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How 44 Years in Prison Can Influence Customer Experience Design

Published November 30, 2015

I recently watched a pretty remarkable video on Al Jazeera about Otis Johnson, a 69-year-old man released from prison in August 2014. Having served 44 years behind bars for attempted murder, his view of the technology-driven world we live in today is at turns bemused, confused and curious.

Imagine stepping into a world where people walk down the street without looking where they’re going—because they’re texting. Seeing videos playing in windows and on billboards. Or noticing that the majority of people appear to be talking to themselves, then noticing mysterious “things in their ears.”


“I stand out here for a long time, watching this crazy stuff. Wow. And I seen that everybody, or a majority of the people were talking to themselves. Then I looked closer, and they seemed to have things in their ears. Those phone things? iPhones they call them or something like that. And I thought to my mind, what everybody became CIA or agents or stuff like that? Because that’s the only thing I can think of. Somebody walking around with wires in their ears.”

And then some people, they’re not even looking where they’re going. And I’m trying to figure out, how people do that. Control themselves to walk, and talk on the phone without even looking where they’re going. So that was amazing to me.”

Unsurprisingly, this got me thinking about how far technology has come in the last few decades—and the degree to which this digital transformation is (or isn’t) a benefit to us. It also got me thinking about ways in which organizations tend to focus on “new and upcoming” customer segments—often doing so at the expense of others. In the last few weeks, at least three clients have expressed a deep desire to define strategies and design new, innovative customer experiences for Millennials.

In our experience, this approach is both understandable, and misguided. Understandable because Millennials are a fast growing generational segment—expected to surpass the Baby Boom generation in 2015 as the nation’s largest living generation, according to the Pew Research Center. Misguided because this “generational segmentation” view is at odds with one of the core precepts of customer experience management and experience design.

To assume that any one generation or demographic cohort shares a common set of wants and needs is an optimistic though inaccurate concept. It’s emblematic of the traditional “inside out” view of the world which drives many of the customer-facing products, services and experiences that consistently don’t meet customer expectations, especially in technology innovation.

In our work, we find that segmentation (and the customer experience design resulting from this view) is best based on a customer group’s common wants, needs, and expectations of your company—not simply their age, or where they live. An understanding of these functional and emotional attributes allows you to design customer experiences in ways that best satisfy individual needs, strengthening the relationships between you and your customers with every interaction, and curating the most meaningful technology for each segment. This is the “outside in” view that drives customer experience leaders, and the very best of customer experience design.

Which brings us back to Mr. Johnson. After four decades in prison, there’s little doubt that his technical savvy is a few decades behind the curve. It’s also likely that—at this point, anyhow—he doesn’t yet fall into the types of consumer behavior or spending segments a typical company would target for digital CX.

But the way he looks at the world—through fresh eyes, looking forward not backwards and for the first time in decades truly “from the outside in”—is a view that every organization should strive to understand, and adopt. Success in experience design is rarely driven by the targeting of a broadly described demographic, such as Millennials. It’s driven by understanding how your customers look at and interact with the world they live in now, their aspirational ideals, and the emotional and functional wants and needs they have as they go through their lives.

By looking at your business from the outside in, you can see where and how you can refine your customer experience design to meet the wants and needs of your customers—all your customers—better than anyone else.

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