UX Magazine

Defining and Informing the Complex Field of User Experience (UX)
Article No. 547 August 24, 2010

Don’t Become a Digital Dinosaur

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Design for the Space Between

I’m feeling old. I’ve been in this business long enough that I remember thinking how cool I was for working on a website. That Internet thing was just taking off. Ask Jeeves was the edgy new way to search and Google was a little known website, not a verb. I worked Amazon.com, which was still positioning itself as "Earth’s Biggest Bookstore." It was all Web all the time, and improving the experience on websites was all I thought about.

Then two things happened to broaden my perspective. First, I got a smartphone. Now I could check the traffic before choosing the bridge route, or walk down the street while browsing for a Cuban-Asian restaurant with outdoor seating. And then I started working for REI, a company that had been around over 50 years, whose website was just the youngest sibling in a successful brick-and-mortar, catalog, and call-center business. Using the REI website was just one way people interacted with us, and their perception of their experience with our company was influenced by any other interaction they had with us, whether digital or physical. Suddenly my website only focus seemed limited when I considered all of the other touchpoints my new company had with its customers.

My team could optimize the user experience on the website, email, or mobile, but what about when a customer researched a product online and bought it in one of our 100+ stores? This is not an uncommon practice. According to Forrester, 53% of U.S. online consumers say they research products online that they subsequently buy offline. Other studies have placed that percentage even higher. The experience a customer has in a store or via a call center (terrible IVRs, anyone?) can be just as critical as the website to their overall experience and satisfaction.

With the potential for mobile phones replacing credit cards just around the corner in the U.S. and already prevalent in Asia, we may no longer need our wallet to make a brick-and-mortar purchase. Capabilities like mobile payments are driving personal technology to merge more and more with our physical environment and experiences. The Internet is no longer a separate experience where we have to sit down in front of a computer.

We Need to Think About Integrated Experiences

New technologies and capabilities have caused consumers to be even more demanding. We expect to choose when and how we interact with products and services. We often interact with a brand/company over time via multiple sites, apps, and services instead of through just a single event. I recently went on a cross-country trip and, as usual, I bought my plane tickets via the airline's website. The 24-hour flight check-in came along and I wanted to change my seat. But I was enjoying time by the pool and didn't want to leave to find a computer. Isn’t that what my iPad or iPhone are for? But the airline hadn’t done the work to provide me ability to change my seat with either of these devices. I wanted to interact with the airline's services via a different touchpoint at a different point in time, and I wasn't allowed to do so.

UX professionals can’t constrict a user’s experience to specified devices, touchpoints, or time periods. As devices integrate with each other and with the real world, we have to design for this integration and blurring. This new world requires a different way of thinking about UX and design.

The UX community spends a lot of time talking about how much technology is advancing and how to respond to the rise of touch and gestural interfaces. These subjects are important, but I think it is even more critical to work on the holistic customer experience—across channels, across devices, and across time and space. I can do yoga with my Wii, order delivery of artisan pizza via an iPad, or use Skout on my iPhone to virtually flirt with people within a walkable distance and then meet them in person at the local bar.

UX Professionals Need to Design for the 'Space Between'

The true impact of new technological capabilities that integrate with our lives is a blurring of the line between physical and digital experiences. We need to design for the space between—the space between touchpoints, interfaces, and channels. The space between making a flight reservation online, changing my seat via an app and then getting to the airport and only then discovering that my "approved" carry-on luggage actually doesn’t fit that style of 737. We can’t just think about optimizing a retail website experience when the physical store experience doesn’t connect. Often the signage, prices, and even the products themselves are different.

Even companies without physical presences should think about the on- and off-ramps to their websites. As customers rely on Google and social media to direct them to pages deep within relevant websites, we can no longer just design for people landing on our home page. For many companies’ websites, traffic from those sources is greater than from direct load via a URL. Word-of-mouth references are exploding via Twitter and Facebook, and QR codes can take us from Times Square to a mobile site. Our users are coming from everywhere!

The Rise of Customer Experience

We should be thinking about all of the interfaces with users. This broader perspective is often called customer experience, and it’s gaining tremendous traction with our marketing peers and in business strategy for corporations and non-profits alike. I’ve been to many marketing conferences, and every session in the last couple of years has seemed to focus on improving the customer experience. Of all of these marketing seminars, I can only remember one that was presented by someone with a UX-related background. And yet, who are the best people to be planning, prioritizing, and strategizing for improved customer experiences? As practitioners and thinkers in a discipline that has always been all about the customer, aren’t UX professionals the best people to lead this effort?

As UX professionals, we need to extend our reach beyond just experiences for the Web and mobile applications. A website or mobile app might comprise just one interaction—one touchpoint—in the end-to-end experience that users have during their journey to complete their goals. For users, these interactions are usually a means to an end, a path to a desired goal rather than the goal itself. I don’t want to buy a tent; I want to have a warm and dry shelter so that I can enjoy an overnight experience in the outdoors. I don’t want to read a new article railing against BP for the oil spill disaster; I want to feel as though I’m part of a tribe of like-minded individuals. UX professionals can participate in delivering that desired goal by designing for the whole experience across touchpoints and channels.

Information Scent Across Touchpoints

Creating the design and interactions of an engaging experience is only one piece of the customer experience puzzle. We also have to think about providing information scent across experiences and touchpoints. There need to be clues and cues for our customers that are clear and consistent, and that entice them toward their desired outcome. A consistent and integrated customer experience requires consistent information architecture and design principles that can be leveraged across all interactions with a company.

Andrea Resmini and Luca Rosati discuss the need for "a holistic approach to information architecture and user experience," stressing that information has become pervasive across channels and touchpoints. Peter Morville feels that this is an "era in which information blurs the boundaries" across experiences and that we need to consider better ways to design our information to support the variety of digital and physical interactions that make up our current experiences.

Next Steps

There is a wealth of rich, new challenges for available for us in designing, architecting, and building these holistic customer experiences that engage, satisfy, and inspire across channels and mediums. UX professionals should be excited, not stressed, about all of these new concepts that will help us stay relevant and provide the best possible experiences. We can continue to do what good UX designers have always done: borrow from other professions. Wayfinding, service design, and customer experience management are just a few disciplines that offer helpful tools and methods. In my next article, I’ll review some specific tools and ways of thinking that can help us design for the space between and the full customer experience.

The concept of the "digital dinosaur" used in this article’s title was from a session proposal for SXSW 2011 that I submitted jointly with Jess McMullin, who came up with the session title.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR(S)

User Profile

Samantha Starmer leads experience, design and IA teams at REI (Recreational Equipment Inc.). Her recent focus has been evangelizing and creating holistic customer experiences across channels, time and devices. She regularly teaches at the University of Washington’s Information School and enjoys being active in the UX and IA communities. She is creating a new blog, but in the meantime, you can follow her on Twitter at @samanthastarmer.

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Comments

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Great article Samantha. This is a nice overview of experience design. I completely agree with the idea that to deliver good experience, we must design interactions across multiple touch points. Looking forward to reading more from you.

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Building out a site from scratch on your own is not as easy as it was 15 years ago when I started as well :P

Now days you need to get the best in so many filed just to stick your head above the sand. With all the years of experience I have helping so many brands win awards and brand awareness(as a flash developer) running my own startup is just not as easy as sitting in a big advertising company with millon $ budgets that can buy you what ever talents you need.

great article remotivating me to think more UX on my site :p

Cheers.

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Is there an example of a fully designed experience, including the space between, out there today? Or something that comes kinda close even?

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I completely agree. My company has been talking about this for years, as integrated branding (in fact we coined the phrase). We think that by looking at customers’ experiences through the lens of a device-less world that is technology agnostic, then, and only then, will we see the world through our customers’ eyes and be able to design experiences that help them achieve their goals. People don’t shop at Target because they have a mobile app, they shop at Target because they want something they have and will use whatever device or mode is most convenient for them at the time to get it. We, as brands, just need to make sure we allow them to get it they way they want to.

This requires you dive into your customers’ shoes and figure out all the ways you can help them achieve their goals (which first assumes you know your customers and their goals). So, rather than first jumping on a specific device or platform’s bandwagon (iPad, iPhone, Facebook, Twitter…), we start by asking, “what is the customer trying to achieve and what are all the ways I can help them achieve it?”. It is both an eye opening and liberating exercise that helps us get beyond the technology of the moment to the technology solutions yet to come.

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Totally agree, have been thinking and working on this for some years now. However the difficulty is to change structure within a company, management and make people understand the benefits of 360 degree customer experience.

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Thanks for the recent comments!

Erin, I completely agree that organizational alignment and communication is key in order to design holistic customer experiences across channels.  In many companies, the website is separate from other aspects of the business; sometimes even a separate legal entity!  Finding ways to at first inform each other on what/how we communicate with customers is key, then the (harder) process of coordinating and collaborating can start.

Darryl, I really like your addition of considering materials, manufacturing processes and ecological impact as part of the experience.  This is something very important for my company, and while I have thought some about the supply chain aspects like packaging, your contribution will make me target that a bit more.  Thank you.

New View Media, thanks for your perceptive note that this 'new' change may not really be so new.  I've heard about 'multi-channel' communication for a long time, but until recently it has seemed that many people's focus was communicating in multiple places vs. having a unified experience across each place.  I think the sweet spot is that 'space between' each communication or experience in the customer's journey.  How do the handoffs occur?  And I love your point that not every company needs a mobile app.  The world could be a better place if we truly thought about when/how our experiences would benefit customers :)

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Excellent article about the new age of communication across multiple platforms. Really this new change is no different from the basics of the old marketing mix (business card, brochure, website, marketing, etc).

Today the new buzz words are mobile, gps, social, etc. The question is how to harness these new ideas to give potential customers better service. Not every company needs a mobile app. Not every company will benefit from Facebook or Twitter the same way.

Researching and understanding your target market and how they can interact with your brand is key to moving forward. Decrease the clutter and focus on goals and the most effective sales process.

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Enjoyed your post. This next-level, holistic approach to CX is bringing huge value to the companies employing it. As a longtime UX practitioner, I'm looking for a path to this next level in my career.

P.S. Hi Erin Hawk!

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Thought provoking post Samantha, thanks. You've really touched on a number of important concepts UX designers should start thinking about.

From my perspective, designing for the spaces between must also encompass things such as materials, manufacturing processes and ecological impact. If a user experience is to be truly holistic we need to consider the birth, life, and death of a product (cradle to cradle design) —in my mind this represents the entire user experience.

Personally, I want to know if the toothbrush or smartphone I just purchased last week incorporates materials which can be effectively recycled and repurposed -not stuck in a landfill for generations.

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Great article Samantha! I think a major point you make in your response to the comments (and allude to in the body of the article) is one of the most important. Designing for the spaces in between requires everyone to be on board and communicating with one another. That "information scent" breaks down at once if the people designing the information that appears in print signage and materials in the brick-and-mortar store don't talk with the people designing the digital channels (website, mobile app, mobile site, etc) or the people in the call center who give out information over the phone. While the user experience team tends to be in a great position to be the thought leaders in a company about this, it definitely requires bringing everyone along and changing how different teams and divisions in an organization communicate on a day-to-day basis.

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Thanks for the comments, Amber, Justin and Michael. 

Michael, I like you you frame the idea that a brand has an entire digital ecology.  In so many companies there are organizational silos that keep us locked into one or two specific components of the overall experience a customer has with the brand, and it can be tough to design better experiences across the touchpoints when we may not even know how our Marketing peers are driving traffic, for example.  Finding ways to have that cross-divisional communication seems to be key for getting started thinking about the full ecology.

Justin, you make an excellent point about the challenges of selling a more 'fuzzy wuzzy' set of work around improving the customer experience.  I'll share some ideas in a later article, but I've found that using specific examples that resonate with the person/company you are trying to sell to works well.  For example, I use a different customer experience improvement/opportunity example with the direct marketing team vs. the retail operations team.  Getting as specific as possible helps add real life edges to the fuzzy wuzzy.

 

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Excellent article and I particulary enjoyed your reference to "space between". I jumped onto the "smartphone" bandwagon just today (held out as long as I could) and went with the iPhone. First thing I noticed is Apple's constraint on the use of flash when my favorite website did not work as it was designed.
The computing security community has recently learned that partnering with each other (even competing companies) to share information is best for the "good of the whole".
I look forward to future articles to learn how to better align Business and the UX community to color together in the "space between".

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Excellent article. A user experience is now a brand experience. That needs to be top of mind when designing the simplest of forms or the most complex applications.

Justin, I feel your pain. Many clients still haven't gotten their head around the website as a channel. Trying to educate them on how their brand has an entire digital ecology (whether they like it or not) is a big leap for many.

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Great post! I agree - I think the future of UX is in a much larger and holistic approach to design, instead of simply designing static artifacts to the exclusion of the ecosystem.

Now, there's a bigger challenge for us. If we UX designers are the best to lead this holistic design effort, as I think we are, how do we sell it?

As the owner of a UX company, I have to think about how to clearly communicate to potential clients what it is we do, and how we can help them. This widening presents a challenge, as a narrow approach to our activities and territory is innately easier to explain. "What do you do?" is easily answered with "I make websites and applications easier to use". When the answer becomes "I help design a better customer experience", clients start to glaze over and have a harder time understanding how they can use our help.

I've tried the above sales approach, and it was met with, "So, do you do customer service training?" and similar questions. While I believe in my gut that the widening of our purview is good for both the discipline and the companies we work with, finding the outer boundaries is going to be crucial to selling what we do, and having the opportunity to make companies better through the application of great design.

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I too have been on the web for as long as I can remember and have seen it change from being something "cool and nerdy to use" to being a daily must have for most people. Right now the web is going through a major shift from being a computer based action to something across several different media devices, and I think it's going to be a few years before most sites really adjust well.