Our latest POV on how customer experience drives everything from concept and creative to design and technology

Should Everything Be Digital?

By Asa Sherrill, VP Experience Design

Technology is the promise of the future, so why shouldn’t we aim to enhance everything with it? The short answer is that we likely should; however, before we do, it’s worthwhile to stop and understand exactly why (or why not) digital should be part of our solution.

Experience is Instinctive

The way in which people experience the world around them isn’t by chance; it’s an instinctive byproduct of eons of evolution. Natural selection favors certain characteristics, especially those that lead organisms not merely to survive, but also to flourish. Biologists call this flourishing state homeostasis

Reaching homeostasis relies on the convergence of positive and negative feedback loops. Perhaps you’re sitting at home and the temperature is too cold. How does your psychology drive you to change the temperature? A negative feedback loop counteracts your body’s current state of rest. In addition to triggering other unconscious processes in your body, the sensation causes you to feel uncomfortable, which in turn motivates you to stand, walk to your thermostat, and adjust the temperature upward a few notches. As the heater kicks in, a positive feedback loop triggers feelings of warmth and comfort, encouraging inaction.

Value is Valence

These simple examples of feedback loops show how viscerally we experience the world around us and how feelings motivate behavior. Psychologists use the phrase “valence” to describe our ability to detect the “good” or “bad” nature of experiences.

Not surprisingly, the word “valence” originates from the same source that the word “value” does. In the concept of valence, we can understand why consumer value perception is such a strong factor in experiences. When an experience aligns with the values we’re trying to pursue, a positive feedback loop makes us feel satisfied; however, when an experience conflicts with our values, a similar negative feedback loop motivates course correction—the very same mechanism that drives us to the thermostat to turn the heat up. 

The notion of value is quite broad, but it can be broken down into a few overlapping categories. Consumers derive tangible value from experiences when the result is physical in nature, such as buying a product or service. Likewise, intangible values are derived from experiences that result in something that is not concrete, but otherwise valuable. Loyalty programs are a common source of intangible value, promising more personalized future service. Experiences that are streamlined and more efficient also provide intangible value, promising more time or comfort when executing tasks. Lastly, aspirational value is heavily linked to a consumer’s desired self-image. Luxury automotive brands trade in aspirational value. Lexus, for example, frequently advertises their vehicles with a sleek look and a cool driver, evoking an image that their customers seek to achieve.

Understanding Customer Value Perception

In determining how our customers could judge the experiences we provide them, you might have noticed that digital wasn’t mentioned a single time.

We don’t judge experiences by how technically up-to-date they are, but instead through a form of instinctual judgement (“valence”) linked to our ability to achieve a state of flourishing (“homeostasis”).

When we’re evaluating customers, we can lean on this truism of human psychology to better understand what they intend to accomplish when they buy our products or engage with our services. Customer insights should be evaluated not just for their face value, but also for the underlying needs, wants, and influences that are shaping the way the customer perceives the value they’ll receive through their interaction with you. 

Full Circle—Digital or No?

Regardless of how we come to understand our customers, good design thinking requires that we first empathize before we provide a solution, and the question of “digital or not” sits squarely within the solution phase. And while digital provides answers too many different kinds of value customers seek, some types of value call for something more analog.

For example, when customers pursue home services, such as inviting a plumber to fix a toilet, we regularly hear that they require a level of comfort with the person entering their home. Experiences that focus on maintaining relationships and trust are often delivered more effectively without a screen.

In Conclusion

In thinking about the experiences that will appeal to your customers, don’t start with digital for digital’s sake. Instead, first take steps not just to hear your customers, but also to read between the lines to understand the value they seek that might influence how they feel when they engage with your business. Then, armed with that knowledge, think about how technology might address their value perception. If it can’t, don’t hesitate to lean into something a bit more analog.