Customer experience vs. User experience (and why you need a strategy for both)

April 3, 2020

We're marketers. That means we're in the business of communication, and effective communication requires understanding and feeling what another person is feeling.

You know, basic empathy.

If we're not communicating with empathy, then we're failing at our job.

As marketers, when we create digital campaigns and experiences, we have to take the needs and challenges of who we're talking to into account.

When it comes to building B2B digital campaigns and experiences, the audience generally falls into one of two broad categories: users and customers.

Creating digital experiences for either requires a different approach and focus. And to be truly effective, your plans and strategies need to account for the needs of both groups.

What's the difference between a user and a customer?

A user is (of course) any person that interacts or operates something. This is, admittedly, a reductive definition, but it has subtle implications for design, product or marketing teams. For their (and our) purposes a user is anyone that lands, engages or works with your website, product or other digital assets.

A customer is a little tougher to define. Every organization is different. A "customer" can mean a potential customer, and that's how we're going to look at it. To put it VERY simply, let's say that a "customer" is anyone who is currently, or may yet, buy something.

So….what now?

Yeah, we get it. The difference is subtle, and depending on what the person is doing, there's overlap. Basically, it comes down to intention, expectation and action.

  • A customer wants to solve a problem by looking for a solution (i.e. what you're selling)
  • The customer expects that the experience of getting from problem to solution to be simple and seamless.

So, being a customer means having the intention to interact with your stuff and the expectation that it'll work a certain way when they do.

It's like potential energy. Think of it as tightening a spring. You're slowly increasing the potential that they'll engage.  

Your job is to create confidence that you can help them easily solve their problems. You achieve that confidence through effective communication.

Does your copy and messaging speak to them and their needs? Does your visual design convey that you're an actual leader rather than a third-tier hanger-on? When you look at what your customer experiences holistically and from their point of view, does what you're communicating make sense?  

To illustrate, we'll use Mighty & True as an example. We know that our customers have a fairly sophisticated understanding of the space in which we work. So what we communicate has to be relevant to them. We need to create confidence that we can solve an actual problem (hopefully this blog is doing that for you).

Because with customer strategy, you're building intent and understanding. But to get results, you have to actually pay it off.

Springing Into Action

Enter user experience. Once your customers take an action (anything from downloading a report to requesting a quote) and interact with your digital presence, they become users.

The goal of user experience therefore is ensuring that your users get to their desired action with as little friction as possible. That means in order to design a frictionless, effective user experience, you need a clear goal and strategy.

For instance, at Mighty & True our goal is to be easy to work with and solve problems efficiently and creatively. So, our user experience strategy is ensuring that, when it comes to the digital experiences we create, information isn't hard to find and interaction opportunities are intuitive and simple to use—regardless of the users' digital savvy or sophistication. Then we monitor those interactions and behaviors for useful insights that we can use to optimize the experience.

One thing leads to another

Think of it like this:

  • Your customer experience strategy provides context
  • Your user experience strategy provides the grease to get from point A to B easier

If we only focused on customer experience, we'd be leading thirsty travelers to a dry creek. If we only focused on user experience, those same travelers might find the path easy, but they'd have no idea where they're going or why they're there.

You need both a customer experience strategy and a user experience strategy to get any sort of performance out of your digital campaigns and projects. Together, they nourish each other.

So, customers can be users and users can be customers, but depending on where they are on their journey, they need different things. Your job is to understand who they are, what they want and how to get them there as quickly as possible. That's a real experience.