I’ve been meaning to write about this topic for a while. What got me past the tipping point was receiving yet another in the series of hilarious videos in the iPhone versus Evo wars. (I love those, no matter which side they come down on.)

Let me first disclaim that I do not cover mobile devices for Forrester so I am speaking strictly as an end user. Okay, I have disclaimed! Now for the story . . .

Way back in the spring, I was visiting my sister and brother-in-law in Ohio. My sister had recently gotten herself a Droid and was not very happy with it. She let me play with it for a while, and I have to say that I did not like its weight, the sharp corners, and the little vibratory “thunk” of physical feedback that probably seemed like a good idea to the designers but came off as annoying after about the third time it happened. The GUI was okay but didn’t strike me as an improvement over my iPhone — in fact, I thought it was a little worse.

My sister had come to similar conclusions. She had purchased the phone so she could stay with Verizon as her wireless service provider. Her biggest complaint, though, was the lack of a decent app store. And when I say “decent,” I mean that literally. When she called up her app store, she got a really bad interface that didn’t help her find relevant apps without a struggle. Worse, about every third listing was a porno app. (I guess that’s what happens when you don’t curate content.)

Anyway, she regretted her choice but felt locked in by her contract.

Her husband, meanwhile, had also decided to get a smartphone but hadn’t pulled the trigger yet. Like my sister, he didn’t want to leave Verizon — but he had the advantage of seeing her not-so-great customer experience and was beginning to think that the compromise wasn’t worth it. He asked to try my iPhone and so I handed it over. After he played with it for about 10 minutes, he handed it back to me and said, “No contest. I’m getting an iPhone.”

Fast forward to this summer. My sister and brother-in-law joined us for part of our family vacation on Block Island. Sure enough, my brother-in-law was packing an iPhone. That was no surprise. The surprise was that my sister had a brand new iPad 64 GB with Wi-Fi and 3G. Yowzah!

It instantly became our favorite toy. My nine-year-old son taught himself how to use it (including features we didn’t know about) in what seemed like a few minutes and then borrowed it every chance he got. I used Google Maps to get a good aerial view of some of the neighboring properties (we’d rented a house, and I was nosy about our neighbors). My sister downloaded an app that let her make phone calls off of it and started using the iPad as a phone. You get the picture — it’s instantly addictive.

So what did I take away from all of this?

First, it’s clearer than ever that you have to consider the overall customer experience when making a purchase decision (or on the other side of the cash register, planning a customer experience). I can fully understand how people who live in an area where the AT&T network is notably deficient (Manhattan springs to mind) might find the overall experience of an iPhone to be a disappointment. But for those of us who live in areas where the network is good enough, the superior user experience of the iPhone more than makes up for the difference in network quality. And the iPad? Until everyone has one, I doubt that the network can be a differentiator. In fact, I’m not sure what network my sister was on with that thing. I just plain didn’t care, and I still kinda don't.

Implication for business leaders: You now need to get serious about creating an enterprise-level customer experience strategy that spans every channel and business unit. Because if you are thinking on a product-by-product basis, you risk setting a woefully myopic course.

Second, the emotional experience really can make or break the overall customer experience, even for a product that should mostly be about utility. Companies have a natural tendency to focus on the base of the customer experience pyramid: whether or not a product meets a customer’s needs and how easy it is to use the product. That’s understandable, especially when the product with the most features tends to win in the marketplace. But these days, companies neglect the top of the pyramid — how enjoyable the experience is for customers — at their peril.

Implication for business leaders: It’s increasingly important to learn about emotional experience design. In the era of experience, we all need to understand that the evolution of hardware and software interfaces truly can change the world.