Using UX to Build Strong Relationships With Customers Online

Therese Fessenden, UX Specialist with Nielsen Norman Group, dives deep into how organizations can better connect with their customers when online is our only option.

We want to help you stay connected to the content industry, even while we all have to stay apart during the COVID-19 pandemic. So, to help replace all the meetups and conferences you’ll be missing, we’re launching a series of virtual conversations between Setka’s CEO and leading content experts.

The world needs great content now more than ever, and we hope these insights inspire you to keep creating it!

Katya Bazilevskaya,
Co-founder and CEO at Setka


As COVID-19 has pushed so many businesses to operate solely online, connecting with customers digitally has taken on a different urgency. No longer can you rely on relationships made through in-person meetings and conference booths to drive your sales funnel—instead, you have to figure out how your digital experiences can drive a positive impression of your brand, help support your customers, and hopefully encourage them to work with your company.

Therese Fessenden

Therese Fessenden is a master of UX design and digital transformation, with plenty of data to back up her ideas. A User Experience Specialist with Nielsen Norman Group (NN/g), the world leaders in research-based user experience, Therese spends her days digging into the latest in everything from psychology to design to help guide organizations on creating interfaces that make customers love your company and help guide them to the actions you want (without being sleazy about it). She also brings expertise from time working as a user experience consultant at Microsoft, helping with instructional and interface design for cybersecurity training initiatives for Booz Allen Hamilton, and working as a freelance web designer. Oh, and on the side she’s a Captain in the U.S. Army Reserve, just to make her a little more awesome.

All these varying experiences give her a unique approach to using experience research to, not just inform design decisions, but help improve business decisions, too. She’s especially passionate about emotional design, which she describes as “accounting for everyone’s emotional state as we build a design to decrease discomfort, to feel supportive, and create an experience that is positive in some way.”

Learn more with Therese’s course in Persuasive and Emotional Design

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After participating in Therese’s workshop on Persuasive and Emotional Design during one of NN/g’s new virtual conferences—an impressive experience that was truly interactive and went above and beyond your average webinar—we knew we wanted to chat again with Therese ASAP to share her insights on adapting quickly to the digital-only realm, using UX to to build deep relationships with users and give them what they really need, and doing all of this successfully with a remote design team.

— As people are shifting more and more to interacting with customers solely online, what are some of the biggest UX principles you think companies should be paying extra attention to?

My gut reaction is to say all of them—ideally we should be thinking about all of the UX principles, but if I had to pick laws of UX that I think are really pertinent now more than ever, it would be things like Pareto’s Principle. So, what that means is basically 80% of your issues are going to be caused by 20% of your cases. I bring that up because, you think about life these days, and people are either in their element because they’re using computers and the internet all the time—or they’re very much out of their element and in a very unfamiliar and extreme situation. There’s a saying in design, “Design for the extremes,” and you can usually account for everybody. So I think that’s a really powerful way to design when you’re scarce on resources, especially these days where we’re working remotely and some people have to, for instance, balance childcare in addition to their typical workload. Now, we have to really prioritize what it is we work on, and that’s why I follow that principle.

Another important one, would be Postel’s Law, which says to accept many inputs and be open to any possibility, but then provide fewer outputs. So I like to think of it as being a really good listener. We now have to be a lot more open in what we can accept, and then be able to really drill down to what is the most essential thing that we need to provide to our customers.

Both of these are kind of a lesson in prioritization—we really need to find a way to keep it simple, both for our workload and for our customers.

— As you’ve watched companies quickly adapt to operating in the online space, what are some of the biggest mistakes and successes you’re seeing in terms of building a good digital UX?

I think the mistakes could probably be boiled down to like two types of mistakes: mistakes with the process and mistakes with the designs. And on the flip side, companies that are succeeding are doing those things really well.

So, with the process, I think you can’t make too many assumptions. Things are not at all what we could have predicted they ever would be. Granted, organizations have been making assumptions forever and it’s not like suddenly assumptions are bad—they’ve always been bad—but especially now. It’s really easy to assume away all of the different nuances and small things that could really add up and completely change someone’s experience. Really being empathetic helps to avoid making those assumptions. True empathy means going beyond just the fact that we’re in a pandemic, and going deeper into figuring out what a pandemic means for your customers, what’s now changed in their lives, what is their new context that they have to operate in, because it’s probably not going to be the same context that it used to be.

Fear-driven organizations: Usually hierarchical structure, ideas from more senior employees are respected more

Trust-driven organizations: Usually flat structure, all employee contributions are respected no matter what their role is

The other thing to pay attention to right now with your process is whether your organization is fear-driven or trust-driven. I think our organization is very trust driven, and that’s something we’ve worked really hard to build up over the years. The trust-driven organizations are more willing to empower some of the more junior level employees, and because of that, they’re able to get a much broader pool of ideas and really adapt in this time which requires us to do so quickly.

Illustration of a dark-haired girl on a live remote conference

True empathy means going beyond just the fact that we’re in a pandemic, and going deeper into figuring out what a pandemic means for your customers, what’s now changed in their lives

So, in terms of the process, those are two of the really big differences between I think the companies that are doing well and the companies that aren’t.

And then in terms of designs, I was reading this really funny article about how we’ve reached peak pandemic advertising, and how there are so many sad piano commercials, and everyone’s fed up with them. I think the same thing applies, not just for advertising, but for other designs. It’s easy to look at what other groups are doing and just do the same thing because it seems to be safe, but by simply regurgitating a design, you’re not really going to address people’s needs in a meaningful way.

I feel like there’s a need to balance wanting to be sincere and not tone-deaf, but at the same time, not over-emphasizing the problem. I think the best teams are the ones that can do a little bit of both, they can acknowledge that there’s a problem, but not focus their design on magnifying the fear, and instead spend their time thinking about what solutions they’re offering to our customers. It’s a combination of acknowledging someone’s pain and not imposing a feeling that’s not there.

We have a common saying at Nielsen that you cannot impose joy. This is one of those times when, as much as we want our customers to be happy, or to push past some of the challenges they’re going through, we can’t simply will it upon them. It’s a very challenging balance to strike, but the companies that do it well are the ones that can stay true to their brand that can stay sincere and promote a solution in addition to acknowledging the problem.

— During the course, you talked a lot about how you can generate trust online using design. Do you think creating trust online is more important than ever given that we’re all online? What are some of the changes a company can make to their UX to build more trust with customers?

I think people feel really vulnerable right now, and there’s a lot of scarcity, from resources like yeast and toilet paper to time and money. And all of this scarcity leads to a really, really high stress level. When you have a high stress level—a high negative affect is what we would call it—people are a lot less receptive to doing new things, to exploring new options, to spending money that they don’t need to spend. They’re a lot more focused on the task at hand and getting their high priority tasks done. So it’s really hard to win over new customers, which is why it’s more essential than ever to build significant amounts of trust, both with your existing customers and with your future customers.

And people are really yearning for some of that familiarity of the old times before everything happened, and they’re yearning for stability, especially since there’s very little stability right now with our economy. So, the more we can offer familiarity, stability, and reliability in our designs, the higher chance there is that people will trust us and will, at a minimum, know that they can rely on our organization.

So, how do you translate this idea of trust into a digital interface? We have to introduce new types of visual cues to help give that sense of personability and approachability. So one example I like to use is the aesthetics of joy by Ingrid Fetell Lee. She’s a neuroscientist who deep dives into what visual patterns consistently bring about positive reactions. Some of the research she’s done has shown that rounder shapes or soft shapes like circles or rounded corners tend to be perceived more positively than angular or more aggressive looking shapes and colors. Highly-saturated colors or pastels tend to be perceived as more vibrant and then darker colors tend to be seen as lower energy or more serious. I bring those up because, even though they’re really small things, they can help lead to a sense of comfort. Even if what we’re doing isn’t necessarily imposing joy, we’re creating an environment of comfort, and that can really help people in times of high-stress.

And then there’s other examples too, like putting things in predictable places. If something’s easier to find because it’s in a conventional place, designers might feel bummed because they don’t get to flex their originality muscle but the tradeoff is users who feel satisfied that they got what they were looking for, which can also lead to a feeling of trust.


Humanizing Interfaces to Improve Trust

There was a Facebook ad that came out recently featuring a beautiful poem by Kate Tempest with the line “there’s so much peace to be found in people’s faces.” We’re just drawn to people’s faces, it’s a psychological fact that we’re programmed biologically to seek them out. When we don’t have that over a long period of time, we get really lonely.

Faces help us to build empathy with people, which applies both from the company’s perspective of building empathy with customers, but also helping customers to build empathy with the company.

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So, one recommendation I make in my classes is to show people’s faces. And that means the people behind the service: that could be showing a customer service representative so the user can see who’s helping resolve their problems, it could be a sales representative that they’re going to be talking to. Showing those faces helps to really humanize an interaction.

Going beyond that, conversational design is something I’m really interested in and cover in a different course that I teach. Erica Hall has a fantastic book on conversational design where she shares how interfaces can be designed in a way that is conversational. Think of your interface, whether that’s a chat or not, as a good conversational partner. In any situation ask yourself what a good conversational partner would do. Would they acknowledge user mistakes in a mean way, or would they acknowledge the mistakes in a really calm way? Would they just offer what the person probably meant even if they selected the wrong thing? Mimicking what a real life conversation would be like helps really build that relationship with the customer.

— Companies obviously want to use their website design to help them make a sale—especially now when they may be worried about the financial future of their business. I know you talk a lot about ethics in design. How do you recommend people implement UX to be persuasive, without being sleazy or tricking the user?

This is something I feel so strongly about, and why, when people ask me about how to learn about persuasive technologies, I always say, “These resources are good, but don’t use them nefariously.” With great power comes great responsibility.

Daniel Berdichevsky and Erik Neuenschwander wrote this great paper on the ethics of persuasive technologies where they propose a rule that says you should ask yourself whether your technology persuades people to do something that you yourself wouldn’t want to be persuaded to do. So I think that’s a really good barometer for checking whether what we’re doing is sleazy or not. There’s also legislation out there which luckily has helped to keep a lot of companies in check, and I think we’re going to be seeing a lot more of that.

Finally I would say to ask yourself whether you’re thinking about short-term gain or keeping a longer-term perspective. When there’s temptation to make the sale, sometimes that leads to poor choices. And there might be a lot of pressure from stakeholders to do that because the A/B test proved that this was the highest performing strategy. When companies are worried about their financial future they often try to make the sale quick, but I would argue that if companies were truly worried about their financial future, then they wouldn’t take these risks for their financial present. That’s something I would always try to remind stakeholders when they’re doing some of these more shady strategies—it really risks violating the trust of your users and as soon as their trust is violated it’s almost impossible to get their trust back.


Gated Content for Lead Generation

There’s a study I always reference when people ask about gated content, the Gamberini study, which looked at reciprocity versus reward. So, the idea being, is it better to reward our customers for giving us their information or give the content for free and then they will give us their information in order to proceed with business further down the line?

The study showed that more people sign up when it’s the reward condition—as in, when it’s gated content—but the leads are terrible because people will either immediately unsubscribe or they’ll put in their junk mail email address that is never checked.

So, even though the reciprocation condition led to fewer signups, the leads were much more reliable because those people genuinely wanted that information, they genuinely cared about exploring new content. So I usually argue for at least showing some content before requiring a sign up so people have a sense of what’s there and have more incentive to provide genuine information.

Read study

— UX can also be used to surprise and delight customers, which we could all use a little more of right now. Can you give some examples of how you’ve seen this done successfully?

When I think about a phrase like surprise and delight, what it’s really about is exceeding expectations. The two recent examples that immediately come to mind are USAA refunding a significant portion of home and auto insurance for customers with no strings attached and farmers coming together to get their excess food to communities who need it.

Both of those are things I don’t expect designers to have power over, but what UX designers do have power over is the ability to learn what the customer’s deep needs are and do what they can to provide for that need in a really meaningful way. That can lead to surprise and delight on a really deep level. Sure, there are some small things like certain embellishments that we can make to our design and that’s fine. But if we’re failing to meet some of those deeper needs and the effects of that won’t be long lasting.

Thinking about our UX conference as another example, I think we surprised ourselves by how quickly we pivoted online. I know a lot of competitors actually just gave up, deciding to wait until the next year when they had more time to prepare. And we could have done that. But we decided not to and it was really hard work to do that. We really thought about what people wanted and how we could deliver on those needs in a meaningful way. And then we looked at the constraints and tried to see them as opportunities. Okay, so if we can’t do things offline, what can we do online? And that opened up a whole world of possibilities that even our in person events didn’t have.

I guess the short answer is, exceeding expectations is hard. And it’s a lot of work, because it means we have to dig deep and really strategize in a meaningful way as opposed to just sprinkling interface elements onto our site and hoping for the best. Once you do a little bit of research, you can usually find something really worth the time.


Using Animation to Add Delight

I love and hate animation. It’s definitely one of those things that I call “pixie dust” interface elements because it’s usually tacked on once the interface is done and people are wondering what else they can add.

I would argue now is probably the worst time to try really complex animations because of page load times. While that’s always been true, it’s especially true now that people are on their home networks instead of their high-speed corporate network. We now have an extra barrier to providing some of these more complex types of visuals, so my gut instinct is if you want to try something super fancy, don’t do it.

But there are times when animations are really useful, like for highlighting certain areas for new users, pointing out updates, or emphasizing necessary actions. This is where it’s tricky because a lot of stakeholders say, “Oh, necessary actions? We want people to sign up for our newsletter, so that’s necessary.” And usually, I’ll say, “Okay, is it really necessary for our user or is it necessary for us? If it’s necessary for us and not for our users, then it may not be worth the time to do an animation.”

Or think about countdowns, which I’ve seen a lot of for sales or limited offers. It works for creating a sense of urgency, but if we’re thinking about creating delight, it’s kind of doing the opposite. It’s creating a more stressful environment. So, be ruthless in prioritizing and then you’ll be fine.

— You’ve had some background working on intranets and online working environments as well, which is something on every company’s mind. How do the UX needs change when you’re thinking about how to engage employees on the web?

I have so many feelings about intranets. Intranet teams are “my people” because they’re often subject to a lot of really really strict budget limits—even more strict than user-facing products—because there’s this belief that employees will be more forgiving because it’s mandatory to use a product or service, therefore we don’t need to invest that much time or effort. Though there are also some teams that are susceptible to thinking, “Oh well, it’s just an employee so they’re just like me,” which is the biggest mistake. Like I mentioned earlier, assumptions are the biggest mistake lots of organizations make. Luckily, there are lots of intranet teams who believe in the power of treating employees as users and listening to them and actually doing research with them.

If we’re thinking about coronavirus times, everyone’s got a lot of different at-home experiences. Before, we could rely on corporate networks and VPN to take care of our security issues. Before, people had high speed internet so we were able to do much fancier things with our intranet. But now that people are working from home with others, that means maybe they won’t have access to VPN as readily, maybe the VPN is unreliable because the network connection is unreliable. And if that’s the case, can people still get to the intranet at all? If we can’t have that reliability of access, people are probably going to create workarounds in the meantime. If we don’t get ahead of that as intranet teams, then we’re going to have to battle those workarounds later.

It really all comes down to being open and understanding, and trying to give as much plain-language assistance that we can give to our employees during this really stressful time.

So, in terms of advice to intranet teams, this is the time to be proactive and to come up with the workarounds ourselves so that we can help support our employees in the time when they maybe can’t access their conventional intranet.

And then there are also job responsibility changes—I’m thinking of orgs with massive layoffs, which is horrifying and really sad and scary. If people are in an organization where things are being completely upheaved and structures are changing, there needs to be a way to have a sense of place: Where am I in the organization? Have my job responsibilities changed? What are my benefits? Do I have flex time now? We don’t really know the questions our employees have until we start to ask them: What is it you’re concerned about now: about your job, about doing your job, about different ways you can do your job, different benefits that you might need access to? Think about qualifying events—if an employee’s spouse loses a job, that’s a qualifying event for benefits. So now, a lot more people are reading benefits packages than there used to be. Are the benefits packages understandable? So, those are tons and tons and tons of questions that I know intranet teams are going to be grappling with over the next few months. And the downside is we have to respond in less time than that.

So it really all comes down to being open and understanding, and trying to give as much plain-language assistance that we can give to our employees during this really stressful time. And even if that means creating a weird workaround with email, that might just be the temporary fix.

— It sounds like, across the board, UX designers have an opportunity right now to be about so much more than just the design, and instead to step back and really ask what the user needs and how they can best advocate for that, be it a design change or talking to leadership about structural changes.

Yeah, absolutely. I think now more than ever, we need to kind of restrain ourselves and rather than try to wireframe our way out of some of the challenges, it might mean asking some critical questions first. And it might mean coming to terms with the fact that not every problem needs a technology to solve it, and maybe we just need people to talk to each other. And that sounds wild! But sometimes that makes much more of a difference than any interface element ever would.

— Obviously, design teams are going to have to be implementing these new strategies from afar. What are some things you think every company should do to improve its remote design operations?

So, NN/g has always been a remote company, and I’ve been remote for four years now. And even though this wasn’t a big change in terms of where I was working, we started talking a lot more with each other, and that ended up being a great thing.

For teams who aren’t accustomed to working remotely, I have a feeling they may not be as lucky. Maybe teams are going to start talking a lot less. And if teams start talking a lot less then UX work becomes a deliverable-driven process, as opposed to being a needs-driven process, because that’s all managers have to go off of. So, I would say the biggest risk right now for working remotely is falling victim to that mentality that if we just have a deliverable created faster or a product created faster, then we’ll be just fine. Some things that have helped us move beyond just the deliverable include showing our face during meetings, which seems pretty straightforward but a lot of orgs that are just doing telephone meetings. And that’s a very quick way to lose people.

Read Also

How to Create Great Content Experiences With a Distributed Team

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If you’re going to do things like UX workshops—which you should still be doing, even in a remote setting—I would stress less about the tools you use and more about the process and just connecting with your team. As for the tools you use during meetings, keep it simple. I wouldn’t try to train everyone up on the fanciest UX tool. The simpler you can make it, the more likely it is people will chip in and chime in.

Tools for Running Remote
UX Workshops

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Finally, don’t be afraid to meet with customers remotely. I know that a lot of folks believe in “in-person or bust,” but you can still get plenty of insights by doing a remote moderated study and having your participants turn their webcam on so you can see the environment that they’re in. You could do a virtual or remote field study where someone takes you along on their phone and shows you their house. There are so many opportunities in this new reality that make field studies even more accessible than they ever were. And so when it comes to doing UX work remotely, I think the sky’s the limit and we really just have to remind ourselves that all the constraints come with new opportunities.

Therese’s Recommendations for Continued Reading


Emotional Design

by Don Norman


Designing for Emotion

by Aarron Walter


Thinking Fast and Slow

by Daniel Kahneman


Smashing UX Design

by Jesmond Allen and James Cudley


Universal Methods of Design

by Bruce Hanington and Bella Martin


Conversational Design

by Erica Hall

IllustratOR: Khadia Ulumbekova

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