumer demand for choice. Innovation focused increasingly on creating variations and extensions to products. Companies focused efforts on trying to understand what motivated customers to chose one product over another, using psychologists, sociologists and anthropologists. By the 1950's companies were investing in brand awareness, advertising and marketing to drive customer awareness. In general consumers bought what their neighbors bought. In the 1970's and 80's markets started to segment, kids rebelled and no longer bought what their parents bought. Marketing moved from asking "how can we make everyone want this?" to "how can we make what these people want?". Marketing refocused on the 4 "P's" - product, placement, promotion and price, creating identities for products for increasingly small niches.

From Identity to Experience - During the last quarter of the 20th century, choices were made emotionally much more frequently than rationally. Focus was no longer on price and function. By the end of the 20th century, innovation had expanded beyond product inventors to marketeers who developed brand and designers who added to products a valuable, but largely undefinable quality, an experience. The innovation team was now multi-discipline, and often included high tension and friction, with one discipline winning out over the others. However, some companies started to develop experiences that showed clear benefits and won market share: Starbucks created an experience worth a higher price for coffee, Southwest Airlines an experience worth the inconvenience of no seat reservations. This has in turn increased consumer expectations of a more meaningful experience from products and services. All members of a company's innovation team need to work together to deliver a successful experience, especially if it is to be a meaningful one.

The Demand for Meaning - Mature economies such as Japan, most of Europe and the USA are all experiencing a growing desire from their population for increased meaning in their lives. Grandiose as it may sound people search for this meaning in non-traditional areas such as the products and services they consume. Addressing this need for meaning has become innovation's newest challenge. The following chapters discuss how that challenge is met with collaborative development processes and increasing focus on experience design. The end of the 20th century and beginning of the 21st will be viewed as the period in which businesses focused their processes world-wide on the goal of providing its customers meaningful experiences.

The Value of Meaning

Experience Defined - Customer experience is an engagement delivered through an integrated series of touch points - Product, Packaging, Message, Customer Service, etc. The goal of experience design is to be consistent in the value proposition in every touch point with the customer. Experience design includes surrounding the customer in a highly coordinated environment, across all touch points, but it must also makes these touch points valuable so the customer connects personally with them and integrates them into their life and or work flows.

The Meaning of Meaning - The definition of meaning put forth in this book is that of connotation, import or worth. Products or services can of course create meaning with either positive and negative connotations, imports or worth, and clearly it is positive that innovation processes need to develop.

Shared Meaning - Humans require meaning to interpret the world around us and help us decide how to act. Meaning provides us a framework for assessing what we value, believe, condone and desire. Anything that supports a sense of meaning supports a basis for understanding and action. Meaning has its roots in the earliest civilizations. Symbols, language and artifacts are all used to convey and so share meaning. Shared meaning had the power to shape and control people's lives, and would evolve into religions, government systems and cultures.

Personal Meaning - In this age of travel and technology, and most importantly information, we have the tools to customize meaning in our lives. It it because of personalized meaning that we have dozens of lattes, hundreds of cars and millions of songs. Each choice we make is a building block in constructing our own personal meaning. This is what is meant by meaningful consumption.

Corporate Meaning - Whether we align with others or strive uniqueness, products and services help us construct the desired meaning in our lives. Company success has traditionally and still is measured by profitability and growth potential, however in recent years customer satisfaction, customer retention and brand equity have been added, and now some companies are adding their effect on society and the environment. Companies such as Harley-Davidson or Coca-cola may not have defined themselves by the meaning they represent to customers, but many customers have found meaning in their brands and built this meaning into their lives. Both of these companies have thriving appareil and memorabilia industries, catering to customers who seek further reinforcement of that brands meaning. This type of bond between customer and company goes beyond customer satisfaction and brand building, but rather an intimate part of the meaning of their lives.

A World of Meaningful Experiences

Experiences with Global Appeal - The following list of meanings come from interviews with over 100,000 people and are meanings that appear to be universal among people's values. They are in alphabetical order, no relative importance is implied.

  1. Accomplishment - Achieving goals and making something of oneself, a sense of status.
  2. Beauty - Shinier hair, white teeth, clearer teeth, enormous industries have been created around this meaning.
  3. Creation - The sense of having produced something new or original, it is from this sense that customization has become popular.
  4. Community - A sense of unity or connection with those around us.
  5. Duty - Appealing to ones sense of responsibility. F
  6. Enlightenment - Appealing to logic or inspiration.
  7. Freedom - The sense of living without unwanted constraints.
  8. Harmony - The balanced and pleasing relationship to the whole, e.g. Nature, Society, Work life balance.
  9. Justice - A sense of fairness and equality.
  10. Oneness - Unity with that which is around us.
  11. Redemption - Atonement or forgiveness from past failure or decline.
  12. Security - The freedom from worry of loss.
  13. Truth - A commitment to honesty and integrity.
  14. Validation - A sense of value in oneself, worthy of respect.
  15. Wonder - Awe in the presence of something beyond explanation.

But What About...? - This list isn't exhaustive, just a list of meanings that are clearly global.

Turning the Ordinary into the Meaningful - A good example of a company who has brought the concept of meaning from the theoretical to the practical is Method, a small cleaning products company, entering a market already dominated by huge brands. Their products are promoted as a "cleaner way of cleaning". The experience they are generating is an emotional one and has literally created excitement in something so mundane and ordinary as cleaning. By increasing the significance of cleaning in an environmentally sound way, Method has created meaningful experience with their customers. After 6 years they have established a foothold in a market already dominated by giant companies with their products in Walmart and Costco.

Finding a Starting Point

To create meaningful experiences with a customer requires full company support, and to be successful, a company needs to integrate meaning not only in its development process, but right through every customer touch point with the company. Making meaning is a company-wide initiative. The starting point for any company is to first understand what type of innovation culture it currently has.

Defining your Company's Innovation Culture - For some, it may appear that their company has no innovation other than creatively avoiding change, while in others, change appears to be the only constant. The book defines 3 basic innovation cultures which appear to be in use by 80+ % of companies:

  • Experience Innovation Culture
    • Innovation is the outcome of a formal process
    • Leadership is shared between middle management, R&D and technology departments
    • Cross-functional collaboration is not emphasized
    • Analytical evaluations are usually more important that creativity
    • Most innovations are iterative and risk is minimized
    • 18% of companies use this form of innovation
  • Creative Innovation Culture
    • "Big Ideas" inspire most innovation initiatives
    • Led by senior management
    • Execution is often ad hoc and doesn't follow a set process
    • Curiosity and creativity are more important than analytics
    • Risk taking is accepted
    • 26% of companies use this form of innovation
  • Dynamic Innovation Culture
    • Strategic thinking guides the overall process
    • Led by senior management with cross-functional teams
    • Cross-functional collaboration is important
    • A creative environment is important, but innovation is not dependent on a "big idea"
    • Risk taking is accepted
    • 39% of companies exhibit this form of innovation

While the Dynamic Innovation culture is generally the most efficient and most effective, all three cultures can successfully incorporate and support the design of meaningful customer experiences.


Structuring Change - The team charged with designing meaningful customer experiences cannot represent one single profession, but needs to integrate all the company's designers, researchers, developers, marketers, and senior executives at a minimum. The right team represents each of these and drives collaboration to a shared outcome. Incremental innovation tends to depend more on middle management, whereas breakthrough innovation requires the commitment and authority of senior management. As a general rule of thumb any customer touch point should be represented in an innovation team. Sometimes companies are unclear of who actually touches a customer omitting functions such as finance, support or channel representatives. The following are descriptions of typical core innovation team members:

  • Brand Management - The brand team ensure the customers perceive the company's meaning as intended
  • Sales Management - Sales represent the human face of the company to its customers, and so are first to see opportunities and issues. They also influence channel in controlling the point of sale experience
  • Marketing Research & Management - Best separated from brand within the innovation process, can identify new opportunities, how customers will perceive them and how best to deliver them
  • Design - Those charged with the overall product design and the design of the characteristics of the customer experience. Often the only members of an innovation team, designers can struggle in cross-functional teams.
  • Development - Those charged with building the product or service envisioned by the design, and although sometimes hidden, the developers have an enormous impact on the customer experience. Unless the product specs are grounded in a deep customer understanding the development will work against the desired experience.
  • IT - Key in providing real time access to customer information and desires, and so inform the innovation team, IT can smooth the decision making process.
  • HR - Customer experience ultimately comes from its employees, and so HR will be indispensable in the delivery and maintenance of the customer experience right across all touch points.
  • Operations - Thought of as maintaining the status quo, operations typically are the best informed not only in the time and expenditure needed to deliver an desired experience, but are closest to knowing if it is effectively being delivered or not. Operations are key in transforming innovation to the ongoing way that the business runs its operations.
  • CEOs - The CEO's participation in and ongoing support of the customer experience goal must be highly evident. Often the most effective and fastest way for an employee to understand what a meaningful customer experience means is to hear it from the CEO.

Making Decisions - Every innovation team needs a lead decision maker. A cross-functional team cannot function without leadership and a lead decision maker. Such a leader can come from any of the collaborating functions, but regardless of who does this task, they must be guided by a singular focus on the customer. Ideal leaders typically are the CEO, a divisional head, the head of marketing or the CFO.

Designing Meaningful Experiences

Design applies not only to function and appearance, but must consciously create value based on understanding the customer as people and having compassion to them. To achieve this, design must apply to the performance levels of the product and the business level strategies, structures, process and goals.

Design Intent - Design is not invention, and requires research and analysis. Design through its collaborative and deliberative process can be key in transforming an organization, its offerings and its markets. The following 7 principles define the power of design within an organization:

  1. Design creates corporate value - Companies define their future by articulating their vision, design teams bring this vision to reality.
  2. Design is pervasive - Design is the most valuable conversation an organization can have, one that involves all aspects of the business and is focused on the customer.
  3. Design is collaborative - Design is the synthesis of multiple opinions, disciplines and carefully balanced constraints.
  4. Design includes execution - Design is not the end point, it is the beginning of the process.
  5. Design is a transparent, knowable process - True design is both qualifiable and quantifiable.
  6. 'Design is iterative - Perfection is not possible, iterative design allows for refinement and increases the likelihood of success.
  7. Design includes both short term and long term goals - A good design process can support a companies short term needs as well as moving it to its long term vision.

The Process - The above principles of design, reflect design as a process, and the best design is a repeatable process with measurable success. The following stages define the process for the design of meaningful customer experience:

  1. Identify the opportunity - This stage identifies how, where and when people wish to connect with a meaningful experience.
  2. Frame the business idea - Once identified, and opportunity needs to be scoped out with a plan, budget, team, deadlines covering all aspects of its execution.
  3. Shape the experience concept - This stage shapes the actual experience we wish our customers to have. This experience needs to be conceptualized across all the customers' touch points.
  4. Refine the experience - It is key to avoid fast forwarding to the product, but to refine the experience, working out the details and nuances and in short increasing the likelihood of customers correctly understand the meaning of the experience.
  5. Expressing the experience - The final stage which delivers and maintains the full impact of the experience.

In the following chapters, each stage is developed further.

Identifying the Opportunity for Meaning

Both business and cultural perspectives are equally important to define how a new experience will be received and how big the business impact will be. It is not important which perspective is considered first, but both must be considered.

Defining the Market - Determining market opportunity is a well understood business task, and the book does not spend a lot of time defining it. The minimum questions that should be answered are:

  • What is the size of the current market and how much it is expected to grow in the next 3-5 years.
  • What are the main categories within the industry, including size and growth rates?
  • Who are the key players and what are their business strategies?
  • What major trends are shaping the future direction of the market?
  • What technologies and new capabilities are being adopted, and by whom?
  • What is the overall profile of the target audience, and which category is each major competitor targeting?
  • What are the core customer needs that the industry addresses?
  • What channels serve the industry and what is the purchase process?

Understanding the Customer - Learning what is meaningful to the customer can be researched in a wide variety of tools, but regardless of which is used, the research should be wide ranging and exploratory. The research fieldwork should revolve around three primary questions:

  • What types of meaningful experiences does the customer want?
  • What experiences are currently offering in the market place?
  • How can desired meaning be delivered?

Getting to what is meaningful for a customer, typically involves direct interviewing and observation using ethnographic techniques.

Choosing and Confirming - Qualitative identification of what meanings are important to a customer, in itself, does not quantify the opportunity. Once a particular meaningful experience is identified, it is followed up by surveying to provide more precise sizing of the opportunity.

Framing the Experience

Now its time to decide which opportunity, or meaningful experience, represents the best fit to the company's goals, and this means some opportunities need to be dropped or scaled down.

Choosing the Experience - Often a company will realize it is already delivering a meaningful experience, just not consistently or not across all touch points with the customer. In choosing an experience, a company is choosing which consumers to pursue, and at a minimum this experience should meet these criteria:

  • There is an identifiable customer segment that desires the chosen experience.
  • This segment is large enough to meet the company's financial criteria for success.
  • The chosen experience does not conflict with anything else the company does.
  • The chosen experience does not over promise but can be delivered within the current capabilities of the company.

Defining Scope - Defining the scope of the customer experience helps clarify the shared vision used to coordinate activities across the company, and is the starting point for cross departmental collaboration that will design the experience across all customer touch points. An effective means of defining scope is to prepare an Experience Framework, which defines key factors in the overall experience. Although there is no limit to the factors a company may chose to include in the framework, the most fundamental factors include:

  • Functional Value - In short exactly what the product or service does. The functional value it provides the customer.
  • Economic Value - The pricing of a product or service also can serve to establish the meaning it creates with the customer, a sense of community is served best with a lower price point, a sense of prestige with a higher price.
  • Emotional Value - Many meaningful experiences from product or services need to be delivered in part or whole through emotional stimuli.
  • Identity - Experiences that depend on identity, will require tight integration of the product or service with recognized symbols or images tied to beliefs and values.

Experience frameworks are not detailed documents, but rather single page directional intents.

Shaping the Concept

A truly meaningful customer experience needs to be consistant across three key dimensions:

  • Breath of Expression - Expressing the intended customer experience across all touch points with the customer, creates an integrated, holistic and reinforced experience. By extending the breath of an experience across its customer service, messaging, materials, employee behavior, a company can add value on each customer touch point. There are 5 components to the breath of an integrated experience:
  1. Product - The distinction between products and services is increasingly difficult to define. For the purposes of this discussion they define product as the physical or digital artifact of the thing the company provides. It might seem obvious that a product company would start their experience design with the product itself, but too often a product is designed to deliver a function and no serious thought is given to the customer experience. If a company elects to deliver a meaningful customer experience through their product, they will prioritize and select features that support this experience, while downplaying or eliminating those that do not.
  2. Service - Even when services are integrated with the product, they are much more likely to be dependent on people, the employees of the company. The delivery of the experience is therefore much more variable. The design principles are the same with services as they are with product, be clear on the experience to be delivered and develop elements of this service that promote this experience.
  3. Brand - The most basic purpose of branding is to protect the designed experience by declaring its uniqueness and tying it to the companies brand. Whereas competitors will definitely try to copy successful elements of an experience, they will avoid attempting to copy anything protected by a company's brand.
  4. Channel - Whether a product or service is delivered directly or indirectly, traditionally or on-line, channel represents one of the most significant set of customer touch points in which experience should also be delivered. This can be extremely variable and hard to control. The innovation team need to thing of the buying process that best supports the desired customer experience and then select channels to support this.
  5. Promotion - This is likely to be how prospective customers will learn about a company's offering, and so first consume the experience. All communications and programs, regardless of media or form need to reinforce the designed experience.
  • Duration of Experience - Effective experience design anticipates the unfolding of that experience over time. The design must map the progression of the experience from initiation through immersion to conclusion and continuation.
  1. Initiation - The deliver of the experience when the customer first encounters the product or service, often before a purchase decision has been made. This initial contact with the company, needs to do an effective job of enticing the customer with a sample of the promised experience and needs to attract those customer who will most value the company's designed customer experience.
  2. Immersion - The first interaction with the product or service. It is key the customer quickly and completely feels the intended experience through as many avenues as possible, including the always variable human beings.
  3. Conclusion and Continuation - Conclusion marks the point in which the customer's mind has experienced the meaningful experience, but is comparing it to other offerings or previous experiences. For experiences that are finite, e.g. a hotel stay, the final touch points of the experience can impact the entire experience. Not all experiences are finite however, but continuous with peaks of higher usage, and valleys of lower usage. In effect the customer re-immerses themselves with each renewed touch point, and the customer's trust of the authenticity of the experience will grow if each touch point re-delivers the experience
  • Intensity - This is a measure of the connection the customer has with the experience. It ranges as follows:
  1. Impulse - The least intense connection with a customer is an "impulse", usually only occurring for highly generic products or low cost products.
  2. Habitual - Habits tend to develop from a need for convenience or efficiency, and people will be willing to modify their habits fro greater convenience or efficiency. Customers who habitually use a product will become loyal customers. For experiences that have the potential to become habitual, consideration shouldl be given to how this might be encouraged.
  3. Engagement - Engaging experiences command the customer's attention throughout the experience, and it is with engagement that meaningful experiences can be conveyed.

Delivering Reality

For customers to perceive the meaning of an experience as it is intended, the experience must consistently connect with them. Designing to trigger these critical experiential touch points involves two dimensions: interactivity with the customer and aesthetic details.

  • Interactivity - Of all the possible types and characteristics of interactivity, the ones that contribute directly to meaning: creativity, productivity, control, adaptability, feedback and communication are the most important. The book throw a little more light on some of these:
  1. Control - All customers desire some level of control over interactivity and experience. Ideally allowing customers to customize or at least control the speed of interaction/experience will be key in making the experience meaningful.
  2. Adaptability - Experiences that adapt to the customer's behavior or preferences will feel both personal and sophisticated. In short experiences that react to a participant's input, will have more potential to evoke meaning.
  3. Feedback - Feedback can keep a customer engaged, this can be as simple as updating them on their progress in a phone queue to multi-sensory feedback from a video game. Again it is important that the type and frequency of feedback supports the desired experience.
  4. Communication - Customers who feel heard tend to have higher satisfaction, this can be done directly by a company or via communities of users of the same product or service.
  • Triggers - The aesthetic properties of a product or service directly influence a customer's experience, this is a trait discovered by Louis Cheskin which he called "sensation transference". Triggers can instantly evoke elements of meaning. The most common triggers are language, symbols and sensations.
  1. Language - Words and phrases are almost never universal, even amongst customers with a shared language. This makes words difficult to use, as it is very difficult to guarantee they will trigger a common experience.
  2. Symbols - Unlike words, a symbol can enjoy a consistent meaning, at least within its originating culture, but also sometimes internationally. Symbols are often thought of as visual designs, but they need not only be visual. The roar of a Harley-Davidson is symbolic of the brand.
  3. Sensations - Sensations too are difficult to use, as the interpretation of sensations can be very subjective.

A well designed trigger or combination of triggers can become emblematic of the desired customer experience. Triggers act at the instinctive level and once activated are very difficult to undo. It is wise to invest up front on thoroughly understand a trigger's implication before incorporating it into an experience.

  • Confirming Perceptions - It is tempting for experience designers to assume they know the value of triggers, or can create a new trigger and imbue it with meaning, but it's a risky and potential costly proposition. It is key to confirm customers' perception of triggers before incorporating it into an experience design.

The End in Sight

Implementing an experience is a good deal messier than planning one. This critical final phase of delivering meaningful customer experiences requires the whole company to act in concert. For a customer experience to be truly meaningful, it must be consistent. For an experience to be consistent, the entire company must have a common must have a shared and commonly understood vision. A sense of collaboration, common vision and customer focus will be key in delivering the desired experience, and same collaboration, common vision and customer focus will also be key when it is discovered that in successfully delivering a meaningful customer experience, the process to maintain it never really ends.

  • Perpetual Production - The meaningful customer experience creates a connection between the customer and the company, this connection goes beyond the initial exposure of the experience to the customer, it will continue to be shaped by the future actions of the company, especially those that touch the customer.
  • The Experiential Company - When every employee becomes an experience designer - in terms of thinking about, participating in, or delivering meaningful experiences to their customers - the likelihood of success rises exponentially. Training employees to support and contribute to the customer experience is critical.
  • Maintaining the Mindset - Maintaining an experiential mindset requires more than training however, it requires constant communication of relevant data, especially around customers' reactions and comments. One mechanism to keep a company focused is to create a "consumer champion" role, an employee who is the customers' advocate, acting on their behalf, voicing their responses and guiding company behavior. This person must of course have the authority to influence design, which can only come from senior management. The person must also have current and comprehensive knowledge of those things that impact customer experience. This person must be empathetic, able to put themselves in the customers' shoes. Finally this person must have focus, it should be their only goal.
  • Tracking the future - The company's leaders should meet with customers as frequently as possible, at least a few times a year. Managers should not only immerse themselves in their own company's experiences but also those of their competitors. As well as executive insight to customers and competitors, well trained employees will also have a wealth of information from their interactions with customers. Pulling this together, allows a company to get feedback on current performance, but also in tracking customer reactions over time gives the company an opportunity to track changes and so predict future direction.
  • A Second Opinion - Speaking regularly with customers does not replace the role of researchers. Companies with large customer information databases can mine this information to not only report on what their customers wanted yesterday, but also look at purchasing and interaction patterns (i.e. not just lead data but across all customer touch points) to suggest emerging trends, changes in behavior or changing preferences. Effective data mining requires a holistic view of the customer, and can serve as an early warning system which can detect subtle signals of change that should be investigated.

Moving Forward

The book ends by asking and then answering the question: Is meaningful customer experience just the latest new idea and will it be replaced with the next idea? In summary the authors conclude that if the market for meaningful experiences becomes one where customers constantly search for best, most intense, most novel experience, then these experiences are unlikely to make much difference to the business culture. If instead however, companies put effort in determining what kind of meanings customers truly desire and authentically meet that desire in a consistent and pervasive way, then those companies will have plenty of reason to smile.