Written by Danny Bluestone

Two years ago, Forbes declared the future of digital commerce as omni-channel. If you have a website and a customer service phone line, you are already a multi-channel business. But what is omni-channel, as opposed to cross-channel, and what implications does it have on your UX strategy?

Cross-channel experiences describe customers who use different channels for engagement with a product or service. Omni-channel extends cross-channel engagements so the experience ‘loops’ continuously across channels in-line with the customer’s motivation and habits. With Omni-channel experiences, the customer may use multiple channels at the same time.

The need for omni-channel UX has arisen because connected consumers are now interacting with brands in evermore varied and unpredictable ways, often transitioning between channels throughout a single purchase and throughout the product or service lifecycle relationship with the brand. For instance, when I bought my car, I initially did a lot of online research, visited a showroom to look at models, and used my mobile to check competitor pricing while there. Post purchase, I frequently visited the manufacturer’s website and Googled infotainment software updates to fix glitches, searched social media and forums, and even called the dealer. I anticipated receiving software update notifications by email or SMS but that sadly did not happen, so I continue to monitor the web for updates, but would far prefer to use a dedicated web page or native app that keeps customers in the loop.

In this ever-changing technological landscape it’s not enough to offer multiple channels or even to create a great experience in each. The trick is to put users at the center of your multi-channel design, offering a strategic omni-channel approach that lets users act on their product or service triggers and motivations regardless of the channel. Only then can you achieve a brilliant experience for every user, regardless of how they interact with your brand.


The Nielsen Norman Group conducted research last year that presented four cross-channel design principles that help designers with multi channel challenges. In this article, I added a fifth principle (channel neutrality) and my own interpretation of their research in a succinct format. Below are the five elements that are essential to successful omni-channel design:


1. Consistency

Cutting-edge UX has become more strategic than just web design. Users expect a consistent and meaningful experience in every interaction with your company. I’m not just referring to brand consistency, rather something much broader: screens being familiar, buttons being where they are expected, a homogeneous tone of voice, and uniformed functionality. When consistency is lacking, your credibility may suffer.

For example, the Nespresso iOS app does not have the same basket information that the website does even when the same user is logged into both. If the basket content was consistent between platforms, the customer’s shopping experience would be more convenient, and potentially result in more sales.

2. Availability

Availability is about offering choice. With omni-channel the role of the UX professional has grown from an initial consideration of web, mobile, and email screens to fusing a myriad of online and offline channels, including the way the channels themselves interact.

It’s not enough to offer multiple channels or even to create a great experience in each

Consumers want to be able to choose when, where, and how they interact with your brand based on their personal habits and motivations. Consequently, it’s important to offer a wide range of channels and ensure availability of key activities (and, ideally, less common interactions as well) across all touchpoints.

There are exceptions where this isn’t possible, or really doesn’t make sense, in which case users need to be transitioned to the appropriate channel as quickly and seamlessly as possible. Amazon’s Kindle app does this brilliantly. As well as letting users purchase Kindle tablets and purchase books there, it allows users to buy eBooks on the main Amazon website and send them to the Kindle device. The brand even released multiple apps for iOS and Android devices meaning that the customer can engage with the product and service, regardless of the device they are on.

3. Channel-Neutrality

When consumers jump between touchpoints, they assume they will see the same data and options across all platforms, so an omni-channel UX approach is by definition channel neutral.

It may be tempting to promote a single channel (such as a native app) and drive customers there, however it is not recommended and there are plenty of examples of both customers and designers complaining about the #doorslam phenomenon on Twitter. A business driver for one channel may have the unintended consequence of creating a poorer perceived experience in alternative channels.

Furthermore, the concept of a specific channel “under-performing” is alien to omni-channel UX. The historic competition between channels is replaced by channel-neutrality as all touch points work in tandem to provide the best all-round user experience. For instance, an app that isn’t generating direct sales may still be contributing to sales by offering directions to a store or access to customer reviews while in store.

This could have far reaching implications on your corporate structure as previously competing teams now need to work together. But it can have equally far-reaching implications on the customer experience. Take, for example, Tesco’s app that enables you to use your Clubcard even when you’ve left it at home. While it doesn’t seem to offer the physical coupons and money back offers (besides alerts), Tesco does seem to be adopting a channel-neutral approach to add further customer value.

4. Context-Optimisation

As if to directly contradict the previous point, context-optimisation enables you to really maximize the value of an omni-channel approach. It can also offer the opportunity to differentiate yourself and enhance customer engagement by leveraging the specific technological capabilities of each channel (e.g. cameras, GPS, in-store kiosks, and printing).

A great example is the way that Nespresso allows U.S.-based customers to print pre-paid labels on its portal and send packs of old capsules via its Capsule Brigade recycling program. In doing so they are harnessing the capabilities of desktop computing, providing context-optimized experiences that enable customers to get rid of rubbish, and helping the planet at the same time. A simpler example is the Starbucks website allowing users to load up their Starbucks loyalty card, while their mobile app enables them to pay for their coffee on the fly. Similarly, a mobile banking app might be optimized for a user to check their balance and locate the nearest branch, whereas the desktop website might emphasise setting up a direct debit or creating a new savings account.

By utilizing the technology of each channel and by considering how different channels might be better suited to different interactions, omni-channel can take the user experience to a whole new level.

5. Seamlessness

With omni-channel, the same basket data, inventory, promotions, customer account information, and purchase history should be available in all channels.

Customers should be able to pause an activity (whether that’s purchasing, returning an item, or conversing with your customer service department) and resume it later from an alternative touchpoint. This seamlessness between channels requires a holistic, real-time view of the customer and back-end integration between all channels.

Starbucks, for instance, blurs the lines between the digital world and the physical world by geo-fencing the membership card to appear on the customer’s smartphone the minute they enter pre-selected coffee shops. Similarly, Disney’s smartphone app allows park guests to check attraction wait times so they can improve their own experience in real-time. They even offer “MagicBands”—connected bracelets that act as a painless central link between everything from purchasing food to unlocking hotel doors.

Conclusion

Omni-channel experiences should aim to provide 360-degree engagement between brands and their customers across all channels and touch-points. While many stand-alone websites, social media pages, and apps are strong by themselves, it’s important to remember that a true omni-channel experience needs to be designed around people and their needs. It’s often both expensive and challenging to create a backend platform and APIs to facilitate a true omni-channel experience across multiple channels. Despite the complexity, it’s entirely worth the investment, ensuring satisfied, returning customers and even creating the potential to transform customers into brand ambassadors.