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Perception, scientifically speaking, is the process of individual interpretation of ambiguous sensory signals that we take in from the world around us. We transform these signals into objects, people, places, feelings… tangible and intangible things that make up our reality.

There are many theories on the neurology of consciousness and perception which, like most scientific theories, have evolved as science and technology have progressed. 

After 20 years of researching the brain, world-renowned neuroscientist Professor Anil Seth has a radical new theory on consciousness. It includes an evolved view of perception as an inside-out process, a hypothesis coined ‘Controlled Hallucinations’. It can be a very useful tool for customer journey-mapping and for understanding, gauging and improving customer experiences.

Professor Seth theorises that our brains aren't cameras, they're creators. We don't passively view reality, we actively build it, filling in gaps with our own expectations and experiences. This is useful though not always perfectly accurate and this has big implications for how we understand ourselves, others, experiences and even reality itself. 

So Why Is This Important In CX?

Because we can each experience the same thing yet perceive it very differently. Your customer service nightmare could be another person’s walk in the park!

This is obvious of course. To all of you reading this, it will make absolute sense. It’s practically a given right? Well, yes...at least it is in our worlds outside of business.

However, let’s step into the office for a moment. Too many companies still fail to place enough focus on understanding the nuances of what they think their customer experience is, compared to their customers' actual perception of the experience. 

When talking about customer experience, businesses often focus on metrics, A/B tests, and efficiencies. Although these data-driven approaches can yield valuable insights, Professor Seth's work on consciousness and perception offers a compelling shift in our own perspective. In other words:

CX isn't just about optimizing interactions; it's about understanding the conscious canvas on which those interactions paint a lasting perception.

Katie Stabler

How Does This Apply In the Real World of CX?

OK, consider this. Mr. Customer has an annoying journey trying to purchase something from your website.

But the data and metrics might show that he navigated the website exactly as the company expected. Meanwhile, Mr. Customer's own expectations of the site and the steps he needs to go through differed significantly from the experience you delivered. His perception is therefore significantly different from what the company’s data suggests.

The business’s perceived ease of purchase depends not just on the user flow, but also on Mr. Customer's mental model: their past experiences with similar interfaces, and even their current emotional state. A simple design might miss the mark if it doesn't consider the user's subjective world.

Three Takeaways to Put Theory Into Practice

So what can CX leaders learn from Professor Seth's theory? I see at least three clear lessons:

  1. Embrace emotion as a driver of perception. Yes, business leaders get nervous when we start talking about emotion. It’s soft, intangible and tricky to measure. But that doesn’t mean it can be ignored! 

Along with many others, Professor Seth emphasizes the role of emotions in shaping our experiences. A stressed customer navigating a complex system will perceive every step as arduous, regardless of its objective ease. Building emotional connections through empathetic language, positive reinforcement, and even subtle design cues can significantly alter the perceived experience.

  1. Empathize with the "why". Metrics offer a "what," but understanding the "why" requires considering the user's mental model. Eye-tracking, surveys, and even well-designed open-ended questions can help unveil the user's internal map and expectations. For example, a high bounce rate on a product page might not be about bad visuals, but about a perceived mismatch between the advertised product and the user's mental image.
  1. Design for anticipation, not just reaction. Predicting user needs and addressing them before they arise not only reduces cognitive load but also fosters a sense of control and satisfaction. Proactive suggestions, personalized information, and intuitive interfaces that "read" the customers intent can significantly enhance the perceived ease and flow of an interaction.

Professor Seth's groundbreaking theory, whilst not explicitly about customer experience, has important implications for the practice of CX. It underscores the need to understand that customer experience is not only about optimizing interactions, but also about understanding and shaping the user's subjective reality. By acknowledging the "predictive brain" and considering the conscious canvas upon which experiences unfold, businesses can cultivate meaningful connections, foster positive perceptions, and drive genuine customer loyalty.

This is just a taster. Professor Seth's work is a place of inspiration and insights that any CX leader can embrace to up their customer experience game. By understanding the complexity of consciousness and perception and utilizing it in operational design, we can move beyond the oppression of metrics and create truly transformative customer experiences.

If you’re interested in finding out more, contact Katie Stabler and pick up your copy of Professor Anil Seth’s most recent best-seller, Being You.

If you're interested in receiving more insights like this from Katie Stabler and other CX leaders, then be sure to subscribe to the CX Lead's newsletter!

Katie Stabler
By Katie Stabler

Katie is the founder of CULTIVATE and a CX leader who is passionate about in delivering insight to the boardroom and bringing CX to the heart of the organisation. You might also know her as the host of the UK Customer Experience Awards or as co-author of the Amazon best-seller "Customer Experience 2". Or maybe you saw her hosting the roundtable at this year's Awards International CX Awards. But the bottom line is that Katie is an expert at helping organisations deliver outstanding customer experience with the use of collaboration, insight and action!