#CX Improvements and The Streetlight Effect


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Do your customer experience improvement efforts suffer from the Streetlight Effect?

Have you heard the story about the drunk who is asked why he’s looking for his lost wallet under the streetlight, rather than where he thinks he dropped it? It goes something like this, according to Wikipedia:

A policeman sees a drunk man searching for something under a streetlight and asks what the drunk has lost. He says he lost his keys, and they both look under the streetlight together. After a few minutes, the policeman asks if he is sure he lost them here, and the drunk replies, no, and that he lost them in the park. The policeman asks why he is searching here, and the drunk replies, “This is where the light is.”

This parable describes the phenomenon known as The Streetlight Effect. It is defined as: a type of observational bias where people only look for whatever they are searching for by looking where it is easiest. The search itself may be referred to as a drunkard’s search.

It got me thinking about how companies decide to make improvements to the customer experience. Assuming they do anything at all, it often happens just like that: they go to where the light is. In other words, they pick the low-hanging fruit. And sometimes, when you’re picking low-hanging fruit, you get stuck in this loop or cycle of finding other low-hanging fruit – and feeling like you’re making some progress, but you’re really not.

Bottom line is that it’s a waste of time and resources to just do what’s easy to do.

Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat. -Sun Tzu

Company’s suffering from the Streetlight Effect:

  • improve only the stuff that’s easy and accessible to fix
  • apply band-aids rather than work to get to the root cause, to fix the systemic issue
  • often delay doing the hard work
  • have disparate and siloed improvement efforts happening throughout the company
  • don’t make improvements based on work they’ve done to identify what’s important to the customer
  •  don’t identify what’s important to the customer
  • don’t make improvements based on impact of the fix, i.e., on the customer and then on the business
  • don’t think about outcomes 
  • only focus on time to fix and cost to fix
  • think touchpoints, not journeys – don’t think about the experience holistically
  • are very tactical, not strategic, in their efforts
  • aren’t able to transform the organization, culture, experience
  • either lack, or haven’t communicated well, a customer experience vision
  • haven’t defined and communicated a customer experience strategy

The best way to keep employees or individual departments or business units from conducting a drunkard’s search is to create, communicate, and live and breathe your…

  • brand promise
  • guiding principles
  • organization’s mission
  • customer experience vision

… and outline and communicate the customer experience strategy, which helps to define, design, and, ultimately, deliver the desired customer experience (desired, of course, by your customers). Strategy is mainly about the how, but your customer experience strategy may also include details about the who, what, when, and the how much of experience design and helps everyone focus on those activities or improvements that will be most impactful to your customers. (It gets everyone on the same page, marching to the same beat.)

Working in the light of the street, focusing on the easy stuff, derails you from the hard work that is required by your customer experience strategy. Don’t get me wrong: sometimes doing that solves an immediate problem. But while it’s tempting to only focus there, stick with the strategy outlined to achieve your goals. That strategy spells out how you’ll do meaningful work and make a real transformation.

Improving the customer experience requires that the entire organization works toward a common goal, being cohesive and consistent and deliberate about the approach. It also requires heavy lifting, not just doing what’s easy.

Stepping out of the glow of the streetlight is where you’ll get the biggest bang for your buck. Don’t be afraid of the dark!

Don’t ever, ever, believe anyone who tells you that you can just get by, by doing the easiest thing possible. Because there’s always somebody behind you who really wants to do what you’re doing. And they’re going to work harder than you if you’re not working hard. –Maria Bartiromo

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Annette Franz
Annette Franz is founder and Chief Experience Officer of CX Journey Inc. She is an internationally recognized customer experience thought leader, coach, consultant, and speaker. She has 25+ years of experience in helping companies understand their employees and customers in order to identify what makes for a great experience and what drives retention, satisfaction, and engagement. She's sharing this knowledge and experience in her first book, Customer Understanding: Three Ways to Put the "Customer" in Customer Experience (and at the Heart of Your Business).


  1. Hi Annette,

    Don’t be afraid of the dark is right, but then, while following strategy it is often necessary to start with the little/easy things. This is because the big wins, the ones hidden in the dark, are often very expensive and take some time to be implemented. So there needs to be a combination. I call this Think Big – Act Small’.


  2. Thanks for your comment, Thomas. Your point is spot on… often those little, tactical things are the ones that allow us to advance to the bigger, more strategic improvements. Baby steps.

  3. thanks Annette; I wouldn’t exactly name it baby steps, though, but delivering value frequently. That way trust is built for the longer steps because of already having an increased value 🙂

    But I get your point.

    Cheers from Down Under


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