What the Sistine Chapel can teach us about customer experience

The 15th century chapel and its ceiling (painted a century later) demonstrate the difference between a user experience with great utility and one that also provides great content

Customer experience isn’t a new concept. Back in 1473, when stone masons started work on the Sistine Chapel, worshippers' interaction with the chapel was top of mind.

The chapel was built for the private use of the Pope and an elite group of priests who were part of the Holy Father’s inner circle. With their target audience in mind, the masons thought hard about their user journeys and how they could create the most heavenly experience possible.

The masons considered about the feelings they wanted to conjure when the small flock entered the chapel. So they built steps, wide at the bottom to signify that all were welcome to the faith, and narrow at the top to remind people of how difficult it can be to pass through the gates of heaven. The steps also became steeper toward the top to evoke a sense of ascendency.

Once in the chapel, the masons ensured it was easy for worshippers to access the pews. A pulpit at the far end was easy to see throughout the space. The masons paid particular attention to the acoustics. It was important the words of the priest could be heard no matter how quietly he spoke.

The rows of windows on each side of the chapel allowed shafts of light to flood in, illuminating the room and suggesting divine approval.

It was a truly ecclesiastical experience.

But when Pope Julius II entered this remarkable place, he felt something was missing.

Where were the magnificent images that showed the power of the Almighty? The creation of Adam? The fight between good and evil? Angels? Demons? And the biblical stories that would empower people to live a Godly life?

Today, we call it "content."Back then, it was called inspiration.

Michelangelo, along with other talented painters, was called in to create the magic. And people, even today, leave in awe after a visit to the chapel.

But what’s the lesson?

Simply this: Much of the customer experience out there today is simple and easy to navigate. Utility is paramount (as it should be). But, a bit like the early Sistine Chapel, an important part of the experience is often missing. Many brand sites, for example, invest heavily in information architecture, user experience and technology. But they miss the inspirational stories, themes and content which raise the emotional connection with consumers to another level.

Quite often, experience and content are seen as two different tracks. They should be seen as one.

Lessons from the past
Anyone who grew up in the advertising industry knows how brand psychology can dramatically influence brand preference. There are great lessons to be learnt from VW, Nike and Marlboro (a cigarette brand that originally had 2% market share in the US before cowboy imagery and all the associations that came with it propelled the brand to world dominance).

And anyone who grew up in the digital world knows how user experience can transform customer engagement. There are great lessons to be learned from Uber, Spotify and Amazon, to name but a few.

So how do you bring these two views of the world together? We believe you need to start in the middle, the strategic epicenter, where UX thinking and brand strategy overlap.

We call it the "organizing idea." Not an entirely new concept but one whose application in a digitized world can be transformative.

Organizing ideas bring purpose to a brand. They create an emotional connection with consumers beyond utility and rational features. And can create loyalty beyond reason.

So who out there is getting it right? Who is striking the right balance between experience and brand building content?

Net-A-Porter: E-commerce site or magazine?
Net-A-Porter is an e-commerce site that interweaves editorial content with the shopping experience beautifully and seamlessly. The site has become so successful that the owners decided to create a physical magazine in 2014. Despite costing $4 more than Vogue, it's already matching British Vogue’s circulation figures.

The brand's online growth is meteoric, too. Last year, the online business saw a 31% increase in sales, outstripping competitors by a large margin. The company has created a proven formula, the perfect balance between commerce and content. You’d imagine competitors would be falling over themselves to copy it.

But they’re not.

Perhaps that’s not surprising. Net-A-Porter has invested heavily in the right team. It has hired not only seasoned digital marketers but also top-notch editorial teams. Lucy Yeomans, Porter’s editor-in-chief, who previously served as editor at Harper’s Baazar, is an acclaimed magazine journalist with top industry plaudits to her name. With someone of that caliber steering the ship, it’s not surprising 6 million people read, watch and shop their website each month.

So what lessons can Net-A-Porter teach companies that want to do well in the e-commerce space?

Don’t skimp on talent. Anyone can copy the Net-A-Porter model. But it’s the people behind the model that make the difference. Don’t expect a junior creative team from an ad agency or PR company to give you same editorial clout as the heavyweights from Net-A-Porter. There’s a reason there’s an ‘A’ in the name. It stands for the A team.

A platform on "performance enhancing drugs"
Facebook Instant Articles is a platform that is helping publishers and brands take mobile content publishing to another level. Yes, it’s a template. And, just like the Enterprise Solutions we encounter everyday, it is a bit robotic and familiar.

However, although the platform adheres to a rigid format, it is designed to propagate rich and engaging content.

Take a look at Nat Geo’s article "Quest for a Super Bee."

The video at the top of the article launches automatically. A silhouetted bee hovers in slow motion over a hive, the buzzing sound of its flapping wings audible over your mobile phone’s speaker.

As you scroll down, you are immersed in the author’s words until you come to a photograph of a bee’s face. As you stop to examine the fascinating close up, commentary from the photographer fades in. As you continue to scroll down, the commentary slowly fades out.

There’s a hint of more to come further down the page. A photograph of a bee sweeps left and right, suggesting that 360 photography and video is available. Or soon will be.

Facebook Instant Articles gives us a truly multimedia and immersive experience — shame it’s only for mobile devices.

So what implications does this have for publishers and brands going forward?

Content, and the quality of production, is going to be a huge differentiator. It will no longer be enough to rely on stock shots and low-grade assets. Investment in content will be paramount. Clients who embrace this opportunity will get the consumer engagement they desire. Clients that ignore the necessity for quality will be, well, ignored.

Andy Greenaway is executive creative director, Asia-Pacific, at SapientNitro.

Tags