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So what is the Difference between Customer Experience and User Experience?

Posted in articles, Books, Customer Experience, and Experience Design

This is one of the most frequent questions that Jeof and I get. If you have read our book or heard us speak than you know the short answer. For the record, I want to share the longer (and more academic) answer.

Don Norman is most credited for coining the term User Experience while at Apples in the 1980’s – having started what is believed to be the first User Experience group. Don also wrote The Design of Everyday Things published in 1988 (revised and expanded in 2013) that provided us with the Principles of User-Centered Design (or Human-Centered Design) that we follow today. The Nielsen Norman Group defines User Experience as “encompasses all aspects of the end-user’s interaction with the company, its services, and its products.” You could say that User Experience is a natural evolution from Human-Computer Interaction from Human-Machine Interaction from Human Factors – or it has been around forever and no one ever gave it a name. The focus, as defined by NN/g, is on “the end-user’s interaction with the company, its services, and its products.” If you really want to take a deep-dive on where User Experience fits in an organization, the process, and disciplines then read The Invisible Computer (yep, Don Norman, 1998, MIT Press).

Joe Pine and Jim Gilmore are most credited for bringing our attention to Customer Experience in the July 1998 Harvard Business Review article, Welcome to the Experience Economy and their 1999 book The Experience Economy (updated edition in 2011). Pine and Gilmore explain how we move from an agrarian economy to a goods-based industrial economy to a service economy to an experience economy. They state that in an experience economy, organizations must “orchestrate memorable events for their customers” – citing examples like Disney. You could also argue that Customer Experience has been around forever but we never really called it that until now. But since Pine and Gilmore, we have seen several articles and books focused on Customer Experience – the customer’s interactions.

So what is the difference between a customer and an end-user experience? In some cases, like consumer markets, they can be the same – when the customer is purchasing something for themselves. But if a person is making a purchase decision for someone else – purchasing a gift for someone or an enterprise solution for an organization then there is a distinct difference between the Buyer Persona (the customer making the purchase decision) and the User Persona (the end-user of that decision).

This is an important distinction because the customer has different needs and goals then the end-user and, therefore, you need to determine, develop, and deliver different experiences based on the different personas.

Another important aspect is that Customer Experience and User Experience have different roots and evolved in different ways. As Jesse James Garrett states in his blog, The Great Convergence:

“The customer experience community developed out of the marketing and customer support functions in organizations — in other words, the people traditionally mandated to pay attention to customer needs. They’ve led the charge in helping organizations create operational strategies based on measuring customer feedback, and along the way have developed a sophisticated understanding of how to make the business case for experience design initiatives.”

While User Experience community developed out of the technology and product function in organizations – the people focused on the end-user’s interactions with an emphasis on the context of use.

Both communities have strategists, analyst and practitioners – sometimes using the same or similar methodologies and techniques – but usually “siloed” in different parts of an organization and focused on different part of the customers’ journey. Or an organization may have one or neither discipline. The great ones – Experience Makers – have both working together.


  1. Sean is absolutely right. Customers are not always users. In fact, even if the customer is buying for their own use, at the time of purchase they are thinking differently than they do when they use the product. They consider different aspects. In general the design community wants to deliver to the real needs of the person while the marketing community wants to figure out what people want to buy. These are different, but both are critically important. We need to make sure both aspects are well done. Alas, these two communities (design and marketing) often fight with one another instead of collaborating.

    Don Norman

    July 21, 2014
  2. Ali al-Azzawi
    Ali al-Azzawi

    For the sake of correctness, and certainly not to detract from the significant contributions that Don Norman has made to this field, the term ‘User Experience’ was used quite a long way back. The earliest use I found was this publication: Edwards, E. C. and Kasik, David J. (1974): User Experience With the CYBER Graphics Terminal. In: Proceedings of VIM-21 October, 1974. pp. 284-286.

    October 3, 2014
  3. Thanks Ali,

    I had heard that there was earlier use of the term – but you are the first to cite a source.

    Thank you,

    October 5, 2014
  4. Interesting. 1974! That’s pretty amazing. Cyber Graphics Terminal?

    thanks for the reference. A full decade before I inherited the term. I guess from now on I say “I was an early user of UX” (Actually, the abbreviation UX is very recent)


    October 5, 2014

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