Effortless experiences can often give brands the edge, but minimising all types of customer effort may undermine customer engagement. Building a meaningful connection with customers could mean making them work for it.
User experience design is currently very heavily focused on creating more intuitive experiences with an emphasis on simple, fast, and easy. Crucially, this includes seamless linkage between interactions on digital devices and the physical world.
So where does this leave customer engagement, which is increasingly illusive for major brands? Overly intuitive experiences may become automatic, invisible, and easily forgettable. In order to stand out in the minds of customers, brands will need to think more creatively about the relationship between effort and engagement.
Today brands face a duality of purpose, delivering the speed, flexibility, and value that customers desire, while also providing a level of engagement based on quality that drives trust, acquisition, and loyalty. In a highly fragmented digital world where customer attention and dwell times on mobile apps and websites are under threat, brands that focus on deep connections with customers are more likely to build sustainable market performance in the long term.
Productive vs Unproductive Customer Effort
A key challenge for many brands is to move digital interactions beyond a purely transactional experience. When customers are willing to take extra steps and invest themselves in the brand through their own time and effort, the connection with the brand moves from low to high involvement. This challenges the prevailing wisdom that it is important to reduce all customer effort in order to drive up positive outcome measures like satisfaction, loyalty, and recommendation.
It may be helpful to consider customer effort as comprising both unproductive and productive customer effort. This suggests that building productive effort is the path to increased engagement because it enhances the customer experience. In addition, behavioural science shows benefits through the endowment or ownership effect—customers who invest themselves in a brand are likely to ascribe more value to their relationship with the brand because it becomes part of who they are.
Customers expect to minimise unproductive effort yet appreciate efforts to communicate and engage directly with them in the right context and will reciprocate with productive effort on their part. Brand experiences that address this trade-off effectively can stand out and reap success through making their customers work harder in ways that are entertaining, evocative, meaningful, and memorable.
Successful brands get the balance right between easy and meaningful. They tap into these human qualities as part of their creative strategy and execute appropriately across all elements of the customer journey, especially through digital interactions.
Linear vs Non-Linear Problem Solving In Experience Design
A key theme in user experience design is the move towards highly intuitive interactions that become subconscious, also known as the “Tinderisation of Design,” a term coined by Peter Trainor, founder of HCD.  Linear problem solving, such as swiping left vs right on a mobile screen to navigate choices, can streamline the way we make decisions and reduce our levels of engagement and brain activity. Default options are often choices that rely on heuristics, a click or tap on a device to accept default options or make a simple selection which is done with very little thought. Brands often influence these choices through nudges or positive reinforcement, but these efforts to win and keep customers do not promote a dialogue with customers or facilitate genuine customer engagement.
On the other hand, non-linear problem-solving approaches are better at driving engagement. Techniques include asking users to prioritise four or more choices in a hierarchy or gamification techniques that appeal to conscious decision making and our sense of play and discovery. Non-linear problem solving stimulates the hippocampus—this is the part of the brain that controls emotion and formation of memories around new events and experiences. This is like a muscle that grows and develops in healthy ways through productive effort.
Non-linear problem solving can help to elevate brand experiences. They are more likely to be emotionally compelling and mentally rewarding when they tap into experiential elements such as entertainment, playfulness, learning, and discovery. While more demanding of time-poor customers, when done well, there is potential to create reciprocity that strengthens customer-brand relationships. This contrasts starkly with transactional relationships developed through subconscious influence and based on habitual use.
Productive Effort And Automotive Retail
Vehicle configurators on car manufacturers’ websites are an example of productive effort, they have evolved to become sophisticated points of engagement with customers. They allow car buyers to play with vehicle specifications and create the car they desire without getting behind the wheel. When this is supported by financial planning and retail outlet finder tools, the configurator moves buyers down the purchase funnel as they make decisions about the vehicle, financing options, and the dealership they wish to visit. The quality of the experience with the vehicle configurator is increasingly important to effective conversion of Web traffic into test drives and vehicle sales.
Brand Experience Design
The implication for marketing teams is that brands need to think about both unproductive and productive customer effort as they design brand experiences.
Journey mapping can be a useful place to start. Problem detection activities and “hassle maps” can help to identify and prioritise pain points in the customer journey but this is usually not enough to uncover opportunities to create magic moments that are unique and memorable.
Customer experience assessment, measurement, and planning can help customer experience designers to orchestrate productive effort as part of the customer journey in order to create positive associations and emotional commitment to the brand.
Customers reciprocate with productive effort when they feel engaged. This is only likely to succeed when brands carefully craft and selectively implement brand experiences. When brands try too hard to engage, they may inadvertently make customers feel bombarded. This is one of the reasons why there has been movement towards making brand experiences simple and easy.
Brands need to identify, prioritise, and sequence peaks and troughs in the experience. Techniques such as ethnography, mystery shopping, deep dive research, emotion elicitation tools like mood boards, and application of behavioural science principles like the Peak-End rule can complement journey-mapping activities.
Customer effort is not only about pain caused by operational issues, successful brands make their customers work harder through productive effort. Marketing and customer experience decision makers should embrace this duality of brand relationships in avoiding negative friction and encouraging positive engagement through managing unproductive and productive effort. As digital transformation connects everything seamlessly, the health of customer-brand relationships may depend on balancing these influences with greater creativity in both the digital and physical worlds.
 McNerney, S. (2013), Rethinking the Endowment Effect: How Ownership Affects Our Valuations.
 Pete Trainor (2015) Bigger Hippos and Happier Humans, Interact London.