Give Your CX a Mental Health Check-up


Apr 2023

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We’re living in what could euphemistically be called Interesting Times. The long, dull age of steadily growing economic prosperity, expanding democratic norms and promising technological advancement –  what once felt like the Information Superhighway to Peace and Prosperity for All! – has ended, fallen away bit by bit and crisis by crisis. With apologies to Mark Twain and Francis Fukuyama for the unauthorized mash-up: reports of the End of History have been greatly exaggerated. Here we are, once again smack-dab in the middle of what feels very much like “everything, everywhere, all at once.”

Although the worst of Covid-19 is behind us (yes, fine, I want to believe), we’re still struggling with the aftereffects: Long Covid, inflation, education losses, mystifying supply-chain glitches, backlogs in everything from passports to surgeries. Throw in a war in Europe, implacable political factions, impending climate collapse…And then there’s AI, which at minimum is guaranteed to cause enormous disruption (knowledge workers hardest hit!) and just might result in the extinction of the human race


So there’s a LOT. Is it any wonder that the nation’s mental health has taken a nose-dive? Rates of depression, anxiety and other mental health issues have been on the rise, especially among teens, and while the causes and size of the increase are under debate, the stress and enforced isolation of COVID and the lockdowns almost certainly exacerbated the problem

As people, members of society, part of the global community: what else can we do but strive to be excellent to each other? As a company, what can you do to not make things worse?

Practical Empathy

We’ve spilled a lot of ink on this blog on the importance of Customer Experience and centering the customer. At EX Squared, we believe empathy is a core tool for understanding and communicating with customers, and critical for designing a customer experience that values the whole person. Taking a holistic approach to a customer’s interactions with your brand means expanding focus from the concrete – and transactional – aspects, like ease of navigating the website. The larger experience also includes intangibles, like feelings and subconscious reactions.

What does empathy for the customer entail? Not just understanding them in order to use the right words in advertising copy, or streamline the customer journey to facilitate faster sales. An empathetic approach to customer experience means understanding how their experience with your company affects not just whether they choose to buy your product or how they view your brand, but how that interaction might affect them in less obvious – but deeply important –  ways. 

In an article for The Drum, Louis Sheppard of digital agency UNRVLD lays out an approach to customer experience that highlights the imperative for brands to “carefully consider the emotional quality of the digital experiences they offer and the role these play within the day-to-day of people’s lives.” In being mindful of the customers’ emotional response, “brands can encourage customers to return to them by delivering experiences that feel good to use and are remembered as positive experiences.”

So how does one do this? By going back to the basics of design school, and focusing on how design affects users on an emotional level.

The Three Levels of Emotional Design

In his book Emotional Design, legendary cognitive scientist and user-centered design researcher Don Norman explores the ‘three levels of design’ that speak to three different levels of user experience: the visceral, the behavioral and the reflective. 

Visceral design speaks to the gut. It’s the first impression, made quickly and subconsciously, based on sense perceptions. In the digital realm, this could be things like color scheme, or the density of text, or use of images and video. This impression is preverbal and intuitive, and shapes the emotional valence of the customer’s experience. Too much text, quickly flashing animations, harsh colors, not enough white space…these can cause unconscious feelings of stress or overstimulation, and those feelings can change how – or if – the customer wants to continue to engage with your brand. A bad visceral reaction can cause the customer to click away without even understanding why.

Behavioral design is how the product actually works for the customer. This is where classic UX comes into play, with concepts like ‘ease of use’ and intuitive functionality affecting the customer’s experience and emotional reaction. Too many clicks, unclear instructions or pathways, even slow load times and broken links – all these can add up to a frustrating experience that increases stress and negative feelings towards your brand.

Reflective design is how the customer remembers the product and their experience with it. While influenced by visceral and behavioral experience, the reflective experience is also shaped by subtle design aspects that reassure or delight the user, like familiarity, nostalgia, humor, or surprises. When the customer thinks back to the experience, is it with pleasure or annoyance?

First, Do No Harm

In order to respect your customers’ mental health, as Sheppard points out in the piece, brands must move “beyond transactionality” and to recognize that “The key is building lasting relationships with customers, built on a deep understanding of what they need not just in a commercial sense, but also an emotional one.” This is a richer and intensely empathetic way to relate to your customers, one that goes beyond their immediate experience while using your product, and takes into account the impression left behind. A positive or empowering experience with your brand can lead to deeper engagement, stronger sales, or increased loyalty – and that’s fantastic. But it can also help ease the stress of everyday life, even if just a tiny bit or just for a moment. Whereas a negative customer experience, especially in high-stress areas like customer service, can cause real harm to mental health. If we truly care about the customer experience, it means the entire experience, even offline back in meatspace.  

Is it time to give your CX a mental health check-up? EX Squared is the perfect partner to help you evolve your customer engagement model. We take a holistic approach to your brand and customers, from the first time they interact with you to the last. We understand that every aspect of your brand contributes to the overall customer experience, and we put the humans behind the data first. 

If you’re ready to create mindful engagement with your customers, drop us a line. Imagining, building and evolving whole digital products that people love – and feel good about – is what we do.

EX Squared is a creative technology agency that creates digital products for real human beings.