Is marketing killing experience design?

Many years ago, when I was asked about the future of experience design, I responded in the same way many experience designers did at the time; if we do our job right we will be redundant. Four years ago we assumed that there was such a long way to go to educate our marketing clients about how to think like a user it seemed as if that was all we really did. It took so long to get to the design aspects of our job we forgot how important it was for designers to focus on design.


Now we have scores of people across the marketing spectrum demonstrating their knowledge about customer-centricity, asking for customer journeys and commissioning research like never before, with seemingly every second job title involving the term ‘experience’. So we should be happy, right?


Wrong. Or wrongish. It is wonderful that we don’t have to spend time preaching to the converted, which used to create an exhausting delay before we would even get the chance to design an excellent experience. But what has also happened is that we now have scores of marketing professionals who confuse an ability to comprehend the customer-centric principles used to ‘target’ customers with the ability to apply those principles to the design of the products and services that make up a great customer experience.


Other than giving experience designers the room to use their skillsets and own the design, here’s a few key tips on how not to allow a marketing mindset to kill great experience design.

1. Customer research to inform a product or service should be designed for or by designers

Without a knowledge of how to design a product or service, research can be ill-construed. Experience designers do not wish to target customers, so research based on demographic information is not particularly useful to us. In addition, even though we are interested in attitudes, we are really interested behaviors; how people use or misuse a product or service so that we can improve their experience. Specifically, we are looking for goals, triggers, needs, pain points and actions and how this changes over time and circumstance.

2. Literal interpretations eliminate creative possibilities

I often see marketing professionals looking at popular services and products and simply recreating them based on the assumption that it is what people want. I also often hear the same individuals saying ‘based on the research, our customers are saying they don’t want x so we shouldn’t give them x.’ It all sounds rational on the surface. However, great designers know that customers can only work within their frame of reference and often don’t know what they want until they see it. We know how to recognise an underlying need and connect the dots between seemingly disconnected ideas to create a fresh, creative solution to a problem. That’s not to say that we shouldn’t be meeting existing experience benchmarks, but just staying in step with others is not always enough.

3. Makers have instincts others don’t, so let them run your innovation labs with added business insights

Multiple internal innovation labs have popped up all over the corporate sphere, strangely still under the remit of marketing departments. My heart sinks whenever I see that they are run or populated by those who aren’t ‘makers.’ By ‘makers’ I mean designers and developers who have a background in creating products and services. The reality is that, until you have solved problems by trying, testing, and failing a product design yourself, solutions are likely to suffer from distant rationality – they ‘seem’ like a good idea but just don’t have a creative edge. The haphazard, hands-dirty, creative process is instinctual for makers and academic for marketing professionals, meaning that the creative spark is often beyond the reach of non-makers. Product owners do not a maker make.

4. Design specialists are also capable of thinking holistically

Very often, experience designers will be pigeon-holed into a post-strategy phase of a project, the assumption being that they can’t contribute to the ‘big ideas’ across the channel ecosystem only the micro-interactions later on. This is fundamentally untrue for experience designers. They can do both. In fact, they aren’t experience designers if they can’t. Experience designers are often better placed to contribute to the ‘big idea’ phase of a project because they can already imagine the possibilities when ideas are being discussed. Unfortunately the same cannot always be said for generalist marketing professionals, unable to understand how customer-centric principles can eventuate into something uniquely wonderful.

5. Campaigns and gimmicks are not the same as a great end-to-end experience

We are all inclined to want to make something impressive and shiny. And why not! It’s fun and gets a brand some attention. But when the purpose of the ‘experience’ is to market the company and not to provide customers with something genuinely useful, the result is often fleeting and unlikely to create lasting customer satisfaction. Have faith that satisfying end-to-end experiences will provide a far better relationship with your customers in the long run than a fashionable gimmick will.