I wrote this article a few months back for Digital Age magazine. Obviously it got translated into Turkish for publication, so I thought I’d post the original English up here.
Life was simple in the early days of the web.
Pages were accessed – slowly – by a browser like Mosaic or Netscape. They mainly consisted of text with the occasional grainy image. Interactivity was minimal besides clicking on links to other pages, and maybe the occasional form here and there.
Time passed, Wi-Fi unshackled us from our network cables, and before too long we were able to use our phones to access, at painfully slow speed and high cost, WAP pages that made the websites of the time seem like the acme of sophistication.
And then along came the iPhone and everything changed. Suddenly we had a mobile device almost as capable as a desktop, and mobile web use took off faster than the networks could keep up. Many sites of the time weren’t designed to work well with touch interfaces, but it was a big leap forward.
Today we have a vast and ever-changing array of devices to suit every budget and pocket size. This has necessitated a rapid evolution in our approach to web design. We can’t possibly make different designs for every available shape and size of screen, and so responsive design was born. From this grew the pervasive and in many ways regressive trend for flat design, which often compromises usability, but makes designers’ lives easier.
Mobile-first has become the dominant approach of the day. By starting with the most limited interface – the mobile phone – and adding functionality where it makes sense, you always have a useful baseline system which can work anywhere, on any kind of device.
This approach, of bringing the system to the user however they choose to access it, has brought us a long way. We now can use our phones for complex tasks like banking and booking flights, and sometimes the experience can even be nicer than on the desktop.
But mobile first is based on a flawed premise.
Designing a great service is about more than than just making the same thing work on different devices. It’s not only about what device they use to access the service. There’s much more we can do if we think about where they are, how much time they have, and what else they might be doing at the same time.
We can go beyond simply making the same thing in different sizes, as with responsive design, or even tailoring a basic system to suit the device it’s being used on, as with mobile-first. We can design a system such that every interface, every device, complements and improves the experience on every other. We’re calling this approach omnichannel design.
I’ll explain by way of an analogy. Think of our basic 90s-era website as a single violin, playing a simple melody by itself. If it’s played well it can be extremely pleasant, but on its own it’s limited.
A responsive site is like a string quartet all playing that same melody in unison. The notes they play are exactly the same, but the tone of each instrument is different. This will give a more rounded sound than the solo violinist, but other than that, it doesn’t add anything more to the experience.
In a multichannel site, our string quartet are playing in harmony. Each musician plays their own part, composed to complement all the others, and the effect is nuanced, balanced, more complete.
Omnichannel is a full symphony, where every instrument plays a part written for its strengths. The different sounds support and complement each other. While one section of the orchestra leads, others may take a back seat. Melodies pass from one section to the other. It’s the richest, most powerful listening experience of all.
Instead of seeing different kinds of devices and interfaces as a burden, adding to development and testing time, we view them as a gift, a way to enrich the user experience. Now we can always give them what they want, when they want it, in a way that suits them best.
Or that’s what we’re aiming for, anyway.
But how do we do it? Taking a platform we’ve already finished and adapting it just isn’t enough. To make our digital symphony we need to design it in from the start.
We begin by boiling the service we will eventually produce down to its simplest, most abstract essence. We describe it in the simplest terms we can, ideally, in a single sentence. What do we want to give our users? If we can lock this down, everything will flow from there.
When we have our basic concept, we can start to think about the design pillars which will support it. We do this based on what we know about our users – demographics, their ability and propensity to use various kinds of devices, their goals, their expectations, their feelings, and so on.
Before we design anything, we have to be sure that we understand this service inside-out in the abstract. Forget about platforms for now, they’re just how we’ll express our service in the end. Work outwards from the user’s intentions and feelings, and step by step the service will begin to define itself. Figure out the actions they will want to take, and it will be clear what the service will have to do to meet their expectations. This tells you what functions you have to provide, and then it’s just a matter of organising these functions logically so people can find their way through and around them.
A platform is just a vessel through which we deliver our service,
and the service should mould itself to fit the shape of the vessel. But it’s not just about the size of the device, it’s about what people want to do with it.
Users don’t always choose the optimal device for the job. Sometimes they use more than one device for the same thing, or even at the same time.
The term “mobile” is a bit misleading – often people aren’t actually on the go while using their phone. They might just be passing the time, or looking something up quickly while watching the TV. Particularly in developing countries, it might be the only device they have.
Tablets are a companion device, filling the gap between phone and laptop, that’s easily at hand. It’s great for supporting and enhancing content and tasks from elsewhere.
Touch screens aren’t ideal for typing on, so the computer is the device of choice when there’s real work to be done, such as filling out forms.
Straightforward, linear customer journeys, started and finished on the same device, are increasingly a thing of the past. They’re moving from one platform to another, from the real world to the digital one, and they expect a consistent quality of experience. To ensure they get it, plan your service from the inside out.