As brands deliver new digital experiences that meet changing customer preferences, the next step is to enhance hybrid customer experiences—and human-centered design can help.
Our lives went from physical to digital overnight—and amazingly, many brands excelled at delivering those digital experiences. Rather than people waiting weeks to see their doctor, telemedicine has empowered them to quickly schedule a 15-minute virtual appointment; numerous businesses have reaped the benefits of remote work and made it a permanent fixture (see our trend "Building the intelligent creative engine"); and e-commerce has exploded as the primary shopping method.
Now that brands seem more adept at digital delivery, the next challenge is to deliver the best of integrated physical and digital, or hybrid, experiences. In fact, when we surveyed over 1,000 global executives, 75% said they will invest more in delivering hybrid experiences over the next 12 months. As figure 1 shows, many executives are looking to hybrid to increase personalization (43%), innovation (43%), customer connection (40%), and inclusion (38%).
There are many challenges creating such an interconnected experience. If digital often exceeded expectations, people will expect no less from their hybrid experiences, and the proliferation of channels adds another layer of complexity. Moreover, creating great experiences often relies on analyzing consumer data, which becomes more difficult to obtain as people become more guarded in how their data is being used and third-party cookies are discontinued (see our trends "Designing a human-first data experience" and "Meeting customers in a cookieless world").
When it comes to combining the best of physical and digital experiences, we are already seeing there is no turning back: In university education, a majority of US students now would like both digital and in-person learning options,1 and a majority of professors in Germany indicate that they want to maintain hybrid elements, such as in-person teaching augmented with “digital elements,” after the pandemic subsides.2 Another study highlights that almost 90% of patients in the United States would like to continue to use telemedicine for nonurgent issues, and over half said telemedicine allows them to see their doctor more easily.3
So, what’s a brand to do? To meet the demand of elevating these experiences, it’s best to start by putting the human at the forefront—and leading principles from human-centered design can help. By putting human needs at the center, involving select individuals as cocreators of the experience, and then rapidly innovating, brands can make their physical and digital experiences as agile and flexible as consumers have come to expect.
To help businesses elevate their hybrid experiences, we discuss how expanding choices, integrating feedback, and investing in the technological infrastructure can bring these design principles to life.
Understanding customers and meeting them in their preferred channel helps personalize their experience—and as importantly, engages the customer where they prefer to interact with the brand. For instance, in Deloitte’s global survey of 11,500 individuals, we see younger generations gravitating to emerging channels—making purchases through social media, voice assistants, and virtual reality headsets—more often than older generations (figure 2).
Malorie Maddox, the chief marketing, communications, and strategy officer at Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Nebraska, says the health insurer is engaging with younger, more technologically proficient members through apps, social media, and streaming services. However, the insurer also continues to offer content via more traditional channels such as phone banks and face-to-face interactions, which are preferred by some of its Medicare Advantage and Medicare Supplement members. According to Maddox, success starts with “knowing your demographics. We know our counties inside and out. We can look at the health challenges the Nebraskans in each of those specific counties face…[and] we tailor our content to help them meet those challenges.”4
Tailoring channels to customers also allows the brand to offer more inclusive experiences. As an example, one study found that 70% of sites are inaccessible to those with cognitive, visual, or hearing impairments.5 But when channel strategies are expanded to other options, such as voice assistants, the brand can better meet different customer needs.
These physical and digital options can also be most helpful when they are built in collaboration with the end user. A few years ago, the UK-based supermarket chain, Sainsbury’s, piloted an in-store shopping app, SmartShop. The original intention was to empower people to skip the line and do self-checkouts on a mobile device. However, Sainsbury’s found that many customers still wanted the in-person checkout experience. Recognizing the moment as a learning opportunity, Sainsbury’s conducted survey and ethnographic research to better personalize SmartShop (including testing usability for those of various abilities). In the next iteration, which launched during the pandemic, Sainsbury’s looked to “supercharge the customer experience” by offering more personalized shopping lists (such as providing recommendations based on dietary profiles), better integrating customer loyalty programs, and incorporating more intuitive checkout options.6
While investment in hybrid starts with offering freedom of choice, gathering feedback helps refine those options. Analyzing behavioral data, apart from getting inputs for tailoring experiences, also helps brands directly understand from users what they wish existed.
Guy Flament, the global CEO of France-based beauty and personal care brand, Yves Rocher, explains how marrying omnichannel experiences with feedback mechanisms starts with identifying “what are the moments of truth where we want to make a difference with the consumer, because you cannot invest at the same level—with the same intensity—everywhere on the [customer] journey.” Flament suggests those moments of truth are key places to implement feedback mechanisms, such as deploying net promoter scores across each channel after a new customer places their first order.7
For years, prospective startups deployed “fake doors” to gauge consumers’ interest in products.8 These took the form of product advertisements for nonexistent products—but if enough people clicked on the ad, the startup knew the idea just might have legs. Brands can implement similar feedback mechanisms in their digital and physical environments. When Knox Community Hospital wanted to understand if patients were satisfied with the timeliness of their appointments, it partnered with market research firm HappyOrNot to set up terminals across its campus where patients could simply click if they were satisfied with the service.9 This made it easier for both patients to provide feedback and the hospital to collect it and then enact change.
Moving forward, brands can deploy QR codes across their various channels to empower consumers to either provide feedback or, like the startup example, signal what channels or services they would like to have in the future.
Enabling a hybrid experience also requires infrastructure to ensure every facet of the customer experience is connected and cohesive. As former chief marketing officer of Keds, Emily Culp, explains, “It’s thinking about every touch point as chapters in a story. Each chapter should be able to stand on its own and captivate and immerse you … Each chapter is special, but together, [they] tell a much fuller story.”10
This starts with gaining a complete line of sight into the customer journey. As that line of sight gets fuzzier with the decline of third-party cookies, brands should invest in infrastructure that captures customer behavior and analyzes it across all touch points. One such example is cloud-based customer data platforms. These platforms capture omnichannel data to map the entire customer journey and empower brands to more clearly design the solutions for which their customers are explicitly or subtly asking.
While systems and infrastructure play a role in delivering hybrid, it still starts with humans. By tailoring experiences to meet consumer needs and empowering consumers with choices, brands can help ensure they are on the right path to elevating experience, even before they hard wire their systems.
The Global Marketing Trends Executive Survey polled 1,099 C-suite executives from global companies located in the United States, France, Japan, the United Kingdom, and the Netherlands in April 2021. This survey asked chief executive, marketing, information, finance, operating, legal, and human resource officers their thoughts on a variety of topics driving the evolution of the marketing function.
The Global Marketing Trends Consumer Survey polled 11,500 global consumers, ages 18 and above, in May 2021 across 19 countries.
See the introduction to learn more about both studies.
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