Thin-Slicing the Customer Experience

April 9, 2015

“I know there’s a problem. I just can’t tell exactly what it is.” Have you ever said this to yourself as you and your colleagues were working through a tough customer-experience challenge?

In Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink, the author did a great job of showcasing research that reveals the incredible agility of our unconscious minds. His storyline is fairly simple. Humans make instinctive observations and associations in milliseconds. These observations, coined “thin-slicing” by psychologists in the early 1990s, have the power to inform rapid decision making. The second part of what Blink addresses is the danger of over thinking those immediate feelings and reactions. By trying too hard to explain or reconstruct the details, we do ourselves a disservice by distorting reality. Or, worse, we come to the wrong conclusions – and in turn, make bad decisions using built-up arguments to justify our thinking.

The concept of thin-slicing offers useful insight into the nuances of customer experience and areas for brand innovation. Extending this concept to journey mapping, we can see that a rapid, holistic view of customer touchpoints has a lot of merit. We need to pay attention to our first reactions – those moments when our instinct, gut, intuition – whatever you want to call it – tells us there is a problem.

One simple technique to help get to the heart of customer experience problems is the use of rapid word associations. As you sort through the finer touchpoints of the customer journey, don’t overthink or try to explain what is happening in that touchpoint. Just jot down a word or two that captures a key attribute of that experience. By accumulating impressions, patterns and themes begin to emerge.

Blink mentions a practice for handling this, which can be easily applied to the journey-mapping process. Have team members assign one or two words to a touchpoint, but without explaining what they are trying to say. Then, come back to those words as a group to see if there any themes or patterns that jump off the page. More often than not, key observations can be captured with tremendous clarity – and, surprisingly, with great accuracy.

In the field, we recommend that you be prepared to jot down immediate reactions at all times. Keep a paper journal with you, or use the notepad app on your phone. When you investigate a touchpoint, write down the first few words that jump into your mind. Then, take a few pictures if you can or draw a rough sketch that describes the problem without using any words. If you want, think of a solution right on the spot, describe it without any attention to what you can or can’t do. Focus on the intent, not the specifics. When you return to the office, put your notes into the journey map. Over time, you may find that by thin-slicing touchpoints, you get a deeper, richer view of the customer experience and inspiration for innovative, high-impact solutions.

As with any technique for gathering information and generating insights, applying the thin-slicing idea to journey mapping requires care. How teams are designed, facilitated and engaged does matter. Done incorrectly, you run the risk of introducing bias. That may lead to false assumptions about what is really happening to customers and how to create a better experience.

Done well, however, thin-slicing is a useful tool to unlock powerful insights that serve as the fuel for experience innovation – and, ultimately, more opportunities to win in the marketplace.

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