From features to experience to the heart of the customer

In recent years, the success of a consumer product has depended less on whether it has the latest technology and more on whether it offers the coolest overall customer experience. The iPhone is, of course, the iconic example of this trend. People came to love the iPhone not just for its features but for the whole experience of using it – the way it looks and feels, the means by which they control the device, how they acquire and use apps, and so on.

We are about to see experience-centric products driving new behavior not only in consumer goods but also in the B2B space. And as information technology becomes more enmeshed in the overall product experience and hence the product’s technology footprint, CIOs will play an increasingly important role in the development of this crucial driver of business success. However, this can happen only if CIOs expand their horizon to encompass the entire customer experience.

Creating a product that delivers a great end-to-end user experience requires a much more integrated approach to engineering, one in which information technology is embedded in a product ecosystem from the initial design stage. Take the automobile. Increasingly, a buyer’s choice of car is based on the software on board and its ability to manage the overall driver and passenger experience through multiple systems — entertainment and communications, remote diagnostics, driver and passenger safety.

This will become increasingly true as traditional products become more like services. For example, an intelligent car will know if its fan belt is likely to break in the next 50 miles. Using its 4G or LTE communication chip, it will check the inventory at the nearest repair center, tell you that they have the part, book an appointment for you, and order a replacement part to replenish the repair center’s inventory.

One less obvious but crucial aspect of automobile user experience is safe travel, and software-centric technology is central to achieving this. For example, many in-vehicle amenities related to telecommunications, entertainment, and gaming will have to be redesigned so they don’t create a distraction for drivers — known in the industry as “distraction-free convergence.” Next-generation “connected cars” will talk to each other and provide drivers with such safety enhancers as parking assistance and lane departure warnings. The ultimate software-driven customer experience, of course, will be the driverless vehicle — now being tested in several states in the U.S. — which will make the issue of driver distraction irrelevant.

In fact, an automobile is no longer simply an automobile; it’s an automobile with an overlay of telecommunications, consumer electronics, and other elements of the driver and passenger experience. This convergence of industries in a single product is leading many companies to ask what business they’re in. It may not be the company’s traditional business or in fact any of the traditional industries. Companies in today’s automotive industry instead will need to look at what value they can create for customers and what partner ecosystem they must develop to make that happen.

Automobiles are just one of numerous products and services in which user experience is becoming paramount. Smart lighting in commercial airliners is reducing the jet lag of long-haul passengers. Sensors in homes and assisted living facilities are improving the quality of life for elderly residents by monitoring their well-being. Mobile telephones, with a penetration in emerging markets that is many times higher than that of credit or bank debit cards, are serving as payment portals that bring financial services to traditionally underserved populations.

Creating such experiences requires complex online platforms that can analyze vast amounts of data to facilitate decision making. And this is an area that’s in the CIO’s area of expertise. But if the IT function is to aggressively adopt a product development — and thus business-crucial — role, it will have to think beyond software applications and become more focused on consumers. Collaboration between CTOs and CIOs will have to significantly increase. And for both the CIO and the CTO, technology will be only a means to an end — that is, an experience that will delight the users of their products.

(This article is also published in HCL’s CIO Straight Talk, Issue Number 3, April 2013 edition)

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