Making Sense of the Cross Channel Experience

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of attending the Architectures of Meaning workshop at Pervasive 2012. The workshop discussed how information architecture is adapting and changing in light of the explosion of multiple channels (e.g. desktop, laptop, mobile, retail store, kiosk etc) that now deliver information and that information transcends.

Attendees at the workshop were invited to submit papers discussing the topic of the formation of “Architectures of Meaning”. That is systems, services or eco-systems that operate across both digital and physical spaces and are designed to support a user in the formation of a conceptual model of how the overall experience works (NB: This is my definition of the term “Architectures of Meaning” derived from our research perspective on cross channel information architecture. The discussion around this term is still ongoing).

Having just returned from discussing our work at Pervasive 2012, I felt it was an opportune moment to present some introductory thoughts about our framework for ”sense making in cross channel design”. In particular, I would like to demonstrate a potential method for visualising the information space from which understanding can be supported in a system. I should like to caveat that it is recognised that some of the concepts covered in this blog post are very deep, much deeper than could be covered in 1500 words. My intention is to spark the reader’s interest and highlight some of the directions that we have been exploring.

Cross-Channel services

As I’m sure many readers are familiar with, more and more in recent years we are being asked to consider wider design problems than simply websites. The long predicted age of ubiquitous computing is fast approaching (or is already here). The layers of information are continuously building up and a method of meaningfully representing them is now more important than ever.

We are typically being asked to work within expanded problem spaces that deliver a service across several channels. For example, it’s no longer enough to discuss concepts such as “retail vs. e-commerce” rather we are looking at how retail and e-commerce support one another in the greater good of the goal of “sell more stuff”.

I think the following diagram from Peter Morville's 2011 UserFocus keynote sums up the concept of cross channel delivery nicely.

Multi Channel vs. Cross Channel Service Delivery

Figure 1: Diagram showing delivery of a service through individual channels vs. delivery of a service across several channels

Information architecture as the “Glue”

In their excellent book on designing Pervasive Information Architectures, Andrea Resmini and Luca Rosata explored the concept that Information Architecture can act as the “sense making glue” holding together the user's conceptual model of a particular service, system or ecosystem.

I will not go into details over this concept here but suffice to say it has been proposed that a pervasive informational layer (“ethereal” to quote my colleagues in the AoM workshop) exists over a system that contributes to the formation of a conceptual model of understanding about the wider system user experience (interested readers should also read about Information Foraging Theory by Pirolli).

Transitions are critical

From an extensive research review and practical pilot study of our hypothesis, we explored the way in which this pervasive informational layer can be formed by users and most importantly how it can degrade across an eco-system of products and places. We argued that there are a number of ways that a user’s meaningful understanding of a cross channel service can be “chipped away” through poor information architecture. Of particular pertinence to the success of a system was the various ways we transition between channels i.e. when we move from a digital channel and into a physical retail store.

One of the major problems early on when designing cross channel services is it is very difficult to model and predict the different ways with which a user can transition between various channels. I acknowledge that we already utilise a number of user experience methods such as customer journey mapping and service blueprints. My problem with tools such as Customer Journey Maps and Service Blueprints in this instance (I think they are great tools most of the time) is that they are typically conveying a user journey or interaction over time i.e. in a linear format.

When evaluating cross channel services and the construction of a pervasive information architecture the user is often free to drift back and forth between channels as many times as they wish and (depending on the service) over an undefined time period. Dan Willis has explored some excellent and interesting ways to display user journeys in a cross channel context by drawing Intent Paths.

Honeycomb diagram where each hexagon represents a different platform "stepping stone" on a long user journey

Figure 2: Dan Willis (@uxcrank) work on showing user intent paths

A new visualisation

Having identified the critical nature of designing for channel transitions (and how they can degrade meaning to a user), we began to discuss various ways that we could visualise the informational needs that users require in a cross channel context. It is argued that there will be a core set of informational needs or requirements that a user must carry between channels that help them form a conceptual understanding of the wider service. We need a way, very early in a design process, to identify, visualise and map these informational needs so that we can begin to construct an idea of how information will flow across our wider product eco-systems. The diagram below demonstrates a first iteration of one of these visualisations. For simplicity, let’s call it a Cross Channel IA Diagram (in our office we have affectionately termed it a “meaning map”).

A hexagon where each internal corner is populated with a channel (e.g. mobile or retail store).  In the centre of the diagram are the information needs that must be supported in the system irrespective of channel type.

Figure 3: Cross Channel IA Diagram

Let me describe a number of key points about the diagram:

  • Channel Corners: Each corner of the hexagon contains a dedicated channel that is part of the wider service being designed. The nice thing about this approach is you can use any number sided shape to represent your cross channel information architecture. I have had discussions with people that some services or systems will have a huge number of channels but being realistic how often are we asked to design systems with a number greater than say 8?
  • Channel Membranes: Around each channel is what I have called the channel membrane. What this essentially shows is the entrance and exit points to that channel. Again I appreciate that there are potentially hundreds of entrance and exit points from a channel but what I am really talking about is the common entrance and exit points based around our business objectives and user research.
  • The Between Channel Information Space: This is the workhorse section of the diagram! This is the area where we can map the informational needs / requirements that are carried between channels by users and that effectively contribute to the formation of a common understanding of the system. What the centre of the diagram represents is the space between channels, the transitional space where (at the moment) many cross channel services typically break down. It is the content of the centre of the diagram that I propose can be used to start to create the pervasive informational layer that contributes to the development of “architecture of meaning”.

So I hope you can see is that what we potentially have is a very practical visualisation tool that can be used early in a cross channel design / service delivery project to help us construct a strong informational layer that pervades all of our design work. I propose that these Cross-Channel IA diagrams (in conjunction with a solid understanding of how meaning can degrade with channel transitions) can add value by:

  • Helping us understand better our users cross channel goals without worrying about the order and manor with which a user interacts with a channel;
  • Acting in a channel agnostic manor whereby we can see the overarching needs that need to be supported irrespective of the channel design silo that we may find ourselves working in;
  • Forming the beginnings of our UX / Product / Service Strategy by helping us bound the problem space for ourselves and our stakeholders;
  • Can help us formalise and document the “ethereal” information space that will inform our users’ conceptual model of the systems that we are designing, ensuring that this is supported and retained across the lifecycle of a design project.

Next Steps

I acknowledge that I touch upon many large topics of discussion in this blog post and some have not been covered at all (for example responsive web design or UX strategy). These are bigger topics for elsewhere.

The intention of this article has been to highlight some of our thoughts on creating pervasive information architectures. Our goal has always been to try to develop a practical framework that can be used early on in a design process to help us visualise the information space that we are so commonly being asked to design for nowadays.

Our work is not complete and we are continuing to refine and explore our work further. For example, a major element to the next stage of our research is to further explore and identify the psychological aspects that can influence a user’s transition between channels and what can lead to channel abandonment.

A more detailed explanation is due to follow from the proceedings of the AoM workshop and most probably in the Journal of Information Architecture (or a larger e-publication). I shall be presenting further on this subject at UX Bristol on the 20th July 2012.

I hope you will join me in the discussion.

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