Developing a Cross-Channel UX Strategy

22 August 2012
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User Experience Designers (UXD) architect interfaces for several device and platform types. And, we must have a general understanding of how our design may be rendered in all of them — mindful of all the details and elements that maintain the brand identity while also adhering to business objectives and advocating for the end-users. A cross-channel user experience strategy is the process of tying all of the encounters a user could possibly have with a brand into a consistent and total customer experience. It is a strategy with deep consideration of each point of contact with users, their intentions and likely tasks . The UX must be intuitive, purposeful, logical and most importantly, consistent and positive. From a business perspective, all channels should also fit into and create a loop of interactions, where they direct and connect users to other channels.

The Heart of it All: User Stories

Where to begin when the development of the cross-channel strategy has commenced? We start with getting a deeper understanding of who the user is. User stories provide us with the who, the what and the why. This is the time where we switch roles and become the user. User stories describe separate aspects of the system functions in concise sentences, from the user’s perspective. This way, even through conception, the user needs are always at the forefront of development.

3 C’s of User Stories

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Ron Jeffries, XP author and practitioner, coined the term and concept of the “3 C’s” that serve as critical aspects of user stories:

  • The Card: User stories are generally written on cards or post-it notes for card-sorting and whiteboarding activities, hence the term. Typically, the card should follow a basic template:

As a [user], I want [function/task], so that [value/reason].

An example of a user story for Bandcamp.com might be:

As an artist on Bandcamp, I want to upload my music so that people can find, share and buy it.

  • The Conversation: This would be the dialogue shared amongst everyone on the project and the stakeholders that may expand upon the “cards.” Expanding on the card for Bandcamp:

As an artist on Bandcamp, I want to upload my music so that people can find, share and buy it.”

  • There will be a persistent button for adding music to the user account.
  • The user will be required to upload .wav, .aif or .flac files to ensure high sound quality.
  • The file must not be larger than 600MB.
  • The Confirmation: This is the acceptance test for each case in the user story, where aspects of the system functionality are confirmed as implemented correctly by the clients. A test case for the Bandcamp card might look like this:

As an artist on Bandcamp, I want to upload my music so that people can find, share and buy it.”

  • Click “Add Track”
  • Browse and select audio file.
    • Confirm file type as only .wav, .aif or .flac files
    • Confirm file size larger than 600MB will result in error
  • Click “Open”
  • Display upload progress in status bar

Considering User Encounters with Brand Touchpoints

Obviously when we use the term “cross-channel experience,” we are implying many points and chances to interact with customers. I want to emphasize the words “chances” and “interact” because each touchpoint creates an opportunity — one that affords us the possibility of forging a memorable experience. For those who lament on adding yet another channel to their marketing loop, remember this: the more “opportunities” taken, the more unique and impactful the experience is, the greater the chance of building a meaningful and lasting relationship with customers. Nick Finck, UX Director at Deloitte Digital, expanded on the importance of considering all the possible encounters a user may have with a brand and identified these touchpoints in hisThe Cross Channel Experience presentation. 

3 Key Types of Touchpoints

  1. Static: This type includes one-dimensional touchpoints such as packaging and the product itself, promotional assets, etc.
  2. Interactive: As the name implies, these are touchpoints that allow for users to have a 2-way engagement with a brand and are constantly updated and evolving. This may include the website, mobile applications, social networks, etc.
  3. Human: These are the human interactions customers experience with a brand such as salespeople, customer service representatives, service technicians, etc. 

Considering the Choices: Possible Channels and Platforms

 

multi-platforms

 

In the end, the touchpoints that UXDers work on and consider most are interactive; so let us evaluate the most prominent of the many options.

The Web/ Desktop Experience

The beauty of this experience is that there are several types of experiences and considerations within this channel alone.

  • Website: The website is the standard; but with consideration to:
    • Screen Resolutions: The dimensions the website will be composed and optimized for particular PCs is also with strong regard to the most popular resolution of users
    • Browsers: Unfortunately there are limitations to each browser as to what and how the website’s content and design will be rendered. Designing with progressive enhancement is the only way to optimize the performance since there is no way around the fact that users are likely using 1 of 5 major browsers.
  • Web Application/ SaaS: The website and the web application are 2 very different things; although they are very closely tied to one another. The user interface of the web app will often set the standards for all other interactive applications on other platforms.
  • Desktop Application: Not too far off from the web app, but cognizance of the desktop operating systems is yet another challenge.
  • Responsive Sites: A new web standard, responsive sites have the ability to detect the size of the device in use and adapt to a particular view accordingly.

The Mobile Experience

At this point, I should not have to campaign how common it is to interact with a brand via a mobile application. According to ABI Research, smartphone users alone are expected to download 36 billion apps this year, at an average of 37 native apps for every user. It is clear, people love their phones –not nearly as expensive as a PC, but just as useful.

  • Smartphones: With Android and iOS as the leading smartphone platforms respectively, and about 4 other major players in the market, choosing the platforms to develop is solely based on knowing the user.
  • Tablets & E-Readers: Yet another alternative to traditional desktop computers and laptops, and a bigger alternative to smartphones for Internet access, the tablet market is rapidly growing.

The Hybrid Experience

With the rise of HTML5, hybrid apps are an emerging technology. For those of us, like myself, that need a clear definition on what they are, Doug Seven, EVP at Telerik provides us with a clear and concise breakdown of what a hybrid application is:

“A hybrid app is one that is written with the same technology used for websites and mobile web implementations, and that is hosted or runs inside a native container on a mobile device. It is the marriage of web technology and native execution.”

The Set-Top-Box Experience

For brands that are content providers of rich media, I am a huge proponent of developing for digital STBs aka “media hubs,” especially for an interactive television experience.

  • TV STB: People are getting more savvy and getting the most out of their television by hooking up Roku, Apple TV and Boxee boxes to access streaming content and other applications.
  • Gaming Consoles: Let’s face it, gamers are everywhere. Even if they don’t admit it or consider an occasional (few times a week) session of Call of Duty as avid gaming. Thus, exposure to game consoles is frequent enough to warrant consideration. Sony PlayStation 3, Nintendo Wii and XBox 360 all offer native apps and access to the web in some form.

The Digital Kiosk Experience

Then there is the wonderful world of kiosks — the much less expensive alternative to storefronts and virtually a vending machine that can be placed nearly anywhere. The kiosk is the new “brick-and-mortar.”

  • ATMs: Obviously a no-brainer in the banking industry. The ATM is probably the most frequent and impactful experience of users in this market. And, on a sidenote: what if there were ATM applications that offered other relevant or closely related financial services; for instance a WSJ app that gave users a quick view of the stock market and printed out an abridged ticker tape of top performers, etc.?
  • In-store Kiosks: Redbox, Blockbuster, and airline ticket purchase kiosks are great examples of what a user experience may look like on various machines.

All things considered, knowledge of the programming languages and interactions is the greatest challenge for UXers. We must stay at least with the curve on all of these technologies and throughout their perpetually evolving state. Working closely with developers and direct access to all the devices for which you are developing will ease the design and development process.

Considering Key UX Elements to Reproduce Across Channels

We have looked at all of our options, and now it is time to identify all the major components that must remain consistent across all channels to ensure a cohesive brand identity and an optimal user experience. Some elements are obvious and some are easy to carry over. Others far more subtle or difficult to keep in line. For these reasons, with input from Tyler Tate and help from Timothy Smith, we will analyze these very components, which fall into 6 categories or elements of consistency:

  • Content – The meat, if you will, of any channel. It is the what that exists to even interact with users. Not surfacing certain content that users expect to see will prove problematic. A determined user will then have to return to the other channel just to find what they were looking for and distrust the quality and ability of the other channels to provide the information they seek.
  • Language – Nomenclature can be a tricky detail for any brand. And the type of language even more so; whether or not to choose a visual language or words from another language… Cognizance of any social or cultural sensitivities of the users, in addition to the logic of the terminology to its associated component are a significant part of the process . Applying such rationale to the need of the brand to establish its own unique experience and maintaining the language across channels is vital.
  • Organization – The navigation of a website can easily become befuddled when translating its mapping structure to a menu/ dashboard of a mobile (or other) application. Consistency in the linking structure will minimize user frustration.
  • Interaction – Interactions are a deeper issue than the decision of whether or not clicking media will render a lightbox or not. Particularly pertaining to touchscreen devices, this element is very significant. What gestures do what, and what they will render should be more than a brief conversation with the development team.
  • Function – Think of this as the central purpose. The value of the channel is in its ability to provide value to the user. If the brand’s central purpose is to inform, then it would be illogical for any of its channels to skew from that and centrally function independently as anything else. For example, would it make sense for Huff Post to create an application that centrally functioned as entertainment such as a virtual world/ MMG? I think not. There may be cases where another function may act as a complement to the main function, such as in-flight videos for an airline or WIFI access at a coffee shop, but never the central function.
  • Visual Design – The most obvious of all the elements, and working closely with the visual designers to decide on the color scheme, typography and overall theme will only enhance our designs.

All Things Considered

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We have accounted for all major considerations, and now need to build a set of standards by which to measure the impactfulness of the cross-channel experience we have designed. Nationwide’s UX Lead, David Andre designed a great model (see above) that concisely conveys the criteria of an optimized cross-channel user experience. Through his model, he articulates, “Cross-channel service experiences achieve coherence when they are consistent and continuous.” The elements of his model can be defined as:

  • Composition: The channel or solution.
  • Consistency: The clear relation between channels without contradiction or ambiguity.
  • Continuity: The seamless connection between channels (especially in the midst of an interaction).
  • Coherence: The logicality of all components.

It is now possible check the efficiency and quality of the cross-channel experience with internal checks and balances. To do so, an evaluation of a few critical parameters is necessary to ensure a coherent composition. To test consistency we must undergo meticulous detail while posing the question, “Do the channels look, behave, and are organized similarly?” In regards to continuity, our question is then, “Can you flow from one channel to the next without abrupt change?” Consistency and continuity are the most tangible elements, for they are more easily measured. Coherence is purely subjective to the user. However, once there are benchmarks established, we evaluate our final criterion by asking, “Does the channel work as expected and make sense.” Once we have proven to withstand our own scrutiny, we can then use these same measures to conduct final user testing.