Experience Design: Almost Gothic?

What does Gothic fiction have to do with customer experience? Not something I’ve thought about until recently but the parallels are interesting.

When I’m working from home I like to have BBC Radio 3’s Essential Classics and on Tuesday’s broadcast studio guest Sarah Perry, author of much-lauded novel The Essex Serpent (also next up in my fiction reading pile) was talking about Gothic fiction – the style that originated in England in the second half of the 18th century and became well known in the 19th through the works of Mary Shelley (Frankenstein) and later Bram Stoker (Dracula). She referred to a phrase in the novel ‘Melmoth the Wanderer‘ where a character says ’emotions are my events’ and then went on to say that what distinguished the Gothic novel from others was the emotions that are aroused in the reader and that these are intended to match those of the characters.

This got me thinking about how customer experiences make us feel and the extent to which it’s possible to design this critical emotional component in to the service we’re delivering. I’ve talked about this quite a bit in previous posts: if we come away from an interaction with a service provider with a positive emotional connection we’re more likely to return to that provider and to tell friends and family about it.

But how far can service providers go in designing this in to customers’ experiences?

Intelligent design

An excellent two-part article from Erik Flowers and Megan Erin Miller of Practical Service Design brings this question to life. They make two points:

  1. The customer’s experience is the outcome of an end-to-end process that’s well managed by the provider, and where the management is largely invisible to the customer.
  2. However there is an area that, most of the time, the provider can’t fully control which is the actual experience as it occurs particularly if the experience is viewed end-to-end.
Now that’s a customer journey…

Flowers and Miller give and example of a visit to a theme park – although the purpose may be to go on a particular ride with its associated, designed emotions (thrills) there are so many other factors that are not so easily controlled – the journey to the park, parking, queuing, food and drink and so on – that the best thing you can do it to create an environment that maximises the best possible emotional outcome at all contact points.

You couldn’t make it up

This would include – and this is a point not explicitly covered in the article – allowing sufficient space and flexibility for the service providers/agents in the process to be able to use their own initiative to create those positive experiences and respond to customers’ needs. To build on the theme park example, boarding and onboarding the ride – a part of customer journey that should operate according to a high degree of operational efficiency – needs to be able to accommodate customers becoming ill, having a change of heart or other exceptions to the standard process. In my experience – mostly limited to Disneyland – theme parks where a customer-focused culture exists enables agents (‘cast members’ in Disney-speak) to deal with these less predictable elements of the journey to ensure the best possible experience for the customers/guests.

So as much as we should try to be aware during service design of the ’emotional arc’ that a customer goes through in their journey we should also be aware that – unlike the best of Gothic fiction – real events in service implementation mean we can’t exercise such a tight control over our customers emotions.

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