Think back to the last time you had a truly memorable experience with a brand. Maybe it exceeded your expectations – like a customer service representative going above and beyond. Or maybe it just “worked” – like an easy, frictionless transaction to buy a product.
This memorable experience might’ve started from a well-targeted campaign or an appealing brand promise, but it likely went much deeper than that: it went deeper into how the interaction made you feel. And that was almost certainly not a coincidence: it was a product of a carefully and purposefully designed customer experience (CX).
In this article, we’ll walk you through the following topics:
By the end of this, you should be able to get a clearer understanding of how instrumental Northstar Visions can be in helping us build better user-centric CX strategies for the brands we work with.
The Value of Customer Experience Design
In today’s reality of well-informed consumers, it’s no longer enough for brands to focus their efforts exclusively on the messaging they put into the market. If they want to stand out from the crowd, they need to prioritize living out their “best selves” at every customer touchpoint.
Because when an experience doesn’t live up to a brand’s promise, it not only negates that promise, but it also breaks the trust that brand invested so much money and effort in building with its customers. For these reasons alone, a well-thought-out CX strategy can be a considerable benefit to both the customer and the brand itself.
What Is a Northstar Vision? What Role Does It Play in Customer Experience Design?
Like any good plan, it’s critical to kick off the development of a thoughtful CX strategy with a clear destination in mind. At Allen & Gerritsen, we start this process by setting a Northstar vision for what a brand’s CX “best self” should look like.
Similar to how Polaris holds its position in the night sky, this Northstar vision is meant to serve as a source of truth to guide the many tracks of executional work that go into creating a best-in-class customer experience across all consumer touchpoints.
This approach creates a shift from a technology-first perspective – fitting an experience into the constraints of a particular platform or technology that a brand may be using – to a customer-first one. In a customer-first experience, a website, app, email, etc. becomes a tool in service of a human-centric strategy to improve the lives of consumers and help clients hit their business goals.
How We Use Design Thinking to Build a Northstar Vision
In order to achieve the shift from a technology-first perspective to customer-first perspective, the Northstar process itself needs to be inherently consumer-centric. For us, that means that we need to ground our process in design thinking principles.
Here’s a high-level overview of how we use design thinking in our Northstar approach at A&G:
Step #1: Empathize
We begin with in-depth user research to better understand the specific needs and pain points of the brand’s audience. Specifically, this involves conducting extensive stakeholder interviews and competitive/comparative analyses, which provide our design team with deeper insights into all relevant aspects of the brand. The goal of this step is to collect as much information as possible in order to get a better, more holistic understanding of the brand’s company, business category, and – most importantly – its customers.
Step #2: Define
Then, we analyze all the information we collected and use those inputs to define the key user needs, pain points, flows, and “moments that matter” within the current CX. We’ll also use this time to define the specific problem (or problems) in the user experience that will need to be resolved. Our team does this by writing a user-centric “problem statement,” in which the problem is framed within the context of the actual user needs and pain points that the current experience isn’t meeting or addressing. If we’ve identified multiple problems, we’ll draft problem statements for each of them.
Step #3: Ideate
Once we’ve defined the specific problem(s) to address, it’s time to come up with ideas for potential solutions. This is the point at which creativity starts to become more front and center in our design approach. This stage is meant to be generative, with no idea off the table, and involves a close collaborative partnership between agency and client. New ideas can come from anywhere, with a “How Might We” mindset to problem solving. Once we’ve exhausted our collective brainpower, we’ll round out this process by picking the best options to move forward with in the prototyping phase.
Step #4: Prototype
Prototyping is a critical step in user experience design because it allows us to bring our potential solutions to life by making them more visual and tangible. Specifically, we do this by building scaled-down models of the best potential solutions that we identified in the Ideate phase. Turning these ideas into more concrete artifacts makes it easier for us to assess each solution’s viability, as well as to highlight any gaps or challenges we didn’t think of before.
It’s important to keep in mind that prototyping is less about being “right” the first time and more about failing fast and building momentum to keep iterating and refining until viable solutions are found. Of equal importance, this process also brings together the many different client teams that often share ownership of a brand’s CX to build consensus on a unified direction forward.
The best part about this stage is that – first and foremost – it’s generative. Similar to the “Ideate” phase, we collaborate closely with our clients to pressure-test the prototypes and generate new ideas to try or routes to take. No stone has been left unturned by the time the refinement of the experience begins. This ensures that the final end-to-end prototype is something that all teams are confident with as a representation of the optimal brand experience.
Step #5: Test
Once we have the prototype locked down, it’s crucial that we put it into the hands of actual consumers in order to validate the decisions we made. (This process is often referred to as “resonance testing.”) This step is less focused on usability (e.g., button placement, etc.) and more focused on ensuring the utility and value provided by the prototyped experience.
This step is meant to answer a few key questions, such as:
- Do users feel compelled to engage with the experience?
- Do users see value once they do engage with the experience?
- Are there certain features that are more important than others?
- Are there any that are missing that were expected to be there?
Ultimately, this period of testing and validating is used to guide any final optimizations that are made to the experience. Additionally, it helps build confidence that the minimum viable product (MVP) experience enters the market with an existing level of user validation. Finally, this step can help with future prioritization and roadmapping activities when deciding which features to include in MVP – and which may be more suitable as future enhancements.
Setting the Foundation for Building a Brand’s Best Self™
By the end of the Northstar process, a final end-to-end prototype of the future “best self” experience has emerged. It is a concrete source of truth, informed by a deep understanding of the brand, created in tight collaboration with the client team, and validated by real-world users. This experience reveals a clear destination for design work that ties the CX vision to future execution and serves as the basis for feature prioritization, roadmap planning, detailed design, and – ultimately – development. And all this happens within a 12-week timeframe.
It’s a process we’re passionate about at A&G and we always welcome the opportunity to apply it to new brands and industries!
Northstar Vision FAQs
Below, we’ve provided a sampling of the most frequently asked questions we get regarding our approach to creating Northstar Visions and using them to build more user-centric CX strategies.
Q: What’s the difference between a “tech-led” experience & a “user-led” experience?
A: Oftentimes, companies find themselves with a new platform or technology (think: a CMS like AEM or a CRM like Hubspot) and try to build an experience within the constraints of that platform or tool. Our belief is that a comprehensive strategy – such as a Northstar – should come first in order to properly define user-centric requirements for the experience that can then be used as the requirements for tech discovery. This approach ensures that a suitable tech platform can be chosen that will support a user-centric experience vs. trying to fit an experience into the constraints of an existing technology ecosystem.
Q: What are the measures of a strong user-led experience?
A: We feel that a proper user-led experience should be useful, usable, equitable (able to be used by all), and enjoyable. If any of these characteristics are missing, the experience will cause more harm than good – manifesting as customer frustration and disappointment. Starting with a Northstar strategy bakes these attributes into your CX right from the start.
Q: I get that user-led experience strategy is important in B2C, but is it important for B2B brands as well?
A: Yes! We like to say that “consumer-grade” experiences are the new “commercial-grade” experiences. As B2B buyers become more accustomed to best-in-class experiences in their personal lives – such as what they get from the likes of Amazon or Chewy – they come to expect the same level of CX refinement in their professional lives as well. A proper user-led experience can be a huge differentiator for a B2B brand; we’ve seen countless success stories from our B2B clients who have evolved their experiences through the Northstar process.
Q: Once a Northstar is complete, what happens next?
A: While each engagement can be tailored as needed, our typical process will involve a brief period of prioritization and roadmapping. During this period, we’ll take the key features identified in the Northstar prototype and then roadmap them out into an MVP experience and future releases. Then, we start to bring the reimagined MVP experience to life; typically, this process involves building out the following elements of any good customer experience:
- Comprehensive Information Architecture
- Content Strategy
- Measurement Planning
Once the new experience has been created, we also build out roadmaps for future incremental releases and ongoing test & learn and optimization activities that may need to occur over time.
Q: Can a Northstar be completed remotely or does it require in-person time as well?
A: We’ve had success completing this process both fully remotely and in person. However, we do prefer to hold 1-2 collaborative workshops in-person as part of the process. If you’re interested in engaging us for a Northstar project, we can either host you in our Boston or Philly Third Spaces or travel to you. We find that this time together rapidly builds rapport and alignment between all teams.
And – more importantly – it’s just fun!
Want to learn more about the Northstar Vision and our approach to building award-winning customer experiences? Contact us today to schedule a quick 15-minute chat with our CX team.
About the Author
Sam Carkin is the director of business leadership for A&G’s CX team. He focuses on applying the principles of design thinking to find new and exciting ways to solve even the most complex client challenges and drive their business forward.