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Tedde van Gelderen

Tedde van Gelderen

Founder & President

Design for all: Customer Experiences vs. User Experiences

Ok, we’re all humans. It is a label that encompasses us all. But in experience research and design we rarely, if ever, create for or try to understand the human. It’s usually the different types of humans we’re interested in.  Because once we understand who they are, we can list and prioritize these groups of humans and design products and services for them specifically. We make some humans simply more important than others. But if we don’t understand and prioritize these groups of humans, we often end up designing for ourselves. And we all know the result of that approach.

So far so good: we understand and group humans. We often label these groups ‘customers’, ‘users’, ‘citizens’, ‘clients’, ‘guests’, ‘patrons’, ‘members’, ‘employees’, etc. and that helps. These labels give the group a purpose and meaning at a high level. We empathize with these customers, users, clients, citizens and guests. But we don’t design for just humans.

Human Experiences

So, what makes us use the term user experience over human experience? I’d argue that we do that because we imply something beyond only being human: we’re a ‘user’ too, a ‘customer’, a ‘guest’. We imply purpose and goals for these humans. The Human as a Customer wants and needs value and benefits. The Human as a User wants and needs to get stuff done, complete a task, a journey. And the human as a guest wants and needs whatever they want and need when they want and need it. And that last part helps us differentiate the groups enough to make us care for them. We’re UX designer, Customer researcher, Director guest experience, Client insights manager, Member advocate.

Labels like Customer/User/Guest will keep us at this high level unfortunately. Knowing someone, a human, as a customer doesn’t answer enough of what we’d like to know about that person. It’s not nearly enough detailed insight to be able to design well for them. We’d need to know a lot more, a lot.

Doing more and better experience research is critical of course but not where this blog post is going though.

Self-referring Definitions

I rather think the use of these customer-user-guest terms in most of the definitions out there. They often become referring to themselves to explain: themselves. Have a look at these:

Customer experience is “the customer’s perceptions and related feelings caused by the one-off and cumulative effect of interactions with a supplier’s employees, systems, channels or products.” (Gartner)

Customer Experience is how customers perceive their interactions with your company. (Forrester)

User Experience: “encompasses all aspects of the end-user’s interaction with the company, its services, and its products.” (NN Group)

User Experience: Every aspect of the user’s interaction with a product, service, or company that make up the user’s perceptions of the whole. (UXPA)

Fortunately, not everyone creates a definition where customers or users end up on both sides of the colon:

User Experience: “a person’s perceptions and responses that result from the use or anticipated use of a product, system or service” (ISO 9241-210)

The thing is, with the earlier versions above, if you’d replace the word User / Customer with Human you’d end up with a very similar statement and even meaning. Who are we really talking about then if we don’t define what we mean by Customer or User? And I do think the creators of these definitions were deliberate, they meant to say Customer when they said Customer and User when they said User.

Perhaps the answer lies in the interpretation of the remainder of these definitions as they vastly overlap each other. Have a look.

So, are we then talking about different vantage points on the same thing? That we see the use of customer/user because companies like Forrester and Gartner have a heritage rooted in the Customer/Business perspective and companies like NN Group or the UXPA organisation see the world more through a Usability/HCI/UCD lens? I think there is some of that going on, yes.

The Human Experience?

What about replacing Customer and User with Human then, and putting this point to rest by starting to talk about the Human Experience. See what just happened? The Human Experience. It has implied meaning too, e.g. being aware of your mortality or along the Human Condition line of thinking.

No, I’d rather leave both Customer and User thinking where they are, and not think in terms of either-or, or more rather than less. I see them both as part of the overall, end-to-end lifecycle experience, each playing their role.

And when we design the best journeys for our customers and users, I do like us to choose the better research and design techniques for each, where customer experience research & design benefits greatly from focus groups, surveys and collaborative design and user-oriented research & design are helped most by usability testing, user stories, journey/task analysis and iteratively prototyped experience design.

End-to-End Experience Lifecycles

Both UX and CX benefit greatly by researched and documented experience blueprints and experience maps that encompass both customer and user experiences. That way we won’t have to create definitions that make us choose sides. In the end, they are really all part of the same experience lifecycle!

Tedde van Gelderen

Tedde van Gelderen

Founder & President

Continually looking for ways to improve the experiences of others, Tedde has dedicated his professional life to experience design, research and strategy. He derives energy, motivation, and purpose from improving the experiences of others and believes that every organization — and every industry — can benefit from Experience Thinking.


Business success totally depends on how happy the customers are? What is the experience they are getting from the business? So, user or customer experience is an important phenomenon for any business.

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Akendi is a human experience design firm, leveraging equal parts experience research and creative design excellence. We provide strategic insights and analysis about customer and user behaviour and combine this knowledge with inspired design. The results enable organizations to improve effectiveness, engage users and provide remarkable customer experiences to their audiences.