The Rise of Cross-Channel UX Design

October 17, 2011

A few Saturdays ago, I was walking around Greenwich in southeast London when I decided to peruse the local bookshop. Drawn to a display titled “Utopias and Dystopias,” I noticed the book A Brave New World sitting beside George Orwell’s 1984, which I had read and remembered enjoying. Curious about the association between the two, I picked up A Brave New World and glanced over the back cover. I then pulled out my phone and searched Google to see what others were saying about the book and noted that it is often considered one of the top-100 novels of all time. My mind was settled: I wanted to read this book. But rather than walking, book in hand, to the checkout counter, I instead used my phone to navigate to Amazon’s Kindle Store, where I typed in the name of the book and used their 1-click ordering to purchase the book. Leaving the bookshop empty handed, I caught the next bus home. On the way home, I pulled out my tablet device and started reading page 1 of A Brave New World. Figure 1 shows some of the devices on which Amazon Kindle applications run.

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Figure 1—Amazon Kindle eReader and Kindle applications
Amazon Kindle eReader and Kindle applications

Books, newspapers, and magazines have not only gone digital, they’ve gone ubiquitous, contextual, and formless. The message is now abstracted from the medium, and the book is a channel-independent experience—whether held in its physical form, heard as the spoken word, or read on an eReader, mobile phone, or desktop computer.

The invention of the printing press transformed the physical object that is a book from the output of human transcription to that of mass production, ushering in the era of information as a physical object. More recently, mass adoption of the World Wide Web and a plethora of Internet-connected devices has brought us into the digital era of information. But we are on the cusp of yet another technological sea change. The pendulum that swung from physical to digital is now swinging back to the real world. However, this time information has become formless, contextual, and ubiquitous. In the words of Andrea Resmini and Luca Rosati, “[Information] is bleeding out of the Internet and out of personal computers, and it is being embedded into the real world.” [1] Welcome to the new cross-channel, multiplatform, transmedia information age.

A Sign of What’s to Come

As goes the book, so goes every product and service under the sun. Seamless, cross-channel experiences are the way of the future, as technology fades into the background and the personal, physical, and social context determine the methods we use to interact with information. But this isn’t a problem for the distant future; designing effective cross-channel experiences is a problem that we must address here and now.


Most brick-and-mortar retailers mail out the occasional print catalog, provide phone service, and have online stores, with the more adventurous offering smartphone-friendly Web sites or applications, as in the example shown in Figure 2.

Figure 2—Outdoor retailer REI’s iPhone app, Web site, print catalog, kiosk, and flagship store
Outdoor retailer REI’s iPhone app, Web site, print catalog, kiosk, and flagship store

However, these channels aren’t isolated from one another; increasingly, they overlap. Forrester’s Patti Freeman Evans found that 70% of consumers research online, then buy offline. [2] A 2010 report by NCR Corporation [3] found that

  • 43% of consumers want to use their mobile phone for price comparison while out shopping.
  • The vast majority of consumers prefer a seamless experience across channels:

According to this report: “87% want a similar way to access products and services … whether online, in the store, on their mobile phone, or using a self-service device.”


Traveling by plane is a quintessentially multichannel experience. Once you know where you want to go, there is the messy business of booking the flight—perhaps using your laptop; checking in 24 hours before your flight on your smartphone; traveling to the correct airport terminal, then using the kiosk to print your boarding pass; interacting with a customer service person to check in your luggage; running the security gauntlet, where you present either your paper boarding pass or an electronic version on your phone; and finally, sitting down in your seat on the aircraft, where you browse the movie selections on the entertainment console.

A 2011 report on the usability of travel Web sites by Webcredible [4]—in addition to placing Virgin Atlantic’s Web site at the top of its list, shown in Figure 3—emphasized the importance of providing consumers with a seamless cross-channel experience:

“As consumers become more and more demanding in the digital space, the travel industry will need to be more dedicated to the usability and user experience across all of their channels to gain customers and build loyalty.”

Figure 3—Virgin Atlantic’s check-in kiosk, iPhone application, Web site, and in-flight entertainment console
Virgin Atlantic’s check-in kiosk, iPhone application, Web site, and in-flight entertainment console


Managing your money often results in a dynamic interplay between channels, as Figure 4 shows. But while you could likely achieve many tasks at your local bank branch, a nearby ATM, over the phone, on your home computer, or on your smartphone, each channel is likely convenient in some situations, but a hassle in others. Your mobile phone is well suited to quickly checking your account balance on the go. However, you might find it easier to use online banking on your laptop to pay the monthly bills.

Figure 4—Bank of America’s ATM, online banking, iPhone application, and a store branch
Bank of America’s ATM, online banking, iPhone application, and a store branch

Ernst & Young’s 2011 report on global consumer banking [5] found that, while 66% of respondents were dissatisfied with their existing mobile banking, competition among banks to provide a seamless experience across channels will be fierce:

“Practical innovations across channels that leverage technology to deliver a more seamless and personalized experience will therefore be a major competitive battleground in all retail banking markets.”

Cross-Discipline Collaboration

Unfortunately, we’re a long way off from realizing this vision of seamless interactivity across channels. Touchpoints often lack awareness of one another. While a retailer’s catalog indicates the SKU for every product, the same retailer’s Web search doesn’t understand SKUs. While a mobile app might be simple to use, its corresponding Web site may be complicated and frustrating. How can we do better?

Above all else, cross-discipline collaboration is the answer. A 2010 survey by Econsultancy and Foviance [6] found that, while 90% of companies consider the multichannel experience to be important, organizational structure is the most significant barrier to success. Business units often lack the incentive to work together and sometimes even compete against other business units in the same organization for market share. Effective cross-channel experiences demand strategic leadership and multidisciplinary cooperation. Figure 5 shows the responses to the question, “What are the three greatest barriers preventing your organization from improving the multichannel customer experience?” from this survey.

Figure 5—Barriers preventing organizations from improving multichannel customer experiences
Barriers preventing organizations from improving multichannel customer experiences

Service design pioneer G. Lynn Shostack described one useful tool for defining multichannel experiences: service blueprints. These maps of interactions center on a customer’s actions, paying close attention to the channel—or more broadly, the “physical evidence”—through which each action occurs. The service blueprint outlines not only visible interactions with a customer, but also the behind-the-scenes steps that must take place to facilitate a smooth process for the customer. Shostack describes these as onstage, backstage, and support processes, respectively. When infused with actual ethnography, the service blueprint can be a potent tool with which to synchronize a company’s cross-channel efforts.

Figure 6—A service blueprint created by Brandon Schauer [8]
A service blueprint created by Brandon Schauer [8]

Cross-Channel Design Principles

Alongside strategic leadership and collaboration, there is a handful of design principles that provide a shining light to lead us through this new maze of interconnectivity. Peter Morville has elucidated six facets to what he calls the “Cross-channel Crystal,” [9] but here we’ll focus on just three elements. A successful cross-channel experience is:

  • consistent—Users should be able to accomplish a given task in a like manner across all channels. For instance, a bank customer who is experienced in paying bills on a Web site should find the corresponding smartphone bill-paying facility familiar, even on first use.

  • optimized—Each channel should play to its strengths. As Pete Bell points out [10], people expect mobile devices to be location aware, while they expect in-store kiosks to be inventory aware. Desktop applications are optimized for large screens; mobile apps for small ones. Optimization is sometimes in tension with consistency.

  • continuous—Each channel must be aware of all the others. Add a bicycle helmet to your shopping cart on the Web, and it should appear in the cart on your phone. Put down your eReader on page 104, and your phone’s reading application should pick up at page 104.

In a word, it’s all about context. In the coming post-desktop era, we must reach across disciplines and think more holistically to produce not just a single, self-sufficient user interface, but to deliver context-aware search experiences across multiple channels. No one is saying it will be easy—only that the reward will be well worth the effort. 


[1] Resmini, Andrea, and Luca Rosati. Pervasive Information Architecture: Designing Cross-Channel User Experiences. Burlington, MA: Morgan Kaufmann, 2011.

[2] Evans, Patti Freeman. “Profiling the Multi-Channel Consumer.” Forrester Research, 2009. Retrieved October 15, 2011.

[3] NCR. “NCR 2010 Global Consumer Research.”PDF NCR, 2010. Retrieved October 15, 2011.

[4] Webcredible (2011). “Flights Online: Ensuring Your Site Takes Off.” Webcredible, 2011. Retrieved October 15, 2011.

[5] Ernst & Young. “Global Consumer Banking Survey 2011.”PDF Ernst & Young, 2011. Retrieved October 15, 2011.

[6] Econsultancy and Foviance. “Multichannel Customer Experience Report.” Econsultancy, 2010. Retrieved October 15, 2011.

[7] Shostack, G. Lynn. “How to Design a Service.” European Journal of Marketing, Volume 16, Issue 1, 1982.

[8] Image by Brandon Schauer.

[9] Morville, Peter. “Cross-channel Strategy.” SlideShare, 2011. Retrieved October 15, 2011.

[10] Bell, Pete. “Search As a Multi-channel Experience.” UIE, 2011. Retrieved October 15, 2011.

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Tyler TateTyler leads user experience at TwigKit where he helps government, not-for-profit, and blue-chip organizations build superb search experiences. Tyler organizes the Enterprise Search London Meetup, is the creator of the Semantic Grid System, and has led the design of big Web applications, including Nutshell CRM.  Read More

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