25 August 2015
Jantine Geldof
Jantine Geldof

Omnichannel customer experiences

A new design challenge

Forget native apps, forget responsive web design, and say hello to omnichannel. We have moved away from the design of a single application, product or service. Increasingly, organizations have to deal with a multitude of them. This evolution is triggered by technology and raises a number of issues, challenges, and problems. How can we create a ‘seamless’ experience across all of the channels? How can we always keep the customer at the center of the design process? And are our tried-and-tested design methods good enough, or do we also need a new way of designing, so-called omnidesign, to meet the needs of the omnichannel challenge? First, let’s look at what we think omnichannel actually is.

So, what is omnichannel anyway?

Omnichannel is the newest kid on the experience block. Everyone has heard about it, talks about it and wants it. As experience designers, we also grapple with this new buzzword. However, when we dismantle the term, aren’t we basically already doing everything that is necessary to create a comprehensive, excellent customer experience, whether it is named omnichannel or not? If we interpret omnichannel as supporting people in choosing multiple (digital) ways to approach the world, and – in particular – to interact with organizations that provide services and sell products, it doesn’t seem to be rocket science, does it? We apply our service design techniques, we know about the latest in content strategy and we put only the best back- and front-end engineers on our projects to deliver stable, user-friendly, and excellent (digital) experiences. We’ve got it covered, right?

However, we still mostly design for one part of the experience, and let others follow in its wake. Does this ensure that customers have the best possible experience every time they connect with an organization, regardless of time, place or device? Or do we need to rethink and adjust the way we approach omnichannel design questions? In this post, I want to look closer into the relationship between omnichannel and experience design, why it is necessary as an organization to be aware of the power of omnichannel, and why we, as designers, should incorporate holistic design in our daily work.

Omnichannel, customer experience and experience design

According to designer Jesse James Garrett, experience design is “(…) the design of anything, independent of medium or across media, with human experience as an explicit outcome and human engagement as an explicit goal“. And whereas omnichannel is immediately related to exactly that ‘independence of medium or across media, with human experience as an explicit outcome’ in itself, it seems to have nothing to do with design. It is a foregone conclusion: the world has gone omnichannel, whether we like it or not. As designers, we should at least be aware of this new omnichannel situation, but ideally, we take it as a lead in our design practice.

People interact with each other, with retailers, with service providers and all sorts of media through multiple channels on every imaginable device at every possible moment of the day. That’s where omnichannel and experience design are related. They intersect in customer experience. Depending on the choices organizations make, someone might get to know them through traditional paper advertising, browse in a physical store to check on product quality, share experiences with friends and family on social media, and then buy online.

Whether or not a customer has an excellent experience, depends not on the fact that all channels are supported (that would be easy!), but on how well the channels are orchestrated. And between the fact that the world has gone omnichannel and the fact that any interaction from people with any channel will result in an experience, lies experience design. Experience designers have the difficult but noble task to positively influence customer experiences in an omnichannel world.

Can I buy it?

If organizations have not paid (enough) attention to how their different channels (and even the most rudimentary of organizations has at least two channels nowadays through which they interact with their customers) are orchestrated, chances are that people will experience the interactions with the organization as incoherent. Although this will influence someone’s opinion, it is not something we should judge too harshly. Or should we?

Many of our clients have been around for a long time, and have gone about their business in the same way for years. A lot of their customers have gotten used to mediocre experiences, yet they still stick around, so why strive for better? To be honest, that type of thinking is more the rule than the exception. We’ve all heard the excuse: “The world is changing so fast that it’s too difficult to make the necessary changes in parallel, especially in my large, layered, siloed organization.”

However, there is a very good reason to strive for better now, because customers are getting more powerful and influential. Most visibly, they discuss their experiences on (public) social media, reaching further with their comments and criticism than back in the day. This can affect organizations and their performance directly. If they do want to keep up, and if they do want customers to favor them over others (as they naturally do), they must transform their entire organization to an “outside-in” thinking approach rather than inside-out, because the inside-out mindset will be out of date in next to no time.

Unfortunately, this is the aspect that many organizations tend to forget when they cry out for an ‘omnichannel approach’: they actually need to change their own ways. So the answer is ‘No, you can’t buy it’, it’s not about adding some extra channels in order to quickly make more money or acquire a better market position. That can be the result, however, if organizations first think about how they can really serve customers best. It means a huge change for most traditional companies, and that’s where strategy and design come in.

Cultural change before design change

As designers we should first ensure that the culture in which we implement an omnichannel design approach is ready to face the new reality. The siloed organization will have to change and turn into an interdisciplinary environment. We no longer design for one channel, but for all channels. The complete ecosystem of the organization is the drawing table, not just ’the app’ or ‘customer service’.

This means that departments will have to work together towards a unified goal. This calls for shared design principles, rules and scope. Did we already say it requires a huge change? It’s worth repeating. Think agile, think outside-in, think ecosystem! As designers we have to take that cultural change into account. It should be something we work on before anything else. If the entire organization can stand by the new culture, then you can move forward towards designing for omnichannel.

One step back to go three steps forward

Designing an excellent omnichannel customer experience calls for an excellent understanding of how people experience a brand. Hi there, service design and customer journeys! We can all hear our clients sigh and say ‘We know our customers, we really do, why look into that?’ But actually, this step will help to move three steps forward towards an excellent omnichannel customer experience. Because it means customer needs and expectations are going to be at the heart of major decisions in future, instead of those decisions being based a whim of the marketing department, or on long-term strategy that has been caught up by new possibilities or the limitations of technology.

One important thing to take into account when designing for omnichannel, is that we, designers, have to let go of the illusion that we can control everything in our design. Exactly because omnichannel is customer-central, this customer will have their own voice that will be heard. And that is something beyond our sphere of influence. This can be intimidating, especially for organizations who have gotten used to being powerful, omniscient and, well, in control. However, by carefully examining the effect of customer voices on a brand, we can turn it into an advantage. And, as often in life, where we create space, something surprising will get a chance to grow. And if you don’t believe me, have a look at the huge success of a certain brand of pasta sauce Noz Urbina refers to in his presentation On Omnichannel and Adaptive Content (excerpt starts at 22:40).

So, is omnichannel worth its buzz?

We say it is, because it makes us aware of the necessity to rethink how we design for excellent customer experiences and how we can help organizations to interact with their customers in an omnichannel world. It is not utopian to envision an app that learns from interactions with its user, for example a train app that stores requested times and departure stations and comes up with hints whenever a user opens the app at a certain time or place. This probably already exists! But it requires a thorough knowledge of how people use channels and how technology can serve their (often hidden) needs.

From experience design we have all the tools and methods that also apply to omnichannel experience design. Except this new situation requires integrative thinking regarding design, organization and expertise. The success of omnichannel design lies for a large part in the organization’s willingness to change its culture, implement interdisciplinary design and introduce collaboration between all areas of expertise. As designers we can be of use there, because these are the conditions under which we all should work. If these conditions are met, we can start! If they are not, we can be a catalyst for organizational change, and, ultimately, for excellent omnichannel customer experiences.

About the author

Jantine Geldof (@JantineG) has eight years of experience as a web editor and content designer. Working at Informaat, she focuses on structuring and creating content that enhances customer experience. She has a particular interest in storytelling. Jantine has a Master’s degree in comparative literature from Utrecht University.

Customer experience (78), Omnichannel (5)