Good UX Mimics How We Build Relationships in the Real World

The customer experience consists of online and offline interactions

The digital world helps us discover new people, things, and organizations. It moves us along a journey where we can establish and cultivate relationships—both with individuals and organizations. In many cases, those relationships result in us buying something from someone we don’t know or subscribing to a service without ever being introduced to a human being. But the digital realm doesn’t magically erase how humans establish trust, form relationships, or make decisions.

These ingrained behaviors, subconscious snap judgements, and social norms aren’t going to change anytime soon. So why do businesses violate these expectations in online experiences? There tend to be two contributing factors. First, there is an expectation of fast rewards because interactions in the digital world are cheaper and quicker to build than offline experiences. Second, digital interactions are often easier to measure—making it seem like we are making progress, even though there’s often much more to the picture. Regardless, it’s typically easier to understand how a user got to your online store and what they did once they got there versus analyzing an offline shopping experience.

But expecting quick results that happen primarily in the digital space is unrealistic and can lead to user experience decisions that are problematic in the long run. Why? Because you end up minimizing the importance of the offline experience and unnaturally force digital relationships.

Don’t Discount Offline Experiences

While organizations should be optimizing their digital experiences, they should also be taking into account that many critical interactions are happening offline. Important aspects of the customer journey often include gathering information and referrals from peers and examining printed materials. These touchpoints influence the customer journey. 

For apps and software, consider how factors in the real world affect how users experience your product. Users may be compiling information from sources outside of your product, they may be interrupted frequently, or they may be doing an offline activity such as making a meal or interacting with a coworker. These circumstances will influence how they interact with your digital product. Instead of ignoring these experiences, examine the customer journey in its entirety. That way, you can make strategic decisions to optimize how these experiences work together to build long-lasting relationships with your customers.

Online Experiences Should Take Cues From Real-World Relationships

While it’s understandable that businesses want the customer journey to happen online, that desire often results in user experience practices that repel potential customers and alienate existing ones.

Negative digital experiences mimic the offline experiences we loathe. Walking up to a stranger and demanding their phone number is unwelcome, disruptive, and violates well-established norms. So why is it common practice to disrupt the user experience with a popup asking the user to sign up for a newsletter? Before asking for personal information, a relationship must be formed. Then, the user needs to decide if you provide enough value for them to give up their email address. Establishing this relationship—just like any relationship—takes time.

Successful user experiences mimic positive offline interactions. Think about a pleasantly seamless in-person sales experience. The salesperson is friendly without being obnoxious, anticipates your needs without being desperate, politely gives you space to explore your options, and is available to help as soon as you’re ready to move forward.

Now consider the onboarding practices for a software as a service (SaaS) company. As with marketing websites, users expect interactions with SaaS products to mimic real-world interactions. Unfortunately, onboarding often consists of a bunch of poorly crafted instructions, which users will either ignore or never remember. Or users are given no instructions and are expected to muddle through the new software on their own.

What could the SaaS company learn from successful offline experiences? At Ritz-Carlton hotels, employees are expected to be “responsive to the expressed and unexpressed wishes and needs” of their guests, according to the service values listed on its website. Luxury hotel guests expect lush accommodations and fast and courteous service. But delight follows when needs they haven’t expressed—or may not even be aware of—are fulfilled. In online experiences, anticipating and fulfilling user needs is a key to building and maintaining long-lasting relationships.

As a final example, let’s unpack a common online and offline scenario that can solidify or dismantle a relationship: giving out personal information. In many offline circumstances, we go into the experience already prepared to give out personal information. For example, when we enter the doctor’s office or human resources meeting, we go into the experience expecting to divulge information about ourselves. But users aren’t always as prepared in the digital realm. And too often digital products lack the bedside manner to explain why they require certain information and what they are going to do with it. The next time you design a product or feature that requests personal information, think about how you would ask for the same information in a real world context.

Successful digital relationships are built by adhering to the established conventions we have in building relationships in the physical world. Yes, the digital and physical worlds are merging. But customers’ expectations are based on their existing real world experiences. Further, ignoring offline experiences will not improve the digital ones. Instead, successful businesses will seek to understand how the offline and online worlds both contribute to building relationships.

Need help creating a user experience that builds relationships? Our in-house workshops help your entire team understand and embrace a user-centered design process.