The Difference Between UX, CX & SD

The terms User Experience (UX), Customer Experience (CX) and Service Design (SD) are becoming more commonplace in business vernacular. These disciplines are not interchangeable but interrelated so it can be a challenge to know where one begins and the other ends.  

Within the field of Human Centred Design (HCD) there are an ever-increasing number of roles, disciplines and specialisations. CX consultants, UX Designers and Service Designers all fall under the banner of HCD but each brings a slightly different focus and specific expertise. Regardless of the avenue of specialisation, involving people as part of the design process to make more effective decisions is at the core of HCD. Keeping people at the heart of design is a simple concept, and one that has been used for millennia by many different types of designers and practitioners. 

With a history that has been born out of many different areas, HCD principles and practices have long existed in many different roles. It is only in the last few decades where there has been a focus on defining the different elements and tools of HCD, and the roles and practitioner types.  

This divergent past and a shared foundational mindset of being human centred means it is little wonder there is confusion about what each of the different areas of HCD relate to and how practitioners differ.  

Defining the HCD Space 

As the HCD space is better defined, so too are the roles and the responsibilities of the designers and researchers that practice this craft. With practitioners clear on the value that they bring, businesses are also becoming much more aware of the benefits of HCD. We exist in a marketplace where there is increasing emphasis on the human experience with a brand, product or service.

According to Forbes, 89% of companies compete primarily on the basis of customer experience — up from just 36% in 2010. With the human experience becoming the battleground for differentiation there are more and more businesses focused on engaging the right expertise to help define and improve their customer and brand experience.  

With this being the case, you are probably asking yourself the question - but which aspect of HCD would be the most valuable to help improve my customer experience?

To help try and answer this question Figure 1 shows a visual representation of the nuances that define the different disciplines within the HCD space and how each of them relates to the other.   

How are These Disciplines Different? 

A helpful way to think about the differences is to consider the types of customer interactions that are being considered and the breadth of the experience that is taken into consideration.    

What is User Experience Design? 

Starting at the more specific end you have User Experience (UX) Design. Most applied in the digital realm and Human Computer Interactions (HCI), practitioners in this space ensure that interactions your customers have with your brand online are as seamless, intuitive, visually appealing and highly engaging. The online experience is the preferred channel for many consumers when it comes to researching and interacting with brands. 65% of consumers research products online before stepping foot inside a store, while 63% of Millennials start their customer service interactions online. Having someone focused on ensuring the digital experience is delivering exactly what the customer needs can set your business up for far more valuable relationships from the outset. 

While UX is predominantly referred to in the digital realm, it also extends into the real world considering the specific experience that someone has with a physical product and how this can be improved. For example, the experience that a train carriage might be better designed to suit the needs of a disabled passenger.  

What is Customer Experience Design? 

Taking a broader view of the experience are Customer Experience (CX) Designers. Practitioners in this space look more holistically at all the touch points that the customer has with your brand. Considering aspects such as customer service, brand, advertising, marketing, sales and product delivery.  

The focus is to delve more into the customer value proposition and which elements of the total experience impact this.   

What is Service Design?

Service Design (SD) takes a broader view again. Considering the elements of CX design but extending the context into the business environment. The focus is to look at how elements such as organisational design, personnel and business strategy are affecting your customers. Once your customers' needs are identified and understood, they are used to shape organisational design to ensure that all aspect of a business are catering for greater customer success and ultimately greater business success and returns.

Systems Design, the New Kid on the Block

Systems design (not included in figure 1) sits broader again to Services design. The newcomer to HCD is an area that is being more widely discussed and likely to become more prevalent in the future.  

System design looks at going beyond the individual organisation. It considers all the businesses and organisations that make up a system and the role that each of these is playing in affecting the human experience. Government departments are one of the key driving forces behind this broader system exploration. 

While there are clear differences in the focus of different HCD practitioners it is worth noting that there are also many similarities. Empathy and research underpin all these disciplines. The role of all practitioners in this space is to uncover the needs of the people interacting with a product, brand or service and advocate for their needs by placing these at the heart of their decision making and design ideas.  

Think of human centered designers in all of their various guises as the people who can help you become more effective at living up to the famous Steve Jobs quote - “Get closer than ever to your customers. So close that you tell them what they need well before they realise it themselves.” 

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