The Trouble with Resumption: Transitions in a modern service ecosystem

“Where was I?” Three little words that all of us have muttered when we return to something that we put on hold. It could have been five minutes or five days but either way we speak them aloud in an effort to refresh our memory. The phrase “Where was I?” is interesting because it leads to a subject that I have been thinking a lot about: transitions.

When I talk about transitions in the context of a modern service I am talking about the movement of a customer across various channels, typically following a period of elapsed time. This movement could include:

  • moving from Channel A (e.g. a website) to Channel B (e.g. a retail store);
  • returning to the same channel that you previously visited (although when considering responsive web design we could be looking at the same website on a different device…).

From discussions and experience, the phrase transition doesn’t seem to do justice to the significant realignment required on the behalf of a customer when shifting channels.

Therefore I have started referring to these channel movements as Macro Transitions to differentiate them from the smaller transitions that we typically design on a day to day basis.

What, Where and Why

Commencement of an activity following a macro transition can cause considerable problems for a customer. Immediately following a channel shift there are three obvious challenges that must be overcome that I like to call the three W’s:

  • “What was I doing?” – The customer must remember what they were thinking about before they stopped;
  • “Where was I?” – The customer must remember the very point where they previously stopped;
  • “Why am I here?” – The customer must place the new channel in the context of their overall goal.

Several others before me have discussed the concept of cross channel understanding (Andrea Remini’s and Luca Rosati’s 2011 classic Pervasive Information Architecture is a must read). However, for the benefits of this post it is a term coined by Joel Grossman in 2006 (in an article for UX Matters) that has resonated with me: “Designing for Bridge Experiences”.

Building bridges: The role of 3rd party applications

The bridge metaphor is apt when considering macro transitions as it perfectly sums up the problem we face as experience designers. We are trying to get a customer to cross a giant chasm in order to continue their journey.

As we have moved further towards cross channel ecosystems, the construction of these metaphorical bridges has been increasingly provided by third party applications and services.

In recent years there has been a proliferation of applications and services whose success is based on their ability to construct a bridge across channels. Some popular candidates here would include Dropbox, Pinterest, Evernote and QR code readers.

Hopefully this small list demonstrates to you the type of applications and services I am talking about. Each of these services or applications have the ability to reduce a customers pain when making a macro transition:

  • Dropbox: I can access files from any device I choose. I no longer have to worry about remembering to leave the house with the right file when i want to work on something;
  • Pinterest: When shopping I can pin something I like to one of my boards so that I do not have to worry about finding the same item again from whatever website I was on. I can access that board from Pinterest on my phone when I am standing in the high street store thus allowing me to continue my purchase journey;
  • Evernote: In a similar fashion to Pinterest, I can create folders for my interests and email things to myself that I can access at a later point from any web browser;
  • QR code readers: If implemented correctly then QR codes have the ability to help a customer jump the chasm from the offline world to some deep place in the online world, for example a specific product page in a large website.

Is there a problem?

So whats the problem you might say? As our society has embraced digital, certain companies have spotted opportunities to offer bridge building services. Good on them!

Thats not my issue, I love my Dropbox and Evernote! My question concerns the number of people in society who are using these services. Lets take a quick look at the number of global users for some of these bridge building services we have mentioned:

  • Dropbox: 100 million users
  • Pinterest: 49 million users
  • Evernote: 60 million users

So if these figures are correct then we are talking in the region of 200 million users (assuming some level of overlap). At this point I should acknowledge that there are other bridge building behaviours (for example emailing yourself links) that customers use but these are difficult to measure.

However, it still seems to me that there are potentially a lot of web users out there attempting to perform these macro transitions without any help whatsoever. Thats a lot of people struggling with the “What, Where and Why” and thats my problem with many existing cross channel experiences.

The trouble with resumption

Easing the burden of a macro transition typically relies upon a customer being both digitally savvy and proactive enough to adopt a bridge building service or application. I would argue these types of individuals are in the minority when compared to the total target population of many services.

Maybe this is only a temporary problem given the state of technology, the publics level of digital literacy and the range of commercially available alternatives in 2013. Whilst I love the concept of Just in Time Interaction, we are not there yet.

In my opinion, as long as navigating a macro transition relies on the proactive downloading of an application then there will always be a significant proportion of our target audience who will struggle in our services.

I will revisit the topic of transitions again but to conclude I want to leave you with a quote from the fantastic Thinking in Systems by Diana Wright and Donella Meadows. The quote comes from an old Sufi story and to me sums up everything about dealing with transitions in modern service ecosystems:

You think that because you understand “one” that you must therefore understand “two” because one and one make two. But you forget that you must also understand “and”

Thanks for reading!

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3 thoughts on “The Trouble with Resumption: Transitions in a modern service ecosystem

  1. Pingback: The Trouble with Resumption: Transitions in a modern service ecosystem - Return change through QR not coins

  2. I’m surprised that no smartphone (to my knowledge) ships with an in-built QR code reader. Requiring: 1) an awareness and understanding of QR codes, and 2) a dedicated, downloaded app to read them creates a pretty high barrier to entry.

    On the other hand, if the default smartphone camera apps could recognise QR codes, confusion and frustration would ensue when photographing scenes where QR codes are visible in the background.

    This makes me wonder whether it’s more fitting to think of these bridges as the cross-channel equivalent of user interface accelerators: expert shortcuts that make life easier for advanced users, but remain unseen by novice users, who may find them a hindrance rather than a help.

    • Thanks for the comment Aled, hope your well.

      Your exactly right, they are accelerators but only for a proportion of the total audience. I think any service requiring a high level of proactivity for success is going to struggle.

      What I didn’t mention was the elephant in the room of company specific applications: “Download our app NOW”. I’d love to see more stats on the use of these in cross channel journeys but that’s very hard to track. My suspicion is they are low as the Just in Time Interaction video in my post would indicate.

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