Things can only get…worse?

Updated: May 10, 2019

Our Managing Director John Sills looks at how we live in a world that is perfecting the functional experience at the expense of the emotional experience

This is an unedited version of an article which appeared in the December 2017 edition of Market Leader, the strategic marketing journal for business leaders, and is reproduced with their permission. To subscribe, visit

John Maynard Keynes famously said that our biggest problem in the future would be how to spend our leisure time, as we’d only be working 15 hours each week.

Unless by ‘working’ he meant ‘commuting’, the opposite seems to be true. And a few weeks ago, I went on a trip that made me realise this same reverse progression may be happening in Customer Experience, too.

We were on family day out on one of those delightfully old steam trains. The journey started with a friendly guard welcoming us on board, checking our tickets, and showing us to our seats. And what seats they were. Deep leather cushions you could fall asleep in, each with their own wood-panelled spacious table to spread our picnic out on, and next to huge windows made for daydreaming out of.

It was during one of those window-staring sessions that it occurred to me how much more of a pleasant experience this was than my commute, despite this train being about 70 years older than the one I get to sit on / stand in / watch speed past every day.

In our rush to make things more efficient, are we actually making our experiences worse?

Examples of this assault on pleasure are everywhere. Air travel used to be the height of luxury, sipping whisky on the rocks whilst chatting to the captain. Now we get a cold cheese panini and a free cup of water, if we’re lucky enough to be sat near the place where the trolley starts its journey.

Banks have stepped away from personal managers and individual assessments to automated assistants and computer-says-no. Letter writing from a noble craft full of meaning and thought to a one-line email with a copy-and-paste signature. Book reading from a relaxing escapist pastime to a learn-all-you-can-in-15-minutes memory test.

And we’ve lost the family doctor, someone who took the time to know you and your body, an extension to your family and a lynchpin of society. Now you have to pass through seven-digit postcode sign-ins, robotic receptionists, and needle-wielding nurses before securing ten minutes with a dishevelled doctor.

It’s certainly true that most experiences are now safer, quicker, and more ergonomic than ever before. However, the sign of real progress is surely to be able to keep the same level of quality whilst improving in these areas, not having to sacrifice the pleasurable aspects to make way for the functional improvements.

And this is really the crux of it.

We live in a world that is perfecting the functional experience at the expense of the emotional experience.

Perhaps the reason people are now preferring to spend money on experiences rather than objects is because our daily lives and interactions are have become so safe and sanitised?

This issue of functional and emotional experiences is more prevalent now than ever before, with the long-awaited arrival of algorithmic AI into our lives, promising to create the most efficient – and perhaps the least emotional – experiences we’ve ever had.

Of course, automation and assistance has huge benefits to customers. Algorithms that choose the music I need to listen to next. A fridge that knows what to order for me and stocks up without me being involved. Alexa telling me what to wear, where to wear it, and what time to be home.

But is this what we really want?

People love the decadence of spending time with a shopping assistant, helping to build the perfect outfit for them. Others get real excitement in unearthing a new band and sharing it with friends as The Next Best Thing, taking pride in the discovery. And since having a child, I now understand why parents still want to visit the supermarket, simply to get out of the house and entertain the little one for a couple of hours.

There’s something great about choosing the ingredients for the special meal you’re going to make, something confidence-building about spending time with someone who really understands your health or finances to listen to their considered advice, something satisfying about managing your way through a day knowing the achievements are yours alone.

Would you be prepared to spend a little more or take a little longer to feel some kind of emotional kick?

In customer experience, the only thing that really matters is how you make people feel. So we need to find ways to build emotion and feeling back into our customer experiences, before we manage to, very efficiently, move further away of Keynes’ promised land.

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