Think back to the last time you bought anything online. If I had to guess, you made this purchase because at that moment, it was more convenient for you to go to a website than to go to into a store.

The last time I made an online purchase was last week. I bought two pairs of denim shorts from macys.com and a skirt from asos. A recent knee injury leaves me in need of new bottoms and unable to walk around to shop. As is my fear with online shopping, it turned out that one of the pairs of shorts and the skirt did not fit me. Luckily, both sites have "free returns," meaning that I don't need to pay postage to ship the items back. But the similarities between the two services ended there.

My shorts from Macy's shipped with UPS. In order to return them, I needed to take six steps:

  1. Open my computer and go to macys.com/easyreturn
  2. Type in my Order Number
  3. Select the item I want to return and why
  4. Find a friend with a printer (I don't have one)
  5. Print a return label and stick it on a box
  6. Take my box to a UPS pick-up point

My skirt from asos shipped with USPS. In order to return it, I needed to take three steps:

  1. Select my reason for return on a form provided in the shipment
  2. Stick a return label, also provided in the shipment, on the packaging
  3. Leave the packaging outside my home

"Free returns" through asos required me to take half as many steps than that of macys.com (at a time where taking even one step is painful for me) and was infinitely more convenient.

When I think back to my purchases with the two etailers, the return process overshadows the rest of the shopping experience. No matter how broad its selection or the intuitiveness of its site, macys.com is characterized by a clunky return process. After seeing how simple it was for me to return an item to asos, I ended up purchasing another skirt, and in the future, I'm more likely to go to asos before I go to macys.com.

As shown by a large body of psychological research, our brains are biased toward negative experiences. That is, our brains react more strongly to negative stimuli than positive ones. Negative experiences typically require us to process more information than positive ones. Evolutionarily, the instinct to focus on negative stimuli over positive ones could have been the difference between life and death.

So why is this important today?

When we design products or services to be used by other humans, our goal is to create a positive customer experience. We set goals of user-friendliness, ease-of-use, delightfulness, and convenience for our offering. We hope that things don't go wrong for our customers.

But as demonstrated by my recent online purchasing experience, a key differentiator for businesses is the experience they provide in the non-ideal situation, returns in the case of online shopping, flight delays in the case of travel, identity theft in the case of financial services, and the list goes on.

Here are three steps to apply this mindset to your own offering:

  1. Identify the most painful or frustrating aspect of your offering. It may not be something that everyone deals with. Instead, it may be something that nobody wants to deal with (but is inevitable for some, at some point).
  2. Ask, "When do people experience this pain?" and "Why is it painful?"
  3. Explore ways in which you might simplify this painful experience, or better yet, eliminate it altogether.

It's often tempting to double down on improving the best parts of your customer experience in an effort to make it even more delightful. It may be, however, that the more you focus on improving the undesired, negative aspects, the more positive an experience you build for your customers.

Published on: Sep 20, 2016
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.