This is not to engage in self-congratulation, but to recognize what has worked well in the past and acknowledge that it’s time to get to work again. We need to remember how well the practical approach we took when confronted with the demands of the Web has served us. We need to begin considering the tectonic shifts on the horizon that the emergence of ubiquitous computing in non-vaporware forms presents. And most immediately, we need to focus on a challenge that helps tie these two phenomena together. That challenge is designing bridge experiences.
What Is a Bridge Experience?
A bridge experience is one in which the user experience spans multiple communications channels, document genres, or media formats for a specific, tactical purpose. Bridge experiences involve situations in which people must traverse different domains in order to communicate successfully, complete a task, or elicit a desired physical, mental, or emotional response. Without movement between domains, a user cannot reach the end goal that a bridge experience makes possible. Some bridge experiences correspond to the totality of a discrete user experience, while others comprise a single aspect of a larger user experience. The term can describe either a category of user experience or a particular aspect of a specific user experience.
Bridge experiences often emerge from the need to directly connect activities occurring in the digital realm with those in the physical. While it’s common today for an organization’s overall customer experience to have both online and offline dimensions, the notion of bridge experiences goes beyond the mere presence of multiple channels of communication and even the availability of cross-channel integration. It involves the actualization of a specific intent—either of the user or the designer; hopefully both—that demands movement across domains.
Bridge experiences also arise from the need to accommodate flexibility and openness in today’s technological environment. There is an empirically demonstrable increase in the level of standards-driven agnosticism regarding hardware, operating systems, platforms, software clients, and document formats. Our success in accommodating our environment’s business logic depends on strong conceptual models for creating transparent user experiences out of heterogeneous components. Bridge experiences let us conceptualize and design such transparency.
Consider some real-world examples.
One of the simplest examples is the use of uniform resource locators (URLs) on food and beverage packaging for contests and promotions. The consumer brings the package home and writes down the URL or types it into a Web browser on a computer or smartphone. The marketer gets a consumer’s email address and name; the consumer, a ringtone or a chance to win a year’s supply of a product. Pretty straightforward. Yet while designing this experience is trivial, it accomplishes a very sophisticated goal: linking identity and action in the physical world to a digital representation. The need for more sophisticated implementations of this type of experience—GPS watches for tracking kids, wireless localizers, the Semapedia, and similar products and services—continues to grow. Witness the FedEx Kinko Web-based ordering and specification systems for in-store fulfillment and services such as Dodgeball and Meetup.
Not all bridge experiences link the physical to the digital, however. Another very basic example of a bridge experience is the use of email messages as request/response tools for Web applications. Spongecell, a Web-based calendar application, has an excellent feature that allows users to send email messages to the system and receive responses with the details about their next appointments. This model is hardly revolutionary in design or implementation, but it contains an explicit recognition of something that necessitates our designing bridge experiences: people live in a variety of different communications contexts. Each of these contexts has its own logic of the moment. I may be working in my email application, waiting in an airport terminal, and using a smartphone, or simply be uninterested in engaging with an involved user interface, because I’m talking with someone face-to-face. A simple email-to-Web bridge lets me retain context in such situations.
Lastly, consider the fact that users actually design the overwhelming majority of bridge experiences. Those of us who live on the Web or engage in so-called knowledge work constantly jump back and forth between different sources of information. Often this information is expressed in wildly different ways and delivered in a variety of formats. What is it that we’re doing when jumping from voice mail to search results to journal article to blog entry to social bookmarking site to Web application to email received via smartphone? We are processing content from different genres, creating a user experience that bridges all of them. Jakob Nielsen recently popularized this idea—though many years ago, Leen Breure, Kevin Crowston, and Andrew Dillon and Marsha Vaughan communicated this idea far more eloquently.
Genre-bridging follows a logic entirely of our own individual making—driven by internal narratives, perceived causal relationships, and interpretive leaps that branch off from one another like a web of hyperlinks. Essentially, we’re building our own bridge experiences to compensate for the fact that there is no well-defined set of conventions to help orient us—save those wired into our brains. It’s a fact that may be somewhat uncomfortable for us as practitioners, because it highlights the fact that, no matter how well we design, the interpretation of our work occurs in a context completely outside our control. The products and services we design—our super-spiffy Ajax interfaces, the peer-to-peer, mobile content-distribution applications we optimize—all of these are open, interoperable, and addressable, but are there well-designed bridges linking them together? I think not. So while Jakob Nielsen and I agree that “there's no support for multisite behaviors,” I think designing bridge experiences is an opportunity to redress the situation.
At a high level, bridge experiences offer two closely intertwined benefits. These benefits are essentially two sides of the same coin:
- Bridge experiences help to preserve the continuity of a user experience. Shifts between channels, genres, and media carry with them unavoidable breakdowns in understanding, changes in perspective, and interpretive failures. Particularly in situations where task completion or brand communication is critical, bridge experiences provide a means of preserving context—visual, verbal, emotional, and functional—so users retain a sense of continuity throughout each aspect of the user experience.
- Bridge experiences help to eliminate gaps in a user experience. These gaps come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Some gaps, as noted above, are between the digital and physical domains. Temporal lags in the sequence of events comprising an experience cause certain gaps. Others emerge from a breakdown in understanding on the part of a user—for example, the breakpoints in MAYA’s Carnegie Library project. Whatever the source, bridge experiences are predicated on the discovery, minimization, and/or elimination of these gaps. And taking it one step further, some experiences transform the gaps into their focal points—for example, Geocaching.