Let’s Park The Semantics Of ‘Customer Experience’ Or ‘User Experience’

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Is it “customer experience” or “user experience”? What’s the difference? In this opinion piece Michelle Gilmore, Design Director and Founder at Neoteny examines the distinction between the two.

Michelle Gilmore
Posted by Michelle Gilmore

I’ve been asked a seemingly simple question one too many times of late, it comes in a few varieties:

  1. ‘What’s the difference between user and customer experience?’
  2. ‘Should we call our team user of customer experience?’
  3. ‘Should I be a user and customer experience designer?’
  4. ‘Do I need a user or customer experience designer for this project/in my team?’


My answer is varied also, it has short and long form versions, some direct and others resembling late night rants, depending on my frame of mind at the time. Here’s my position on this trending and therefore concerning topic of discussion…

At an academic level, the distinction is clear:

  • Customer experience – refers to the response that a direct consumer of a product or service has during or after an interaction
  • User experience – refers to the response that any user (internal or external) of a product or service has during or after an interaction

The difference is customer experience refers to only customers. User experience is inclusive of all users, be they customers, internal staff members and/or third parties.

The difference is not one to be made at a job title level – if you’re (a designer or product manager) only advocating for the customer, you’re forgetting about the people who will actually development, maintain and evolve the product or service. Dangerous at best.

The difference is not to be made at a business unit level – a customer experience unit creates the same problems that any internal facing vertical silo does, customers don’t live alone, without interaction with brands, their assets and staff. Customers live out in the world, just like you and I and they interact with you and your staff. Thinking about them in isolation to the internal operations of the business is just naive and inefficient.

We used customer experience because we needed to get organisations to think about the customer and make their experiences a priority. They have not only done that, they’ve over corrected and now think that a customer experience department or philosophy will save them or give them a competitive advantage. It won’t.

  • How about we park the semantics and get on with created and improving on great products and services for those who own, work within and use them?
  • How about we use an evidence and objective approach to make decisions and include all user types throughout product and service development stages?
  • How about we start to be taken seriously by the business world because we can show results, rather than get caught up in label debates?