John Eckman
John Eckman

Posted on: June 27, 2012

In: Design


Earlier this month, Zipcar’s VP of Product and Member Experience Lesley Mottla spoke at BostonCHI on the subject of “Designing Great Experiences: Observing and Understanding People.” Despite all the complexity of Zipcar’s member experience (in multiple cities and countries, across varying channels and touch-points, in a relatively new business category), they remain a great example of what can be achieved through a unified strategic core focus on experience.

Lesley and her team focus on the impact on member experiences across the company. Whether they’re managing Zipcars in different markets with fleet services, responding to urgent inquiries from drivers with member services, designing and building mobile applications, or locating good spaces for Zipcars with the in-market teams, the focus is always on how these choices impact the members’ experience.

Some key takeaways from the talk:

  • Great experiences drive loyalty; loyalty drives growth. This is the core value proposition of an experience-led company. It can be tricky to identify the minutiae of ROI on specific projects, but it seems clear that over time the companies who differentiate on a better experience for their customers will build loyalty and grow. This isn’t about reducing customer service incidents or telling a positive story through marketing, but about truly focusing on improving the actual experiences of real members.
  • Observe and understand people. I was amazed at how much field observation Zipcar are doing. Mottla mentioned that even their COO has done some “ride-along” trips with members. If you’re not observing people and making an earnest attempt to understand (with their help of course) what they are experiencing while using your product/service, how can you possibly claim to be designing with a focus on their experience? Focus groups, surveys, and quantitative data are a wonderful supplement, but there’s no substitute for real in-market in-field observation and discussion with end users.
  • Understand and dissect journeys and supporting processes. It can be easy to get overwhelmed by the complexities involved in customer journeys: all the various steps involved and branches for different versions. But you’ve got to map these journeys out high-level, and then start to dissect them so that you can focus on the parts of the experience that can be improved through design. Where can you “design out” what would otherwise be a problem? How can you make it easier for customers to engage with your product or service at key points in their journey?
  • Design internal experiences too. I often see great consumer-facing companies skimp on the design or usability of internal systems. These systems won’t, the reasoning goes, be seen by our customers, so they don’t require as much focus on usability. Fail! Have you ever watched a customer service rep try to use a system with increasing frustration at not being able to accomplish a simple task? These systems do impact your customers – if not via struggling employees, then indirectly via inefficiency and wasted time.
  • Use data. A large scale system like Zipcar’s has access to lots of aggregate data about human behavior. Using that data (properly infused with actual observation and understanding) will improve your design experience. Far too often companies design products and services based on what they believe they know, unchecked by the factual data within their reach.
  • Conceptualize ideals. Don’t be afraid to sketch the ideal experience from blank sheet of paper, and then back cast to where we are today, and how we can make progress toward that ideal. We all recognize we can’t always jump from “current” to “ideal” quickly, but if all we can ever imagine is incremental improvement, we’d never get truly innovative approaches.
  • Design experiences, not features. Honk and unlock, as featured in Zipcar’s mobile application, is an experience not just a feature. If they had considered and approached this as a feature (User must be able to unlock the vehicle from the mobile app) they might have missed the “flash lights” and “honk horn” in the application today, which was a clear part of the actual user experience. In trying to find a car you’ve never seen before in a crowded parking garage, that’s a key part of the experience.

mobile drive experience

Lesley also shared some examples of how they’re applying these principles at Zipcar, including training for member services teams on interacting with customers who had just been in accidents or other serious incidents. You can imagine a typical customer service flow that might focus first on the car and whether it was damaged, as opposed to a supportive calming one that helps you get through a traumatic experience.

Given how many companies today treat customer service as though it were customer avoidance, and have a hard time hearing the “voice of the customer,” it was wonderful to see a company focused on actually observing and trying to understand their members’ behavior. We believe such companies will ultimately succeed over those who ignore or deprioritize experience.

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