Design’s role is changing with the times, and I’m seeing it first-hand as AT&T re-energizes its focus on Customer Experience.

Confession: After years as part of creative teams inside the entertainment industry, I know too much about how the sausage gets made. I know, for instance, that creativity can happen in a “design bubble” where ideas may get lightly vetted for whether the message is as clear, or effective as it should be.

I also know that creative teams are often aligned based on skillset — do you do video? social media? print? web? — and operate like independent kingdoms even at the Creative Director level. And if these teams don’t play well together, the work can splinter as the teams lose sight of the customer experience from a marketing perspective.

Then, the cracks start to appear.

This’ll show up when a network is launching a new program. When the commercial on television doesn’t look like the magazine ad doesn’t look like the website doesn’t look like any of the ads on third-party websites.

Real-world example

At a television network where I spent several years, the marketing initiatives leading up to the launch of a new program could spawn separate creative campaigns (produced by internal teams) that looked like they came from separate agencies. In one case, a single show had three different logos in simultaneous play… one for web promotions, another for print ads, and a third for video trailers. Because nobody talked to each other, and nobody in charge was paying attention.

I’m not making this up — the problem is real! It happens across all industries, more frequently where the work is split up to different in-house creative teams or separate agencies.

From a marketing perspective, it’s… well, it’s sub-optimal. To put it kindly. Just when customers should be experiencing a seamless and consistent experience, companies are releasing jarring and fragmented brand communication messages.

As I think back to those past times, one thing that stands out is how differently customers experienced that entertainment brand than they do at AT&T, where I now am. Network television is basically a single and simple product that engages consumers in very limited ways — through the television, via the website or an app, or with short-lived marketing campaigns. In this scenarios, customer experience is driven by marketing concerns.

Then I switched industries and moved over to tech/telecomm. My digital content design team at AT&T is focused on the user experience of our website’s homepage and major line-of-business pages, and promoting products and services. It’s a pure digital play, and it has many more stakeholders than just the marketing arm of the org.

CX Rising

But the world isn’t standing still. Earlier this year AT&T began to mobilize on the CX front.

The vision began to unfold with the hiring of a new Chief Digital Officer. He’s got an expansive view of the role and transformational power of digital. (Hint: It’s bigger than digital!)

As the year progressed, more executive slots have gotten filled in — including a new design leader bringing a unique multi-disciplinary background. Still to come is a revitalizing cascade of organizational, strategic, and structural changes.

CX is crossing the analog gap to the retail experience — including store design, how staffers greet customers, and even details like a store’s sonic and olfactory profile.

How the entire customer experience eventually plays out on the web, on our apps, and in-store will be fascinating to watch — and it’s going to a very cool future for those of us on the front lines of digital. Yet, I don’t think we’ll be alone. Employees from all roles will be engaged in delivering a consistent customer experience. CX will become the byword on everyone’s lips.

Establishing a unified experience was hard enough in the design and marketing space. But it’s going to be several levels more challenging for design as we move into customer experience. CX has more moving parts, more stakeholders, requires more leadership, and takes more effort to achieve. It’ll require sustained effort from the top of the organization, and supported by a matrix organizational model on the executional level. On the upside, it also has potential for a greater impact on the business.

This is so much bigger than digital — it’s how customers experience our brand end-to-end, and their engagement with our products and services across every platform and touchpoint. I think we’re going to see a future where every service and product and customer interaction is designed with the goal for an exceptional experience.

These experiences will cut across our digital UX/UI and design, our mobile apps, ads for television and print, the buyflow and shopping cart experience, and installation and customer service — and cross the analog gap into the retail experience of store design, how staffers greet customers (and what they wear), and maybe even details like a store’s sonic and olfactory profile.

The big winners will be the customers, as through combined effort we begin to figure out how to express what the company stands for across all touchpoints — and then deliver great experiences in their journey to learn about and buy our products and services.

Examples from Tech

Apple has unified an extreme number of touchpoints — and not just their website and retail stores where customers learn about and buy products and services. Apple also creates hardware, software, services, and digital product delivery platforms from iTunes to the app store. That’s a lot to manage!

Over at Tesla, CEO Elon Musk has said that purchasing a Tesla should be “delightful” — and the brand has done everything possible to revolutionize the way it interacts with its customers. To customers, this just feels natural like how life should be.

Bottom Line:

For complex organizations, CX encompasses not only product and service design, but also every customer touchpoint whether in the digital or physical world. This is where companies must differentiate themselves by elevating their customer experience from ordinary to extraordinary.