What’s the difference between UX and CX?

Group Strategy Director

Customer experience (CX) is fast emerging as one of the core business elements every enterprise must master in the digital age. But what does the ascendancy of CX mean for user experience (UX), and how do these two important concepts relate to one another? Centerline’s Group Strategy Director, Greg Harbinson and UX Strategist, Brandon Frye dug into the relationship between the two different kinds of experience in a recent conversation.

What are the major differences between UX and CX? What is the relationship between the two, as you understand it?

Brandon: UX has been established. CX is still trying to get up and walk. Both are very integral, however. I feel like, especially working any type of digital product, any kind of company that’s going to have anything online, you need both to help lead, create, and ultimately represent your brand.

UX is a lot more of a specialized approach. So if you’re talking about a digital product, a website, it’s how people interact with it, how they feel about it. Do they enjoy using it? CX is more of the experience of the overall customer with the company. UX would be part of that. But then you also have: “How is your customer service? How is your sales process? How is your support?” This even goes into values like, “Do they support charities?” It’s how that person is viewing the overall company.

Greg: UX tends to be focused around usability, accessibility. “Can they get in and get out?” CX tends to come up when someone cares about a relationship that a company is creating with their audience. So when they talk about CX as a priority, they’re looking at metrics like: your net promoter score, or customer lifetime value. They’re thinking about the longevity of the experience a customer has with a company.

Brandon: I feel like these things have been around for decades, but now they’re finally starting to hit the digital realm. I used to work in retail, and every week we had new displays that we had to put up. It was like: “Well, what are we trying to promote?” That’s your CTA or your product. But then you also have the manager that’s looking at: “Well, when people are coming in, are there enough carts? Do we have plenty of lines open? Are they finding the things they need? Are you putting all the most important items on the top shelf, where people can’t reach them?” That’s not a great idea. But that’s not CX. It’s more specifically the UX part, in the old school sense.

Greg: We tend to talk about UX as a subset of the CX conversation – a tool you can use to improve CX. Good UX can lead to good CX, and bad UX can hurt your CX.

So there isn’t really an either-or choice between CX and UX, is there?

Greg: Ideally, they’d be working hand in hand.

Brandon: It’s like a loop in a way. CX will say: “Here are our goals, here is what we’ve learned, here’s where we want to get.” And then UX will help make that goal achievable. And then when UX does that, then it goes back to CX. It’s an iterative kind of process.

Greg: When we talk about digital marketing, in particular, I see UX as a really important lever to improve CX. Because we’re talking about creating a lot of things like websites, interactive tools, applications, even video content that people are looking at. When we think about things like user experience, usability, accessibility of the things that we’re building, that’s a really big way that we’re able to impact the experience that people are having as they hop across the different channels where they interact with our brand. The UX is an incredibly important tool to activate through all of those different channels. And that’s what starts to show people the consistent, positive interactions across channels that ultimately can contribute to a better customer experience.

What does it mean to be an experience-driven business today?

Greg: The short way to describe that is that you care about the impact of your efforts on your customer. You’re focused on the customer over an internal agenda, or you were at least balancing the experience of the customer with the agenda of the business. There are a lot of industries where people place a lot of stock in the value that a company is giving to them. “Beyond just the products that you deliver, can you help me stay up to date on what’s happening in that field?”

Brandon: Everybody is going to have at least a little bit of a biased view on whether a company is trustworthy or not. It can come from the smallest thing, so buying that trust is a big part. And if you want to buy trust, it’s typically through experience. You don’t just go up to somebody and say, “I trust you.”

Greg: I love where you’re going with that. You have to build that trust just like you do with people, but with a brand. The brand has to build it over the course of a lot of interactions. And that’s another lens that CX is reinforcing. Every interaction is important because people are going to interact with us many times over the customer lifecycle, and we need to make sure that every time we nail it. So that over the course of the years that we have with these people, we’re building equity bit by bit.

What does it mean pragmatically to embrace CX best practices? Is it hiring new people that are tasked specifically with monitoring the health of the customer journey? Is it more than that?

Greg: CX is big. Especially when you talk about implementing CX in a big company, you need a group of people who can own CX in its entirety. But then, because CX is so big and it touches every aspect of what the company is delivering, it ultimately impacts the way that different groups approach their jobs. This means upskilling. The group who manage the entirety of CX would be charged with setting up: “What’s our CX framework? What are our processes going to need to look like? How are we going to install best practices into the organization?”

But then they also have to then upskill the people who are already there to say, you know what, “R&D, here’s how CX impacts your work, and here’s a little bit of a new lens to use to approach your work.” It’s the same goes for marketing, sales, and support teams. That approach helps you centrally own and manage your CX strategy. It ensures you aren’t just creating a new silo for CX, but that you’re spreading it and evangelizing it throughout the entire company.

Brandon: Yeah, it’s a large shift for everybody in the company. It does take a while. It’s kind of like when UX was first getting going, and one of the biggest things that really got people to buy into it was being able to explain why. Someone might have asked, “Why can’t a button be smaller than this?” And you could explain, “Well actually, there’s all this data that we found showing people have trouble with buttons below this size.”

You have to get people internally to see the value before your clients will ever, ever see the value from it. If that’s not happening, I feel like that overall CX strategy is going to be a failure. But getting that buy-in takes time, and it requires you to go outside of your typical organizational bubbles.

A 2018 Forrester study said that “consumer-focused companies are more likely to be experienced-driven businesses than those with primarily B2B business models.” What lessons or values do you think there are that B2B companies can pull from this drive to prioritize CX?

Greg: I think the real lesson is that we all sell to people. A lot of B2B companies made the early mistake of thinking they don’t have to market to people because they sell to companies. They approached their marketing and sales processes very differently than B2C leaders. The problem with this approach is that now we have these hugely successful companies—eBay, Amazon, Apple, Google—that came out of the gate being very user-focused. People came to expect a baseline of customer experience from that.

A B2B company has a very different sales process, but at the end of the day, they’re selling to the same people. And those consumers have now gone to Amazon and bought something very easily, or they’ve had the unboxing experience of a new Macbook. Their expectations of what it’s like to interact with a brand are so much higher than they were before. Now they say, “You know what? I can live-chat with someone about the clothing that I’m about to buy. But if I’m looking at a new hardware system or software for my HR department, why can’t I just talk to someone as easily? Why is this challenging?”

Brandon: What I find most interesting about this is: You could be putting so much money towards a new service you’re trying to get. And if it’s not actually everything you need in six months, it could mean the end of your business, or at least a big change. Something drastic.

You can’t take the human experience out of it. You’re making a product for humans, for people to use. You’re not literally selling to the entire company; you’re selling it to the three or four people you’re talking to. They’re not just buying it for themselves, they’re buying it for the company, but still, they can’t take that human aspect out of it.

Greg: Yeah, that’s a great point. B2B companies were certainly slower to realize that CX was important. But they’ve realized it now and we’re seeing a lot more B2B companies stepping into CX, trying to master it.


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Group Strategy Director

I’ve always liked taking things apart. It wasn’t until I got a little older that I realized how much fun it could be to put something back together. It’s something special to dissect something unfamiliar, learn how it works and make it better than it was before. I like to bring this approach to any project I work on.