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In this series, we’re introducing you to the authors of The Customer Onboarding Handbook, our ebook on how to create experiences that lead to meaningful long-term engagement with a product or service, available to download for free directly from The CX Lead. 

Today's conversation is with Emma Parnell, a designer with 15 years of experience across brand and service design. After working in both fields she saw an opportunity to bring the two disciplines together and founded her own consultancy, Joy, in 2021. 

Emma worked on brand projects for organizations like Cadbury and Abel and Cole and as a service designer with organizations like the UK’s National Health Service (NHS) and supermarket chain Tesco. 

We talked to Emma about the intersection between brand development and service design, how to align a brand with a great customer experience, and the challenges she encountered when she helped design the UK’s COVID-19 vaccination booking service. 

How does customer experience optimization fit into your work?

It all comes down to user research. My career is split in half—I've spent half of it working in strategic brand development and the other half in service design. User research is very common in service design and less common in brand development, and when I set up Joy I was very keen to bring those two disciplines together and help organizations make sure that the services they're delivering actually line up with their messaging and the brand that they're putting out into the world. 

For me, figuring out how to help organizations discover what brings their customers joy is about directly working with the customers and conducting user research. Often in the user research phase it can be about uncovering problems and pain points but I wanted to flip that on its head and take a more positive approach to it. So it’s about helping organizations find out what their customers really value, and that’s where the joy comes in. 

Any service designer would say that service design is very much about working end-to-end. That's a bit of a buzz phrase but it's true that service designers have to think of the whole customer journey. A lot of people think that journey starts when someone first starts using a product or service or indeed onboards with it, but it actually starts earlier. You need to think about how people first find out and become aware of a product or service or an organization, and onboarding is a big part of that. You need to look at the full picture. 

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What’s your chapter in The Customer Onboarding Handbook about?

My chapter is about something called the brand experience gap. It’s not a concept that I invented but I'm very interested in it. It's about the misalignment between brand and service that I think is quite common—especially for large organizations, where their brand and their services are designed by different teams often at different times. There are a lot of organizations that become siloed over time, and if these two areas aren't aligning and the messaging doesn’t really match up to the experience the customers are having, then it can result in a gap.

What are the main ingredients of aligning a brand with a great customer experience?

I go into a few practical suggestions in the article. Again, it really comes back to user research and grounding everything you do in what your customers value. You can never really go wrong with carrying out user research and talking to people directly. 

It helps you understand what your customers want, need, and value about your organization. You learn about their full service experience, what works, what doesn’t, and where the areas of misalignment might be. Talking to customers also helps you understand their journeys, so you can map them and make sure that you’re designing touch points in such a way that the messaging and the visual language match up with what people are actually experiencing day-to-day.

Another big ingredient is multi-disciplinary working. The misalignment often happens because different teams are working on different aspects of an experience. For example, if you're working on a big project such as redesigning onboarding, get a multi-disciplinary team together, get people from brand and marketing, from product and tech, and from service design and user research to work on the project together to try and break those silos.

What was the main challenge of designing the UK’s COVID-19 vaccination booking service that you worked on?

As you can imagine, there were quite a few challenges in designing a national scale service in a pandemic! It's probably one of the most challenging projects that I've worked on, and I think what we had to deal with was relatively unique. 

For example, there were other aspects outside of actually building the product that affected people's experience. We really struggled with aligning our build with the policy. This was an emerging crisis situation and we didn't really know when the vaccinations were going to land. So we didn’t have a release date because there’s no point in launching a booking service for people when there's nothing to put in people's arms!

We also didn't find out until part way through the design and build that it was going to be an age-based roll-out and that there were some other groups within that. For example, health and care workers had to be prioritized at one point but that affected the build of the actual service we were designing. We needed to have a route in for health and care workers that didn’t have anything to do with proving their age. 

It will forever be the best and most stressful project I've worked on all at once. I don’t know if I’ll ever work on anything of that scale again, but hopefully I'll never work on anything as stressful again, either!

Can you recommend a few easy things that people can do straight away to start improving the customer experience of their digital products and services?

I hate to be a broken record but user research is really where you should start and that doesn't mean hiring a user researcher. If you can do that, that’s fab, but a lot of organizations are in the earlier stages. 

You might have to take more guerrilla tactics. Look around for people in your team who are good at listening and talking to people. There are some great resources online around user research and learning the basics. You don't have to be designing a whole new product or service. Even if it's something small you're looking to improve—speak to five people. Have five short conversations and be opportunistic. You don’t need to be organizing hour-long in-depth interviews with people. If you have a direct line to your customers somehow, through a web chat for example, just ask them a few questions.

Mapping user journeys and really understanding people's experience in detail is also important. This is where you'll start to see the intersection between brand and service and where you can make changes to improve your customer experience.

Learn more about all our authors and download The Customer Onboarding Handbook for free!

Hannah Clark
By Hannah Clark

Hannah Clark is the Editor of The CX Lead. After serving over 12 years working in front-line customer experience for major brands, Hannah pivoted to a career in digital publishing and media production. Having gained a holistic view of the challenges and intricacies of delivering exceptional experiences, Hannah aims to help CX practitioners 'level up' their skills by amplifying the voices of today's thought leaders in the space.