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Customer ExperienceImprecise use of terms often leads to complications—just ask any lawyer—and that’s as true in marketing as in any other endeavor. 

I often hear the terms customer experience (CX) and user experience (UX) used interchangeably; it’s an understandable oversight, but one that has the potential to cause confusion and send marketers down the wrong path as they seek to advance the cause of their brands through improved experience.

Recently, I attended the UX STRAT Conference in Providence, RI, where thought leaders and practitioners from the world of digital design met to discuss the role and importance of experience design.

One of the speakers raised a couple of questions that I found intriguing: What is the difference between CX and UX? And does it matter?

While I largely agreed with her definitions of the terms, I didn’t agree with the assertion that the difference probably doesn’t matter, because it’s “only” a question of perspective.

CX is how customers perceive all interactions with a company, regardless of when and where the interactions happen. The term has been in circulation in the marketing world for decades, referring to every touchpoint that a customer has with a business, digital or otherwise.

UX, in contrast, is the individual person’s perceptions or responses that result from using a product, system, or service. Introduced in Don Norman’s first edition of The Design of Everyday Things in 1988, the “user experience” was not intended to refer to digital interactions exclusively. However, the term was quickly embraced and popularized by the interaction design community, such that UX is most commonly perceived as the experience someone has when engaging with a digital platform, website or application. 

With the rising importance of digital to marketing and the growing awareness of a more holistic customer journey by the UX community, the distinction between these two terms has been blurred by the very people who should appreciate the distinction more than most of their colleagues.

At the UX STRAT Conference, the speaker I mentioned earlier argued that, in a world where consumers are increasingly uninterested in or don’t recognize the difference between digital and non-digital experiences, differentiating between CX and UX is merely splitting hairs.

Certainly, we are moving toward a post-digital world, where consumers and customers don’t actively recognize the distinctions between digital and non-digital interactions with a company or business—it’s all one seemingly integrated (though not quite seamless) environment. On the other hand, it remains true that CX and UX represent differences in perspective which is precisely what makes them important. The two terms provide significantly different points of view about how businesses interact with and create value for customers.

To clarify the point, I will risk muddying the waters further by introducing a third term, one that wasn’t discussed at the conference: brand experience, which is how customers think or feel about a company.

Brand experience accounts for the intangible value and meaning that a company creates through everything it delivers for a customer, both experiential and otherwise. CX relates to a company’s success or failure in delivering a differentiated or pleasing experience to customers across all touchpoints, digital or not. UX is about the customers’ or users’ perception of whether the company is creating value by making their lives better or richer in many small ways measured across the multiple digital interactions that occur across a product or service. Great UX contributes to the health of CX, and a pleasing CX can yield a differentiating brand experience.

Distinguishing among these experiences isn’t a matter of splitting hairs. Each concept—UX, CX, and brand experience—provides a different lens through which we can determine whether we are creating differentiating value for customers, even as the world evolves into a kaleidoscope of digital and non-digital experiences that, to customers, are largely indistinguishable from each other. In addition, the encapsulations of UX by CX and CX by Brand Experience is not a one-way relationship. The customer or user’s perception of the UX or the CX can—and is—affected by their existing perception of the brand, both in terms of existing loyalty and the brand promise itself.

Unless you understand the differences between UX strategies and CX strategies, you won’t be able to determine how or whether these advance the cause of your brand or contribute to the brand outcomes you are trying to achieve. 

Confusion could lead you to implement the wrong solutions as you attempt to achieve such objectives as attracting new customers, satisfying or retaining existing customers, and delighting all customers. 

Regardless of how you define the terms, it’s critical that you ensure that everyone in your organization understands how they are being used, the impact they are intended to generate, and how to measure their effectiveness. That’s a discussion worth having, even if your customers don’t recognize or care about the difference between the digital and non-digital experiences you provide.

About the Author

Ralph Cummins
Ralph Cummins is the Executive Director of the Customer Experience practice at CapTech. His initial decision to pursue a career in advertising was based on the perception that with human behaviors as the focal point, building brands would never be boring. Through a career in advertising, brand marketing and, now, technology consulting, the fascination with the interplay between human needs, brand aspirations, and business needs has never waned.