Omnichannel experience design: what, how and why

9 min read
As the online-offline divide dissolves, adopting an omnichannel mindset is a useful approach that helps you keep customer experience seamless and straightforward.

What is omnichannel experience design?

Omnichannel experience design is an approach to user experience that focuses on the overall quality of interaction between customer and brand, not just a specific kind of exchange on a single channel. The nature of ‘omnichannel’ – as opposed to multi-channel – means that the designer must develop an approach that covers every possible form of customer interaction and comes up with a holistic solution, rather than just covering the most common channels such as website and mobile site.

Why is omnichannel experience design important?

To understand the value of omnichannel experience design, we need to take a step back and review how digital behaviour has changed over the last 15 years or so. Back in the early 2000s, using a digital channel was a self-contained activity that involved sitting down at a desk, completing a task such as checking email, then getting up and continuing with daily life. Cell phones were primarily for calls and texts, and business websites were often viewed as a nice-to-have extra rather than a core revenue stream. Businesses native to digital, like Amazon, Google and Ebay, were outliers in a primarily analogue world.

Nowadays, ‘going online’ is a redundant phrase – we’re all online, all the time. Thanks to the growth of technology and the culture that has developed around it, the line between real-world and digital realms has all but disappeared. Real life is digital, and digital is real life.

Take ecommerce for example. A typical purchase journey works across multiple channels, offline and online. We pick up a social notification about a deal on our smartphones during the morning commute, browse reviews on our desktop computers during lunch, ask questions of the brand chatbot via Facebook, and finally place an order from our laptops when we get home in the evening. Although the purchase happens on a single channel, it’s not unusual for the customer journey leading to that point to include a mobile site, an in-store visit, an app, live chat and more.

This pattern doesn’t just affect businesses that have incorporated digital channels into a traditional retail model. We’re also seeing a breaking down of barriers in the other direction, with digital-to-physical transitions among online retailers. As well as pop-up shops and physical sales at shows and events, digital-first retailers are setting up their own stores where customers can see, try and purchase goods like homewares, clothing, and cosmetics.

Omnichannel designers focus on creating experiences that reflect this fluidity between different online and offline channels, and provide a seamless experience for the end user regardless of where and how they make contact with a business or organisation. It’s a practice that’s wholly user-focused, since the user is the only consistent factor in the scope of a project.

Customers expect omnichannel

The integration of digital technology into everyday life is now at a point where omnichannel user experiences are the norm. Users expect brands to provide an omnichannel experience, and their behaviour reflects this.

The typical buying journey is now exploratory, unstructured and led by the user. Rather than moving – or being driven – down a sales funnel, people expect to be able to create their own journeys to purchase in whatever way suits them, fitting around their daily tasks and bringing in third-party content like product reviews as needed.

How can you develop an omnichannel approach?

The principle of an omnichannel experience is clear – it’s a joined-up, user-centred model that reflects the need for free movement between communication and marketing channels. But how do you create it? And what does the back-end system of an omnichannel organisation look like?

Every business has its own approach to omnichannel experience design. But there are a few common factors that are generally present, and which will help you lay the foundation for an omnichannel approach, one where you can easily add more channels and expand on features to meet growing user expectations-and business needs.

1. Identify and break up silos

Siloed organisational structures, where departments are self-contained and activities and budgets are opaque to all but the top tier of leadership, are actively unhelpful for businesses who want to adopt an omnichannel mindset. Breaking down silos is a whole topic in itself, and requires a significant degree of change to both culture and processes. But there are some relatively quick ways to begin, one being to assemble teams from across multiple departments to work on specific omnichannel projects.

For example, you may decide to capitalise on the growing popularity of branded apps to engage existing customers, and assemble a team of developers, UX professionals, designers, data specialists and customer experience experts to get the job done. With a successful project under their belt, this team can not only undertake future projects, but can play a role in internal marketing and awareness-building that will support cultural change.

2. Design for users, not channels

Continuing with the silo-breaking theme, it’s crucial that all marketing and communication channels are built, developed, and optimised around maintaining a seamless sense of connection for the customer. The teams behind each channel should view their projects as part of a broader ecosystem and have an open and ongoing dialogue with each other around how channels support a typical channel-hopping user journey.

UX specialists have an important connecting role to play here. Their user testing activities need to be inclusive of all channels. They can report not only on the usability and functionality of a single feature, but on how easy it is for a user to move between channels and back again, and whether any friction or disconnect is perceived when they do so.

3. Integrate around a centralised system

The ‘omni-ness’ of an omnichannel experience is often achieved by centralising customer data in a single place, such as a CRM or CEM system. The functional features of the system, its accessibility to internal users, and its capacity to store data from different channels all have a huge influence on how easy it is to provide an omnichannel experience and to set one up in the first place.

A powerful CRM system means that data provided by customers can be accessed by every part of the business that needs to see it, allowing continuous joined-up service to be provided whether the customer tweets you, calls you, interacts over Facebook Messenger or walks into a store. They have the sense of communicating with a single entity no matter who they speak to or how they get in touch.

Another valuable asset is a system that collates customer feedback from all points across the omnichannel journey and allows you to collectively process and analyse them, even if they’re provided in different formats (e.g. numerical ranking, free text in natural language or multiple choice selection).

A unified feedback system helps you see a holistic picture of the customer experience with all channels and touchpoints factored in. But knowing is only part of the story – you must also be able to take action. As well as helping you develop insights and reach conclusions about what’s happening for your customers, your system should make it easy to determine the best course to take and empower you to make interventions quickly and decisively. This could take the form of identifying the key drivers behind certain behaviours so you can prioritise your actions, or sending alerts to the right people at the right time for prompt action.

A strong, versatile experience management system not only helps you prioritise your work when you begin building an omnichannel platform, it continues to deliver insights and support actions over time, enabling you to keep pace with customer expectations and industry standards as they evolve.

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