When you hear hoofbeats, the old medical saying suggests you think ‘horses not zebras’.    

Medically, this means doctors analyse symptoms and first check for common ailments not rare conditions. However, their approach shifts based on the context of the patient and is why they undertake a fact-finding mission to learn more. 

A patient suffering flu symptoms who has returned from Africa will be treated differently from someone who remained local and is suffering flu symptoms during winter.   

So how does this relate to customer experience design?

The approach doctor’s take is the same as those designing customer experiences. Customer experience design is about analysing the context of the consumer and structuring click-paths in alignment.  

If websites can anticipate consumer buying/research journeys, they can present relevant content precisely at the right time.  

This is the value of customer experience design.

Customer experience designers need to understand precisely who the ‘hoofbeat’ belongs to and why. So if you hear hoofbeats and you are standing in a paddock in the country, think horses, if you hear ‘hoofbeats’ while in the Savannah, think zebras.   

Defining the hoofbeats

Bringing this approach to customer experience design requires a detailed view of a consumer’s context for every page of a website and for each device.  

While this is a high level view of what to consider, the questions below are a starting point to assist you in how you need to think:

  1. Who are the consumers landing on a particular page? Where have they come from?  Their source may indicate their intent. If so, use this information.
  2. Where are they in their journey when they land on this page?
  3. What actions will they want to take on this page? Keeping in mind a consumer’s goal may be different on a smartphone compared to being on a desktop/laptop computer.  
  4. What actions do you (the retailer) want the consumer to take on this page?
  5. What is going to motivate the consumer to proceed to the next step of their journey?  

Retailers need context before forging ahead and designing experiences. With this said, it’s a wonder why retailers copy the design, functionality, and layouts of each other.  

The rationale is typically, “if it works for our competitor, then it will work for us.”  One could argue if a competitor is trying to acquire the same target consumer, this rationale works. In fact, it doesn’t. 

There are many different elements making up a journey not related to functionality and on-page design but heavily influences the experience: customer service/support messages, delivery promises, page load speed, inventory control and inventory availability to name a few.  

Merely copying one or two functional or visual elements will do more harm than good because it is out of this whole context you are meant to create.

The next time you consider copying page elements or functional elements from the likes of Amazon, Apple, or even a close competitor, think twice.

There are many different ‘hoofbeats’ in retail. Get your context right, then the design.