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Human-Centered Design lets carriers unlock the door to the Experience Economy

Mobile Posse’s Arty Rivera explores the importance of Human-Centered Design and how mobile carriers can use that approach to improve the customer experience.

7 min read

Digital Technology

Human-Centered Design lets carriers unlock the door to the Experience Economy

Gerd Altmann / Pixabay

Carriers are at a tipping point. While the advent of 5G will provide opportunities through faster and better services and phones, creating success in many of the proclaimed 5G opportunities will require a new focus on innovating customer experiences. These experience-focused assets must have true competitive differentiation and be able to foster brand loyalty.

That’s why it’s imperative that carriers adopt Human-Centered Design as their path forward. Carriers’ customer acquisition and retention efforts will hinge on creating unique mobile experiences that fit into a customer’s life — and participate in what Joseph Pine and James Gilmore called “The Experience Economy.” In their 2011 bestselling book, Pine and Gilmore lay out a framework for understanding the nature of the economic order to which we are rapidly moving. They argue that we need new thinking to move from a Service Economy, where customers prioritize things like convenience, price and access, to the Experience Economy, where customers prioritize meaningfulness.

It’s not enough anymore for carriers to broadcast the values they “stand for” in their positioning and marketing taglines: AT&T gives you “more for your thing,” and Verizon has the top-rated, most-awarded network (according to experts and awards that consumers have maybe heard of).

T-Mobile has arguably understood this the most deeply, following through on its charmingly rebellious “un-carrier revolution” brand strategy by addressing customer pain points. The major changes they have instituted in their customer service practices have helped them become the fastest-growing carrier in the U.S.

The success or failure of carriers’ customer acquisition and retention efforts revolve around mobilizing experiences to fit into a customer’s life, i.e., participating in the “Experience Economy.” And that’s where Human-Centered Design comes in.

In order to break through the shell of sameness, carriers need to explicitly highlight their brand to consumers where and when it means the most to them, such as when they’re looking to make a purchasing decision or when they’re looking to connect with their loved ones and with the things in the world that make them feel alive.

For carriers, the iron is hot to strike at this opportunity, given the window to their services and brand experience is a device that is increasingly glued to the palms of their customers’ hands — but they must follow through on the execution of those experiences. “Following through” in this case doesn’t mean “more stuff,” it means “more meaning.” Identifying what that means for each of their millions of subscribers doesn’t just require Big Data, it requires a shift in mindset.

Human-Centered Design is a mindset that pushes businesses to see not just “consumers,” but also humans — people they want to help, and whose lives they need to improve in order to win them over and keep them. Businesses that use HCD for product and service innovation get clarity around what they can do that is meaningful from their customers’ point of view.

Business models, technologies and markets evolve. However, one of the most reliable sources of competitive advantage in a buyers’ market is understanding people: what they do, what they want and why. The power of the consumer to dictate the market has grown so considerably relative to business institutions that Forrester calls the current 20-year period we are in “The Age of the Customer.”

Insights about customers based on their deep needs change surprisingly little over time. Any company that becomes an expert in understanding the people it wants to serve and has the will to organize and incentivize the business to serve them meaningfully will always hold a competitive advantage over more shortsighted contenders.

One such behavioral insight uncovered by recent research in the smartphone space that is worthy of carriers’ attention is the tremendous opportunity represented by the number of times that people unlock their cell phones, often with no task in mind.

According to a study published by Verto Analytics in 2019, the average person unlocks their smartphone more than 50 times a day. Furthermore, over half of all smartphone unlocks (and growing) are performed with no particular intent in mind.

This trend is doubtlessly fueled by the intersection of several other major trends: smartphone market saturation, the proliferation of cheap, unlimited data plans, and the ever-increasing speed of networks and of the devices that use them. More importantly, this trend represents over 13 billion “unlock moments” per day — precious opportunities when the carriers whose networks and services underpin the entire smartphone experience can leverage their media and digital assets to inform, entertain or inspire their customers in meaningful ways.

Thirteen billion moments per day when carriers could associate their brands with making their customers’ days just a little bit better. What kind of world would we live in if carriers were focused on delivering that?

This is actually the kind of question considered by the Center for Humane Technology, a technology-focused think tank founded by former Google and Apple employees (among others). Their mission is to address the ethical issues around human habit hacking and the harm it can do.

If carriers are truly focused on making their subscribers’ days meaningfully better (in a way that explicitly surfaces and complements their brand) these considerations need to be top-of-mind when deciding which customer experience ideas get green-lit. The Center for Humane Technology has created a Design Guide to help in this process. This human-centered rubric is a starting point to help teams and companies identify opportunities that can yield experience-boosting benefits across their products, services and brand(s).

The insight around the growth of “intent-less” unlock moments can be combined with this rubric. For example, here is an informed hypothesis that uses the market insight around unlock moments, and focuses it on what the Design Guide calls the “human sensitivity” of Attention:

Carriers should be looking for content discovery platforms that:

  1. Do not rely on “sucking people in,” but which rather
  2. Focus discovery around short, easily snackable content that is relevant to the user, which
  3. Only surfaces during the “moments-in-between,” when people already tend to unlock their phones with no particular intent beyond alleviating boredom.

These types of solutions are what move the needle in an Experience Economy, and Human-Centered Design is the mindset that makes it possible to envision and prioritize them. This kind of thinking is the source, not just of better experiences for phone users, but of opportunities for carriers to show customers that their brands are about more than phone plans, bars and coverage — again, all rapidly-commoditizing propositions.

Human-centered content discovery tools can empower carriers to become mobile media leaders by redefining customers’ relationships with their phones. Smartphones have been around for a long time now, after all — isn’t it time they started upgrading our lives, rather than just demanding our attention?


Arty Rivera is the Director of Product Design at Mobile Posse. His key responsibility is to bring consistency, clarity and delight, both to the people who use Mobile Posse’s products, as well as to the people who make them. He is also responsible for growing and professionally nurturing his team of UX designers and researchers.


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