The role of UX design in a customer-centric company: A Q&A with Audible’s Marcus Lofthouse

In many companies today, user experience (UX) teams are already transforming business. As the people responsible for bringing the voice of the customer into the product development process, UX teams play a significant role in shaping the customer experience and driving customer centricity in the organization.

To learn more about the evolving role of UX, we recently sat down with Marcus Lofthouse, senior director of user experience at Audible. He shared his thoughts on delivering a seamless customer experience, collaborating with other stakeholders and thriving as a UX leader.

Audible is part of Amazon, which is known as one of the most customer-obsessed brands in the world. How does your role at Audible support the mandate to be customer centric?

Any time you have a department and a leadership function whose main purpose is to get the customers’ perspective, their actual usage of the product, their feelings and their needs, and bringing that back to the organization,  I feel it is the direct support to that mandate. This ensures that we’re balancing what we believe internally with what our customers actually do.

At Audible, customer centricity is more than something that we declare as a corporate value. It’s something we do. It’s not just something we like to talk about-it’s something that is actually supported by the company. A team dedicated to customer insights-like the User Research team at Audible-provides real value to the company.

From your perspective as a UX leader, what are the main challenges of becoming truly customer centric? More importantly, how are you tackling those challenges?

Customer Experience is the sum total of all the interactions that a customer has with your company, from the first Google ad they see to the sign-up process, from any retargeting ads you might have to the time that they have a challenge and need to call into customer service.  It is made up of hundreds of touchpoints and over what is hopefully a long period of time.

The challenge is that different departments act within their own verticals when interacting with customers. The combination of a marketing team, a product team and a customer service team creates seams in the experience. The most challenging spots of the customer experience happen as customers jump over those seams from where marketing ends and product begins or where product ends and customer service begins. Organizations rarely think about what the customer is going through from a holistic perspective; every team only considers what is in their area of responsibility.

Solving this problem requires more coordination. One of the best ways to get different teams on the same page is to make sure that we start to document that customer journey. We can help the organization see where the seams are and we evaluate things from the customer’s perspective, not the organization’s.

“One of the best ways to get different teams on the same page is to make sure that we start to document that customer journey.”

Speaking of user experience specifically, it is my experience that UX is sometimes seen as a function within product development. UX is generally the team that creates the visual assets, the interfaces and the digital assets for building those interfaces. But there is an overarching experience that is going to be the sum total of all interactions that a customer has with you. Sometimes people define this as “brand,” sometimes it’s “customer experience.” Regardless of how you call it, there’s a sum total, and it takes the whole organization being customer-centered to create a great customer experience.

Let me share an example. At one of my previous positions, the development team approached me to solve a “customer experience” problem on one of their dashboards. It was a graph that took a good minute to load, and they wanted me to fix it. But I told them that the solution was not a UX fix, but rather improving the underlying technology to make the graph load faster, instead of just adding a spinner or something similar. That’s a customer experience fix, and everybody is fundamentally responsible for making it happen. The more you can shift everybody’s thinking towards that, the better.

You mentioned that UX is sometimes seen as a team within product development. At Audible, where does the UX team report to and how does that structure look like?

I’ve been very lucky in that I have always been in companies where the leadership views UX and Design as equal partners to Product. At Audible, the head of Product, the head of User Experience, which is myself, and the heads of Technology all report to the Chief Information Officer.

I am always interested in making sure that the organizations I work for view design as a way to spark innovation and to look for design processes that pull people together and extract the real value of the teams that are there. A collaborative design process pulls everyone into the mix, and I see designers as more of a guide, helping people through the design process.

As a UX pro with many years of experience, what’s the most surprising thing you’ve learned so far about your users or customers?

It never ceases to amaze me how much people love maps. I used to work in a small-to-medium-sized business marketing company. In that company, our dashboard had a map showing where their customers were coming from. I thought, “This map really isn’t telling you anything.” But the sales team said, “No, you need to leave the map on.” There was just not any real value to it, but people loved it.

And then I went on to digital agency Huge, and I was working with various clients there and every time there was a design that included a map, no matter how unrelated it was to the design, people would fixate on it.

At Audible, we were testing exploratory designs for new product detail pages and one of the concepts used a map that showed where other people were listening to the same book. The test users not only liked it, but we had to cut a user research participant off because he wouldn’t stop talking about how much he loved the map. Maps would never help you make a purchase decision, but people just love them. If you’re ever in doubt, put a map on it.

In your opinion, what are the biggest business trends that will impact the future of UX?

According to Scott Galloway, a professor at NYU and an author, marketing dollars are becoming less and less effective, and the brands that are differentiating themselves are reinvesting in physical retail space and the core customer experience. They focus on retaining customers, having membership benefits and providing a great product experience.

As we see that trend continue, we’ll see people investing more in building engaging experiences. We are going to need a lot of research tools and experience mapping. Service design will become even more important, as everything in every part of your company has to be more focused on delivering a great experience to customers.

As a successful UX leader, what advice do you have for young professionals who want to enter your field?

User experience and design are such broad and encompassing fields that you constantly need to be learning. This is two-fold: learning about the defined skills that fall under design today, and investing in learning things that can help you define the future.

“You can’t define the future of design if you only learn what others have defined for you.”

Spend some time learning about voice design, fonts or color theory, heuristics, research methods, prototyping-those will all help you today. But also invest in learning things that don’t necessarily have direct application today. The broader your general knowledge, the more you’ll be able to draw upon it for new solutions. I studied linguistics and cognitive grammar before Voice Designer was a common job description – the more you know the more you can help define the future of design. You can’t define the future of design if you only learn what others have defined for you.

What resources (audio books, blogs, podcasts) have made the biggest impact to your career, and why?

A great practical book is Designing With the Mind In Mind. I would recommend it to every designer because it does a great job of talking about our cognitive biases, the perceptual limitations of humans and how the brain processes information. It helps you understand where heuristics come from so that you know when to apply or break them.

A great audiobook that outlines the challenges of managing the creative process is Creativity Inc. by Ed Catmull, co-founder of Pixar Animation Studios and president of Pixar Animation and Disney Animation.  The similarities between creating a new product and a new film are striking!

“Almost all abstract human concepts are brought to life via metaphors.”

Less practical, but the most important book that I have ever read is Lakoff and Johnson’s Metaphors We Live By. I define my entire career in terms of “before this book” and “after this book.” It demonstrates that humans use metaphor as a way to make sense of the world. Metaphors are not just a device used in poetry and literature. Almost all abstract human concepts are brought to life via metaphors. There’s metaphors for time, metaphors for love. There are all these things that we never think about in descriptions or just everyday language where we use simple, primary metaphors that project into more abstract space.

Our thanks to Marcus for sharing his thoughts on UX and customer centricity. Explore our Q&As for more interviews with thought leaders and business experts.

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