‘Isn’t a frictionless experience a good thing?’ – you might be asking. Whilst areas of friction in the digital experience can become a barrier and cause drop-offs before conversion, they aren’t the most impactful element contributing towards your customer base. Over 90% of our behaviours and beliefs are driven by emotions. They dictate not only how we respond to things, but also how we remember them.

Think about something you do very often, like driving home from work. Now imagine something that would make that irritating, like if one of the roads had potholes. You won’t enjoy that experience and will probably complain about it because of the friction you didn’t expect. Now imagine the same experience, but frictionless, as you expect it to be. A smooth road to drive home on wouldn’t annoy you, but you also probably wouldn’t tell someone how smooth it was when you got home. It met your expectations and blended seamlessly, forgettably, into the background.

So how do customers remember their experiences?

Your customers don’t remember the entire sum of satisfaction felt at all stages in a digital experience. As humans, we don’t have the brain capacity to hold all of that information. Instead, what your customers do recall is how they felt at the emotional peak and how they felt at the end. It’s that unboxing joy when your online purchase arrives and there’s a handwritten note or an unexpected free sample inside too.

This is aptly named Peak End Theory. It’s important to remember an emotional peak could be negative or positive, whether you intend it or not. This is the crux of why removing the friction in your digital experience won’t necessarily differentiate your brand. Without an emotional peak, customers are less likely to return or recommend you to others.

How do I introduce an emotional peak?

There are two different ways you can go about this. You can begin by identifying where your customers already respond most positively in your user experience and look to enhance that. For example, when your customers first receive a product or book an experience, excitement and anticipation will be high – think about how you can elevate these emotions by going above and beyond expectation in your user experience.

Alternatively, you can uncover the key emotions and behavioural biases at play throughout the experience and identify a suitable opportunity to leverage these, introducing a completely new emotional peak. For example, most of us have a significant emotional connection to parting with money – it’s why some
brands remove the visual cue of the pound sign next to prices and why it feels easier to spend greater amounts with card payments than it does with actual cash. Online payment could be a great opportunity to invoke a positive peak in the user experience for ethical brands who commit money to bettering society or the planet. By leveraging ‘social proof’ and ‘singularity effect’ to deliver instant emotional gratification, customers can experience an emotional peak by realising their spending is part of a tangible, positive change.

This cognitive bias cheat sheet is a great reference point if you want to explore behavioural biases.

An opportunity to introduce a memorable peak doesn’t always need to stem from a point in the user experience where your customers are already in a positive mindset. You could identify when they’re in a negative mindset with low expectations, for example when a booked experience needs to be cancelled or a purchase hasn’t arrived. These are great opportunities to delight your customers when they don’t expect it, transforming their experience in a positive, memorable way (often referred to as the service recovery paradox).

Some car brands, including Audi, deliver on Peak End Theory by ensuring the user experience of buying a new car doesn’t end when customers have paid. They send customers tailored updates as the car is being built, like short videos from the factory processes, which elevate the heightened anticipation of receiving the new car. Much Better Adventures, an adventure holiday company, exceeds customer expectations of the category by offering trip postponements that honour the original price. It’s a digital interaction that has delivered emotional peaks for many customers during the Covid-19 pandemic, despite the website functionality not performing seamlessly on mobile.

User Experience and Interaction Design for Mobile and Web

Forget why your customers tell you they’re loyal

Creating emotional peaks isn’t a ‘nice to have’, it will pay off long-term. The traditional idea of building brand loyalty is grounded in logic and rationale, such as the quality of the goods or the fairness of the price. But as David Ogilvy said, “people don’t think what they feel, don’t say what they think and don’t do what they say”. What this boils down to is the fact that you want to be focussing on how your customers feel, not what they tell you is their reason for acting or engaging. It also leads to the argument that you should stop trying to build customer loyalty and start building habits powered by context
and emotions.

The cycle is relatively simple. Emotion drives customer behaviour. Customer behaviour is reinforced by emotional gratification (Peak End Theory), causing repeat behaviour and perpetuating a habit. Now who doesn’t want a habitual customer base?

Four tips to connect with your customers’ emotions

1. Experiences over conversions – Your customer’s goal when they arrive on your
site may be to purchase your product, but marketers can’t rely on that outcome to deliver the emotional peak. Your competitors can deliver that gratification too. Focus on the emotional connection in your unique user experience.

2. Empathy over sympathy – Words are emotionally loaded and each one you
choose matters. Sympathy says – ‘I see this has happened to you’ – it doesn’t inherently show that you care. When coming from a brand, a sympathetic tone is prone to missing the mark and can be misconstrued as patronising or fake. An empathetic stance will
resonate more, by saying, ‘I feel that with you’.

3. Authenticity over projection – Projecting claims of what you value, believe
in or care about will ring false if customers see you acting in contradiction. Communicate authentically in your user experiences and act on what you say is important.

4. Relationships over user journeys – The end of the journey is often forgotten.
Many user experiences don’t end at conversion and this is a great place to enhance an emotional peak. Your customers will remember how an experience ends.

Brands that can address the emotional context of customers and cultivate connections based on how their customers feel, rather than think, are far more likely to build habits and keep their customers coming back.

A Guide to Customer Experience Management (CXM)