New kid on the digital block: What does a Chief Experience Officer actually do?

New kid on the digital block: What does a Chief Experience Officer actually do?

Garrett Heath is a social media marketer for Rackspace.

Digital design is about considering the needs of the users, delivering on their expectations and delighting them in the process. Well-designed applications are rapidly adopted in the marketplace, resulting in big business for the organizations that create them.

The Chief Experience Officer (CXO)—one of the newest executives to join the C-suite—is charged with leveraging best practices in design and user experience to gain market share. “People are realizing that a key differentiator for companies is the user experience,” Carola Fellenz Thompson, CXO at Splunk says.

But in order to understand what the CXO does, you have to take a step back to understand why the position was created in the first place.

The rise of the CXO

The Harvard Business Review noted the rise of user experience back in 2007 in an article entitled Understanding Customer Experience by Christopher Meyer and Andre Schwager. The authors argue that the customer experience with a brand extends well beyond customer care; it extends through the entire customer lifecycle, beginning with advertising and ending when the product is no longer used.

“Yet few of the people responsible for those things,” Schwager and Meyer write, “have given sustained thought to how their separate decisions shape customer experience. To the extent they do think about it, they all have different ideas of what customer experience means, and no one more senior oversees everyone’s efforts.”

Enter the CXO.


With the proliferation of mobile devices and the on-the-go consumer, many companies are putting the customer experience at the forefront of product discussions.

“The conversation has shifted—now, anytime there is a conversation about strategy user experience is part of it,” Thompson says. “Is the application easy to use, intuitive, and beautiful? Does it work equally across all platforms?”

While there has been a rise in CXOs—and other executive positions that are primarily concerned about the customer experience—the role is still new to the boardroom. Most individuals hired as the CXO are the first to hold that position inside a company.

In 2011, roughly 80 percent of CXOs (or similar customer experience C-level titles) had spent two years or less in the position, according to another Harvard Business Review article.

The role in the boardroom and beyond


In order for a CXO to perform at a high level, the individual must have deep relationships with the CTO, the CIO and the CMO. But these more established executives stand to gain a lot by working with the CXO and experience team.

“CIOs today have a lot of challenges. They have a new technology stack to deal with that’s forcing them to rethink how they provide services,” Greg Petroff, CXO at GE says. “With the new technology stacks—like cloud and big data tools like Hadoop—you can do radically different things with the same amount of effort.”

Petroff says that design skills, such as creating concept cards, can be useful for the CIO who has to make decisions with such a new software stack.

Additionally, CIOs are challenged with making internal tools easier and more straightforward. With the proliferation of mobile and Software-as-a-Service applications, there’s new pressure on them to create internal experiences that are consumer grade—poor internal systems can lead to employee turnover.

“If they have a choice, [employees] will go work someplace where the systems are easy, useful and allow them to be productive,” Petroff says.

With the rise of content marketing across digital and social media, many CMOs have had to rethink their strategy as well, putting an emphasis on the customer experience.

“A big part of the CMO’s role has changed, from telling the world what their business is about to listening to what our customers are saying about us,” Petroff says. “[We] have a very tight relationship with the marketing professionals because they’re in charge of building systems and tools that will allow them to better connect in a more complex environment.”

Yet as important as a CXO can be in the boardroom, their teams of designers are also having a big influence on organizational processes. Heather Cassano, a former CXO at Scholastic and current director of User Experience at Google, says the developers and engineers that code digital products should be closely integrated with the designers.

“The best way to do this is through an iterative approach where teams come up with creative ideas, developers and engineers implement those ideas and then those ideas gets iterated on very quickly using the agile framework,” Cassano says. Having design integrated into the development lifecycle will result in a better end-user experience.

Building a design team


Thompson believes that the number one priority for the CXO should be to create a team that builds amazing user experiences to solve customer problems.

“Aesthetics are great, we’re human beings and enjoy beautiful things, but deep design really hinges on understanding their users, so I want to make sure that people understand that,” she says. “Until we really understand, there is no way that we can innovate.”

One way that CXOs do this is by bringing together the professionals, such as experience designers, user experience researchers, front-end developers and prototypers, under a single umbrella. For the first time, this group has a seat at the executive table.

“Working together makes it easier to build a strong community of like-minded people that can grow in their careers together, mentor each other and give each other the support to build great products,” Cassano says. “It can be hard do that if the organization is dispersed and decentralized.”

Petroff says that he’s seen the discussion “swing back-and-forth from centralized to decentralized, and it depends on the company and maturity of the company.”

Currently, his team is building a critical mass of designers to serve GE. However, his long-term goal is not just to keep that core of designers, but also to see the discipline grow throughout the business with designers in multiple locations.

So while the CXO may be the new kid on the digital block, expect to see more organizations add this role in the near future. With the increased difficulty in designing a product that works across multiple devices in the new mobile-first world, the expertise and knowledge of a CXO will become increasingly important.

Read next: Getting started with user experience design

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