Nine heuristics for designing cross channel services

Last year myself and two associates completed an extensive piece of work on “Sense Making in Cross Channel Design”. A key theme of this paper was exploring how a customer’s understanding can diminish as they transition between various channels of a service. At the conclusion of the paper we had identified nine useful heuristics, observations or considerations when evaluating or planning a cross channel service.

To start the new year (and to ease me back into the blog after returning from honeymoon), I thought it would be useful to provide a short post that pulls out these nine heuristics.

Interlude: Channel switching and information scent

Before we continue, I feel it is important to highlight the importance of information scent on the degradation of understanding in a service. In our original research paper it became clear just how potentially impairing a channel transition can be to the overall success of a customer in a service (see one of my earlier blog posts). Therefore, several of the heuristics below revolve exclusively around the preservation of information scent across channels i.e. how do we help a customer resume a task that they previously started in another channel in our service.

For a deeper understanding of information scent (or any of the points listed below) then I would read our full paper or refer to either Information Foraging Theory by Pirolli (2007) or Spool et al (2004).

Cross channel design heuristics

So here we are then! Nine heuristics, rules or observations that can be used to support customer understanding and help avoid designing failure states into a cross channel service:

  1. In the digital age, the cost of moving channel is very small. For example, It costs me nothing to shut down a browser when I can’t find what I am looking for. Therefore, if our information layer is weak or ill-informed the likelihood of a customer leaving our service or changing to an alternative channel (or competitor) is high;
  2. When looking for information in a cross-channel user experience, customers are effectively conducting a number of evaluations when moving through and across our channels. They are effectively asking themselves “What is the likelihood that this channel can satisfy my informational needs?” In the event that the answer of that question is “Low” then the customer will either switch channel or leave the service entirely;
  3. Do not under estimate the effect that switching channels can have in reducing or eliminating information scent. Every time a customer changes channel they are effectively resetting the information path and beginning a new information forage;
  4. Do not under estimate the role of time in diminishing information scent for a customer. The length of time between customers switching between channels can range from seconds to days. We must consider the length of time likely to elapse and design strong information scents accordingly;
  5. Clear and immediate proximal cues will need to be provided for the major informational needs on all major entry points for a channel. For example, if your service offers a “my favourites” or “wish list” functionally then ensure it is prominent on all major entry points to the website. These information needs should be identified early in the design process and mapped across channels;
  6. Identify the information needs that need to be carried between channels and provide suitable digital functionality (for example, email links and social sharing) that can carry the information scent for us. The topic of carrying information needs and problems associated with this act are explicitly discussed on this blog here;
  7. Basic consistency in taxonomies is still essential for the reinforcement of a strong information scent across channels. The number of navigational paths that a customer has available to them in any given channel is an important consideration in the success of future information retrieval in alternative channels. How can we aid people in their information retrieval when some channels offer a single path whilst others offer as many as eight or more? In my experience, this point is such a common failing of services that its no wonder their has been a resurgent interest recently in content strategy and classic information architecture (its also one of the reasons why I’m such a fan of responsive web design; from both an information scent as well as an accessibility perspective).
  8. Identify the types of failure states that can result in channel switch in a cross-channel experience as well as the “natural” exit points for a task. For example, an “out of stock” result would immediately halt a customers’ task and necessitate a channel switch just as much as if the customer had successfully found what they were looking for. In such an event , what information can you provide to a customer in transitioning to another channel in your service?;
  9. The digital literacy of your services various audience groups and the relative maturity of some channel interaction patterns could have major impacts in the success of a cross-channel experiences. This last point may just be a factor of time as our industry moves forward and more established interaction patterns are recognised by end users.


Obviously designing services involving multiple channels is a lot more complex than the above nine heuristics. However, over time I have been surprised how often I have seen a failure in a system that can be attributed back to one or more of these points. Use them at the start of a project or half way through, it doesn’t really matter. I consistently find them a useful tool for informing decisions throughout the design process. Happy New Year!

Pirolli, P. (2007). Information Foraging Theory: Adaptive Interaction with Information. Oxford University Press.

Spool, J. M., Perfetti, C., & Brittan, D. (2004). Designing for the scent of information. User Interface Engineering.

Thanks for reading!

If you enjoyed what you read then please do share it, I’m always appreciative of the support.  You can also follow me on Twitter here.

It’s with great pleasure I can announce that I am going on honeymoon for three months with my beautiful new wife! I shall be touring Central America so will continue to blog in January 2014. Thank you for reading

Candidate Moves in Design Thinking

It has been estimated that there are more positions in chess than there are atoms in our solar system. However, at any given time a player is only allowed to make a single move. A single move to enable them to navigate the minefield of complexity in front of them. How does a chess player do this? What implications can this have for design?

When scouring the 64 squares in front of them a chess player is not evaluating every possible move available to them, this would be insane. Instead, good chess players rely upon the principle of candidate moves.

Candidate moves are a collection of moves (usually around 3 or 4) that the chess player has determined to have a suitable level of merit to require a further focus of their attention.

A chess diagram showing a 2D image of a chess position with arrows drawn on to show piece movement

Your move, which path do you choose?

In his excellent book “How to choose a chess move”, Andrew Soltis notes that by move 20 of a chess game a player on average has 38 legal options available to them. Soltis goes on to demonstrate how a good chess player is able to reduce this large decision tree through the application of a method called candidate cues:

  • Tactics: Immediate threats on the board (both offensive and defensive) that must be dealt with;
  • General Principles: Sound principles of play, based on experience, will often indicate to a player a possible good move, for example protecting your king;
  • Positional Desirability: If no tactics present themselves then the strategic positioning of your forces for the long term can throw light onto a potential move;
  • Consistency: If previously you have been engaged in a specific plan then it makes sense to continue down that road (unless your latest assessment has identified a flaw in your plan)
  • Problem Pieces: If nothing else the player may survey their forces and realise that they have a “problem child” that must be improved or removed.

Thus through the application of rules, pattern recognition and experience, a chess player is able to control and harness an incredibly complex environment and determine a course of action.

Candidate Design Moves
Sound familiar? We may not identify such an obvious framework for tackling design problems but certainly the above principles are used daily by me and my colleagues for shortlisting potential design solutions.

In the current movement towards lean methods of working, designers will consistently find themselves under tighter timescales with development teams demanding “the answer” sooner rather than later.

Fast sketching, ideation and co-creation workshops are all popular and invaluable tools for iterating quickly and pushing forward design thinking around a particular topic. I’m sure many of us can relate to the idea of developing large amounts of design ideas in a short space of time with the intention of throwing away 80-90% of them.

Failing to candidate
What I find interesting about the candidate moves concept is how noticeable it is when it is not adopted. I have lost count of the number of chess games I have lost through the immediate impulse move. When looking back in hindsight, I nearly always can attribute the loss to a point in time when I say the immortal words:

I never considered anything else

The great Russian chess players often refer to this as the “programmed move”. How applicable is this flaw to our early design discussions, particularly when we consider the work context of a minimal viable product and a wall of half drawn sketches?

How often, through the need for expediency, are we drawn to the obvious candidate? The one that deals with all of the short term immediate problems but has some positional long term flaw? The move that worked in the last game so why shouldn’t it work in this one?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m a strong advocate for lean design working methods but my question would be this:

  • On your last project how many true candidate moves did you really consider?

Admittedly your design team could just “fail fast and pivot” but in my opinion, a strong set of candidates can allow you to spot potential pivots before they happen.

A strong candidate set
In a chess game, a strong set of candidate moves will often present a player with a range of paths. The risky move with high reward. The unknown move that has never been tried and leads to an uncertain result. The quiet move leading to strategic positioning. Any or all of these moves could be good.

The same is true of our early design discussions. Im not advocating the risky solution over the tried and tested. What I am advocating is the identification of a number of potential design directions and a fair assessment of each.

Every time I have seen a successful product launch it usually had a broad set of potential candidate moves early on in the product design phase.

In my opinion we all become become better designers when we avoid the “obvious choice” and consider all the paths available to us. Embrace your candidate moves and become better at what you do.

Thanks for reading!

If you enjoyed what you read then please do share it, I’m always appreciative of the support.  You can also follow me on Twitter here.

Maintaining the bigger picture in component led design

Design systems have recently been a major talking point in my office and the wider web industry. Whilst not an entirely new idea, the growth in interest in design systems carries a lot of merit and is a direct consequence, in my opinion, of the responsive design and content first movements.

One recent example of the design system way of thinking has been Brad Frost’s term Atomic Web Design. Brad identified five distinct levels in his atomic web design approach:

  • Atoms: Basic building blocks of our sites such as HTML tags;
  • Molecules: A combination of two atoms such as a form label, a field and a button forming a search box;
  • Organisms: Groups of molecules joined together to form a complex distinct part of an interface such as a product listing
  • Templates: These are concrete examples and groups of the above three items. They are typically where we start to see a design come together.
  • Pages: These are specific instances of templates and the most tangible to a user.

There is no doubting that thinking in a more granular / component based, system led approach rather than the “page” is excellent during the design phase of a website. Its excellent for the design team and the client to think in such a way as it enables a consistency of experience, optimisation of elements to be built (why have three carousels when one will do?) and a rationalisation of final templates.

My problem is the end user does not always think like this.

Wayfinding – Paths, Edges, Districts, Nodes and Landmarks

Since the dawn of the web we have called them “web pages” and told the public just as much. Even if as an industry we actually successfully managed to kill the page metaphor (“Kill the page” or “Content only, no navigation” have been two phrases I’ve seen banded around lately) people will still routinely attempt to locate themselves to a “place” within a digital product i.e. “Where am I?”.

The work of the architect Kevin Lynch in the 1950’s  identified a number of methods that people have evolved for navigating around cities. These are as follows:

  • Paths: These are the channels along which people move within the city. For example streets or footpaths.
  • Edges: These are boundaries between two places or regions. They help users group together general areas. For example, a large river bounding a park.
  • Districts: These are medium to large sections of a city. They will have recognisable character traits and be used as reference points.
  • Nodes: These are strategic points which are the focus of directions of travel. For example, crossings or two paths that converge.
  • Landmarks: This is a point of reference that a person cannot typically enter but can enable orientation because it can be seen from a distance. For example, a tall building or mountain.

My own experience has shown me that people routinely see themselves as being in a specific place and often adopt some of these wayfinding techniques to move around within a product or service.

Navigating the bigger picture
What i’m proposing is that particular design components (particularly at the “molecule” and “organism” level of Brad’s atomic distinctions) can be used by customers to orientate themselves within the website i.e. they can act as individual “paths”, “districts”, “nodes” or even “landmarks” in Kevin Lynch’s world.

However, when this happens customers are actually orienting themselves around these components within the context of the bigger picture i.e. the entire site. This is the reason why I feel we must be careful.

In my opinion, customers of a website will never think at the atomic / component levels that we as designers may operate. We may create incredibly flexible design systems featuring interlocking “atoms”, “molecules”, and “organisms” but it is still at the “page” level that we must ensure the site works for customers as this is the predominant metaphor in which they will be operating.

If we are too liberal or flexible in the application of our design systems then, in my opinion, we risk creating serious problems with wayfinding and orientation through homogenisation, repetition or misuse of elements.

Where lies the danger?

My concern with the design system approach is actually not during the design phase. My concern rests with post delivery when the client and subsequent teams of content authors inherit the new site.

Whilst the intelligent content management of a design system can utilise “atoms”, “molecules” and “organisms” to act as Lynch’s “paths”, “nodes” and “landmarks”; they can also be applied in such a ubiquitous and haphazard manner as to render them detrimental to the overall experience.

If a potential major strength of design systems is too aid digital wayfinding through consistency and orientation then, potentially, it is also one of their greatest weaknesses.

Therefore, my intent is to raise the concern that when creating our design systems we have to give serious thought to how and by whom they will be used after delivery.

Gestalt architecture

In writing this article I have found myself finding many parallels to architecture. The way that we design a building can have long lasting consequences for the way that it is inhabited. Both are essential life stages of the building.

Matthew Frederick (2007) wrote an excellent little book called 101 things I learned in Architecture School . I recommend every UX designer read it and absorb the parallels to our profession. One lesson in particular resonates with my point:

Create architectural richness through informed simplicity or an interaction of simples rather than through unnecessarily busy agglomerations.

Matthew goes on to provide some examples of unnecessary complexity in architecture, in particularly he states to avoid:

Agglomerating many unrelated elements without concern for their unity because they are interesting in themselves.

His accompanying diagram couldn’t resonate with this blog post more. Thank you for reading.

12 rectangles are arranged in different configurations on the page. On the left they form a jumbled collective. On the right they are arranged to form the outline of three overlapping rectangles with the smaller ones visible inside. Thus the 12 shapes are reduced to the informed simplicity of three blocks.

Three levels of knowing: Simplicity, Complexity and Informed Simplicity

Thanks for reading!

If you enjoyed what you read then please do share it, I’m always appreciative of the support.  You can also follow me on Twitter here.

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!

If you enjoyed what you read then please do share it, I’m always appreciative of the support.  You can also follow me on Twitter here.

When in doubt: Minimising uncertainty across a service

Doubt. We have all experienced it at some point or another. That nagging feeling about whether we should do something or not. Should we continue or just turn away, choosing another course of action.

In experience design we talk a lot about things like conversion rates, task failure, and the understanding of the customer. However, recently I have been thinking about the distinction between what we consider to be a genuine mistake (for example, a customer’s failure to see the big shiny call to action on the page) and the scenario where a customer has a complete understanding of the situation they are in, they just have a reluctance to proceed.

The wikipedia entry for Doubt states:

…Doubt brings into question some notion of a perceived “reality”, and may involve delaying or rejecting relevant action out of concerns for mistakes or faults of appropriateness.

It is the part about “may involve delaying or rejecting” that interests me. This would seem to imply a customer led conclusion (rightly or wrongly) that the action they are about to engage in will result in some negative consequence.

At this point I would like to make it clear that I am not talking about issues surrounding trust of an organisation per se. I am talking about doubts that a customer feels when they are unclear as to whether their current course of action will adversely affect them now or at some point in the future.

The formation of doubt across a service
Recently I have been thinking that many cross channel services have the potential to instil a higher level of doubt in users over the impact their actions are having across the entire service. Much has been written of the silo-like nature of many services whereby the design of customer touch points in Channel A are vastly different compared to Channel B. Recent examples I have seen include:

The big number on my letter says Account Number but the website is asking for a Customer Reference Number. I better ring them to check


When I looked online yesterday this item had 30% off but now i’m in-store its full price. Ill check on my phone…oh its a different website again…

Remember I am not talking about customer confusion or misunderstanding here (these topics warrant further blog posts themselves). I am talking about a customer having a clear idea of where they are in the system but being reluctant to proceed.

Seeking reassurance
So we find ourselves in a situation whereby a customer is aware of their location in our wider service but due to disparities between our channels they are experiencing a high level of doubt. What typically happens in this situation?

A channel shift. More specifically a shift to a channel that will provide us with a greater sense of reassurance. For example, moving from a “Top Tasks Only” mobile site to the main desktop. Or moving from a desktop to a call centre. Therefore the consequences of these moments of doubt are hitting services twofold:

  • Customers are typically switching to more expensive methods of engagement, for example call centres vs. digital channels;
  • Customers are delaying (or even discontinuing) their engagement with the service, thus adversely affecting conversion rates.

Designing to mitigate the formation of doubt
So how can we design in such way as to mitigate or eliminate the effect that these moments of doubt can have in a service? The discussion around the design of cross channel ecosystems is vast but for the benefits of this blog post lets frame a “moment of doubt” for a customer as follows:

I am in an emotional state because what I am doing is really important to me. Here I am about to proceed with Action X. However, I notice that there is a discrepancy that is jarring with what I know about the system. If I get this wrong, Bad Thing Y is bound to happen. I have alarm bells going off in my head! Should I proceed?

When thinking about doubt in this way, three factors immediately appear as having an effect:

  • Consistency: This will be a critical factor in the likelihood of a moment of doubt forming. Inconsistency across channels in terms of interaction design patterns, terminology and visuals will always set alarm bells off as they naturally imply a difference between what a customer has done before and what a customer is doing now. Differences subconsciously imply that I may be doing the wrong thing!;
  • Clarity of process: Am I aware of the next steps in the process with which I am engaged? Being aware of the bigger picture is critical to a customer when they are experiencing a moment of doubt. It enables a customer to better rationalise the potential consequences of proceeding. It enables a customer to start to ask themselves if their concern is a showstopper that absolutely requires clarification, a minor inconvenience or not a problem at all.
  • Feedback: If I have experienced a moment of doubt during my journey through the service, it is the application of well designed feedback that will alleviate my fears. Good feedback provides that reassurance that we are seeking whenever we feel unsure. Likewise the lack of good feedback is likely to result in an unnecessary channel shift as the customer seeks assurance that they have done the right thing (Avoidable Customer Contact to use the parlance of a call centre manager I have been working with).

My intention with this blog post has been to explore the idea that there maybe value in making a distinction between moments of confusion (“how do i do this?”) and moments of doubt (“I am uncertain whether to proceed”) within a service.

In my opinion, the successful mitigation of moments of doubt would require a holistic service view to be taken in order to identify the interplay between channels. Moments of doubt would appear to be highly contextual in nature as they are inherently made up of a customers wider fears about what it is that they are trying to do. Therefore, your customers doubts will likely be formed based on their perceived interplay of your entire service rather than just the channel they find themselves in at the time.

If this is the case then this leads me to question if most service providers have the level of cross channel understanding required to successfully mitigate these risks?

Somehow I doubt it.

Thanks for reading!

If you enjoyed what you read then please do share it, I’m always appreciative of the support.  You can also follow me on Twitter here.

Cross Channel Snapshot #1: Marks and Spencer’s in-store experience

Here is a quick snap shot of the in-store experience of a Marks and Spencer in Gloucester. As you can see the digital and physical continue to collide. Despite being a busy store it was the one part of the shop that no customer was in (except for me with my crafty and blurry iPhone photography). I wonder why?

Ignoring its low uptake by customers, I like the use of the coat hanger prompts and clear signposting.  However, you wonder how many customers truly understood what they could do in this area of the shop.  I like the idea of these quick and dirty cross channel snap shots so will keep my eyes peeled…

Photo of large call to action on a wall with a large tough screen device underneath.  The call to action tempts customers to search online whilst in the store. Close up of a dress on a coat hanger.  The coat hanger prompts customers to scan the dress at the wall display. Separate touch screen built into the shop wall with a scanner next to it for scanning in items of clothing A close up photo showing the various menu options on the in-store touch screen