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!

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