The qualia of customer experience

Red rose in snow picWe cannot truly understand what our customers experience. But we can understand how they behave. If we want to make things better for them, we will be better off observing what customers actually do, not trying to work out what we think they are experiencing. 

I can’t get into Joe’s head

My friend Joe cannot see the colours red or green – he is colour blind. My colour vision is normal. Science explains this by saying that some of the cone receptors at the back of Joe’s retina are different from mine.

But when I try to understand what Joe sees when he looks at, say, a grassy meadow, I am unable to do so.  His experience of the greenness of the grass is different from mine.   I cannot put myself into his head.

Qualia are what we experience

Philosopher Clarence Lewis in 1927 coined the term qualia to describe the distinct subjective experiences we each have when, for example, we smell a rose, see the white of snow or taste a lemon.

Qualia (singular: quale) are the essence of experience.  They are also pretty much inexplicable by science.  Science – cognitive psychology, neuroscience, physiology – has pretty much nothing to say about what Joe experiences when he sees a blue sky and how that compares with what I experience when I see that same sky.

If you don’t believe me, imagine trying to explain the greenness of a meadow to someone who is blind from birth.

Scientific methods

This is, in part, why understanding the customer experience is tough.  Each customer’s experience is different. If we ask them about their experience – to describe the qualia of buying – we can only get a limited understanding of what they experience.

How does science address the problem of qualia?  It ignores them. Instead of seeking to understand what we experience, scientists instead focus on what they can observe. In particular, they focus on behaviour.  Rather than investigating what  people experience, scientists explore instead what people do when they experience X or see Y.

This is a good principle to adopt when working on customer experience.  Trying to understand the experience of customers is likely to be less valuable – and less effective for guiding our actions – than observing what they actually do.

The perfect, but useless, manuals

This is shown by the PC manuals fiasco. A few years ago a major PC manufacturer took great pains to consult with customers so that  the manuals for new users to set up their PCs were as well-written, user-friendly and accessible as possible. For several years, users rated the manuals as the best in the business – they even won awards.

But it wasn’t until the company undertook some studies into what new PC users actually did that the truth emerged.

More than 95% of users never opened the manual at all.

They turned on their PC and assumed that the start-up process on-screen would take them through set-up. And if it didn’t, they got very unhappy indeed.

The company had made the mistake of asking customers what they thought, instead of  observing what they actually did.

The colours of marketing

Leo Widrich of Buffer.com has written a great article for Fast Company on the science of colours in marketing. In it, he explains how colours can influence customer behaviour.  He also describes an experiment by Hubspot to understand if customers prefer to press a red or a green button on-screen (read the article to find out which button won :-)).

The folks at Hubspot just needed to know which colour encouraged more customers to press the button. They did not need to know why.

As Leo Widrich says in his article: “…data always beats opinion, no matter what.”

And if we are to make things better for customers, it is probably best for us to adopt the same attitude. Let’s worry less about understanding the customer experience and worry more about observing the things customers show us they prefer.

(If you want to find out more about qualia and why they pose a problem for science, the best source is Daniel Dennett, a terrific writer on philosophy and cognitive science.  His 1991 book, Consciousness Explained is a good first port of call; a more technical discussion can be found in his article, Quining Qualia, (in A. Marcel and E. Bisiach, eds, Consciousness in Modern Science, Oxford University Press 1988)).

(Image credit: Paulis under Creative Commons Attribution license)

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