Seamlessness in the Cross-Channel User Experience

by Nielsen Norman Group on November 24, 2013

Summary: A seamless user experience, regardless of channel or device, is one of the 4 requirements for a usable cross-channel experience. Companies and organizations that allow users to switch channels while completing tasks have a competitive advantage.


Users interact with companies and organizations through many channels, including the web, mobile and tablet applications, email, kiosks, online chat, and by speaking with customer representatives in a physical location or over the phone. When users engage with an organization through a specific channel, they don't consider it to be the "email channel" or the "web channel" (as companies may internally talk about these touch points), they see it as one of the many interactions that make up their overall user experience with the company.

Our user research on Cross-Channel User Experience identified 4 key elements of a usable cross-channel experience:

The following article discusses why seamlessness is important in the cross-channel experience.

Designing for the Entire Journey, Not a Single Interaction

Users often don’t complete an activity in one sitting or through a single channel.

  • In some situations, users aren’t able to complete an activity in one go because they are interrupted.
  • In other instances, users move from one digital channel to another, such as from a website to online chat.
  • Or they move from the digital world to the physical world—and vice versa—by choice or necessity.

For these reasons, it’s important that companies and organizations offer a seamless experience as users move from channel to channel to complete activities. The continuity of experience will become increasingly important as the line between the digital and physical worlds continues to blur.

Helping Users Recover from Interruptions

In some situations, time constraints and distractions force users to put tasks on hold. These interruptions can come from:

  • within the channel (e.g., a pop-up advertisement that covers part of the user’s screen),
  • another channel (e.g., a phone call that pulls the user away from his online research),
  • the environment (e.g., a coworker who interrupts the user while she is reading an article using a mobile news app), or 
  • the individual (e.g., the user is distracted by another task, such as checking his email, while he is watching an online training video).

Such interruptions can cause users to abandon an activity on one channel or device and pick it up again on another. Users should be able to pick up where they left off, regardless of the device or channel they choose to continue the activity on.

For example, imagine watching a television show or movie via Amazon Prime on your laptop in the airport. When it’s time to board your flight, you stop the program and turn off your laptop. When you access the Amazon Prime app on your phone or tablet while you wait for your flight to takeoff, the episode continues from where you left off even though you were previously watching the program on another device.

As shown in the screenshots, the tablet user experience is better than the phone design, but in either case Amazon delivers a seamless cross-channel experience, like we recommend.

           

The Amazon Prime tablet and mobile phone experience allows users to continue watching an episode or movie from where they left off, regardless of the device they were previously using. On the tablet, a clear and noticeable "Resume Episode 1" button displays. On the mobile device, a less noticeable green progress bar displays, indicating that the episode has been partially watched.

Let’s compare this experience to Pandora, a personalized music streaming service. Imagine you are listening to a music station on your mobile device while you are in your car. When you sit down at your computer, you pull up the Pandora site. The station you were listening to on your mobile device does not play. Instead, the previous music channel you had been listening to from computer plays. This experience isn’t continuous between channels and devices.

It is possible that users may not want to listen to the same music station in different environments (in the car, at the gym, in the office, at home). Finding out is where user research is critical. However, in many projects, cross-platform difficulties arise from a lack of considering this level of user experience that sits above each of the constituent user interface designs.

Supporting Users as They Move From the Digital World to the Physical World

Not only do we have to provide seamless experiences after interruptions, we also have to be aware of users who move among various digital channels as well as from the digital world to the physical world (and vice versa). Users do so when:

  • They want to move from the digital world to the physical world, or vice versa. For example, a shopper finds a pair of shoes he wants to purchase. While on the site, he engages with the customer service chat to see if a nearby store carries the shoe, as he cannot locate the information on the site. He visits the store to try on the shoes. When he buys the shoes, he opts to have his receipt emailed to him. (He could have completed the entire order online, but he chose to visit the store instead.)
  • The experience requires them to transition from the digital world to the physical world, or vice versa. For example, a user purchases a movie ticket from a theater’s website on desktop computer. When he gets to the theater, he uses the mobile application to choose a seat and display his ticket.

Experiences that Require Users to Move from the Digital World to the Physical World

To illustrate, let’s look at a couple examples. A user in our study received a California Pizza Kitchen coupon via email. The email alerted her that a new coupon had been added to the California Pizza Kitchen’s Pizza Dough app on her mobile device. In order to redeem the coupon, she had to go to a restaurant and check in to the restaurant using the app. Once she had checked in, she received a code to pass along to her waiter.

    

The California Pizza Kitchen mobile app manages coupons and rewards, but the experience isn’t as seamless as it could be.

This process was fairly simple, but it could have been streamlined. For example, instead of asking this user to check in to receive a coupon code to give to the waiter, it would have been easier to simply provide a memorable coupon code (e.g. SAVE10) within the app so the customer could simply tell the server. This would remove 2 steps for the user: checking into the restaurant and remembering the code or showing the server the code on her phone. Even better, the coupon code could have been provided in the original email, and the user could have printed it or pulled it up on her phone at the restaurant. And in a perfect world, the user could have simply stated the code she received in her email if it was memorable.

Of course, California Pizza Kitchen provides unique codes to their customers so they can track the customers who are redeeming coupons. Additionally, they should be using the unique code to update the customer’s account with a new total amount spent as this impacts the coupons that are sent to the customer. Unfortunately, in this example, the user in our study did not receive a credit for the money she spent on this meal.

Moving from the Digital World to the Physical World by Choice

A more streamlined experience is provided by The Home Depot. A user in our study was shopping for a new drill on The Home Depot’s website using his desktop computer. He found a drill he was interested in, and he checked the inventory at a nearby store. Since the drill was in stock, he decided to go to the store to purchase it. He emailed the product information to himself (using the email feature on the product-detail page). When he arrived at the store, he opened the email on his mobile phone and clicked on the link within the message. The product-detail page loaded and indicated the aisle where the drill was located, as well as listing the number of drills available at that store.

The Home Depot website allows users to check the availability of products at local stores. This saves people a phone call (or a trip to the store) to see if the item is available at a nearby store.

The Home Depot’s mobile site tells users the aisle where the product is located.

As compared to the experience of redeeming a coupon at the California Pizza Kitchen, this user’s experience of moving from the digital world to the physical world was fairly seamless. The user was not bogged down by unnecessary processes. Additionally, the mobile website provided some critical information that was context specific—the number of available products and the aisle where the user could find them.

Seamlessness: 1 of 4 Recommended Cross-Channel Characteristics

As companies and organizations design for the larger user experience, it’s important to consider a user’s path or journey as they complete an activity. Many times, users complete activities across more than one channel over a period of hours, days, or even weeks. Allowing users to continue their task from any device will differentiate companies from those that provide a clunky and disjointed experience.

In addition to being seamless, cross-channel experiences must be consistent, available and optimized for the channel. Our full day course on Omnichannel Journeys and Customer Experience covers these recommended characteristics further.


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