The unpalatable truth of an evolving multi-platform landscape
User experience practitioners face an unpalatable truth: the factors with the greatest impact on a customer’s impression of a product are usually negative and impossible to predict.
To use a personal example, I have developed an intense dislike for the tiny QWERTY keys of my mobile phone, not because they perform poorly when I’m typing emails (in fact, they work great in this scenario), but because they are hopeless when I try to use the phone as a GPS in my car. Individually the software UI of of the GPS application is perfectly adequate and individually the keys are fine too, but as a combination, and with the added context of a partial attention environment in the car, they represent a poor user experience.
The bad news doesn’t end there. The number of these unplanned experiences is set to increase as the proliferation of digital platforms and the ways to connect them leads to a rise in the potential ‘waypoints’ a customer can navigate to achieve their aim.
Customer journeys are becoming more varied and complex, harder to predict and harder to design for.
What is a multi-platform journey?
I’ve spent a lot of time talking to people about services with multiple touch-points over the last few months in preparation for our MEX Conference on this subject next week. One of the most frequently cited examples is the BBC.
For those unfamiliar with the British Broadcasting Corporation, it is a public service organisation, funded by a mandatory television license payment from every household in the UK which owns a TV. In addition to delivering advertising-free terrestial television, it is also the UK’s largest radio broadcaster, digital TV provider and runs one of the world’s most widely used web-sites.
The BBC as a brand is, quite simply, a national institution, and probably touches the lives of almost everyone in the UK at least once per day through a complex mixture of TV, radio, web, print, live events and digital services.
If we focus on just one area of the BBC’s output – television – we see a perfect illustration of the growing complexity caused by multi-platform customer journeys.
Just 10 years ago you would have been safe in assuming 95% of the BBC’s audience shared a similar context and access device. Television was synchronous (i.e. there’s was no digital catch-up), broadcast in a single quality level (there were no HD or streaming web versions), transmitted over terrestial airwaves and received through an aerial (i.e. there were none of the network speed issues which can affect TV over IP networks). The access device was a television set – primarily of the cathode ray variety – and it would be in a fixed location.
Today’s reality – multiple contexts, multiple access devices, multiple networks
Today, there are myriad journeys the audience could take to reach the BBC’s video content (can we even call it television anymore?) and the variety of context has increased massively.
They could be watching a BBC programme on the 2.5 inch screen of a mobile phone while waiting for the bus, with the content transmitted over a cellular network and interrupted every few minutes by the arrival of text messages. They could be watching the same programme on their laptop in a hotel room thousands of miles from the UK, accessed via a Flash-based video player like YouTube and viewed in the top right-hand corner of their screen while they work on a presentation.
They could even be in a train station, stood beneath one of the BBC’s massive LED-based screens while they wait for their commuter service, talking on the phone or struggling to understand the interface of a digital ticket machine.
In this particular train station scenario, it is easy to imagine how the unplanned combination of balancing a phone between the shoulder and the ear, watching some small text scrolling in a ticker along the bottom of the BBC screen and trying to navigate the confusing buttons of a ticket machine could conspire to break the UX of all 3 simultaneous interactions. The user won’t hear the phone call properly and they won’t be able to look at both the text on the screen and the controls of the ticket terminal.
Who should be concerned?
Where does responsibility for this customer experience lie? Is it even possible to design a solution for such a random set of circumstances? Should practitioners try to anticipate these demands?
In short, the responsibility is universal and, yes, if we believe in the power of good design to make things better we can and should find a way to enhance the user experience – even if that job is becoming more difficult every day.
To achieve success in a future of multiple platforms requires a shift in thinking and a refocusing of design resources.
Finding success at the junction of multiple platforms
Designers which pay as much attention to how their products intersect with other platforms as they do to the refinement of their own interfaces, architectures and services will succeed with truly unbreakable and rewarding user experiences.
The most inspiring customer interactions will occur at the junction of multiple platforms. Users rightly expect that your product will work faultlessly in isolation, but they will reward you with loyalty and passion when they find it can be combined with others to create an overall experience greater than the sum of its parts.
It is natural for the creators of products and services to fear their misuse, but by embracing the human tendency to subvert and adapt our tools for our individual needs, we unleash a collective creativity far greater than one mind alone could achieve.
The responsibility of the mobile industry
I hold the belief that wireless technologies and mobile devices will play the central role in connecting customer journeys across multiple platform.
However, the opportunity to create inspiring, multi-channel experiences should not be limited to digital. Indeed, I would propose that the most compelling user stories will be those which weave together physical and digital platforms.
Digital is becoming ubiquitous. Almost without realising it, many of of us now find ourselves living in a world where the number of our digital interactions vastly exceeds the number of physical.
As such, the perceived value of digital in isolation is falling rapidly. The novelty of communicating by email or enjoying a virtual experience is waning fast.
In contrast, physical, tangible and analogue interactions are perceived to grow in value. The services which command a premium are those which connect us to our most innate senses.
The next macro-challenge facing designers, particularly those with wireless industry expertise, is delivering great user experience at the intersection of multiple physical and digital platforms.
If these issues interest you, join us at the MEX Conference in London next week, where 100 of the deepest thinkers in mobile, digital and media are gathering to debate the MEX Manifesto and define the next stage in evolution of multi-platform user experience.