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OmniChannel Interaction: Implications for User Experience Cohesion

November 28th, 2012

"Seduce me by allowing me to learn something new;
Empower me by ensuring a coherent application thereof."

Every CMO, Product-Brand Manager and Advertising Executive knows we are in the midst of a massive disruption in marketing & advertising; the fragmentation of the traditional one way mass communication model of radio, TV, and print into an exploding ecosystem of interactive and cross polinating channels is changing the game in unforeseen ways.

In the US, online is about to displace TV as the largest media spend category, and within the category of online there continues to be a "Cambrian" explosion of channels and customer touch points, for both direct marketing and brand building.

Cognitive Marketing and cohesive UX branding

Yet many organizations still have an organizational structure that reflects the traditional importance of one way mass communication channels. And some of the leading advertisers still consider e-commerce and social media as a separate discipline from traditional branding and paid media approaches, with CMOs of some of the largest advertisers believing "TV is for branding, online is for direct marketing".

But even those organizations that embrace the power and inevitability of multiple interactive channels and branding touch points tend to treat them as separate functions, requiring separate domain expertise (SEO, PPC, Social Media, Customer Service) and differing tactics, strategies and budgetary allocations.

This leads marketing organizations and advertisers to allocate resources, strategize and differentiate between paid vs social, desktop vs mobile device, online TV vs gaming platform, macro social vs micro (e.g.: Facebook vs Twitter), user generated content (UGC) product placement video vs professional product placement video, etc.

Cognitive Marketing and cohesive UX branding

At a high level, most large corporate organizations are organizing their departments so as to separate traditional one way mass branding, online direct marketing, in-store marketing, customer service and other branding/sales touch points as distinct areas and functions, with separate resources.

In other words, although the importance of the growth of online, mobile and gamification and their associated exposure and interaction touch points is recognized, the very diversity of the type and number of channels and touch points is generating an associated organizational fragmentation.

The massive multiplicity of channels and customer touch points is being studied and analyzed for its impact on cost, effectiveness and efficiency of target reach, for its ability to enable customized timing and frequency of exposures, for the capability of distincly measuring brand lift from direct marketing effects of single marketing actions, etc.

Yet the growing organizational fragmentation to deal with the diverse channels and touch points and the corresponding resources brought to bear on each one (social media experts, SEO and online media experts, interactive retail store merchandising consultants, youtube video viral marketing, etc) is leading to a fragmentation of the user experience, and thus represents a huge risk as well as a missed opportunity.

Microsoft is an example of what happens to the user experience when development & design departments are assigned to work separately on different features, products and platforms. It leads to a frustratingly different user experience of features within products, and products within product families (like the differences in how to conduct similar types of actions across Microsoft Word, Excel and Powerpoint).

Cognitive Marketing and cohesive UX branding

Whereas Apple showed us what happens when a fanatical dedication to ensuring a coherent and consistent user experience is applied across feature sets, product families, channel sales points and advertising mediums. Regardless of whether we look at development and design as something inherently distinct from marketing, advertising, branding, & sales, all of them affect the user experience.

Cognitive Marketing and cohesive UX branding

And the user experience is ultimately what leads to a brand subsconciously fulfilling its promise and the expectations it sets.

A unified user experience across features, products, customer touch points, sales channels, and advertising media is a uniquely powerful means to embed an emotional reaction and fanatical loyalty within consumers.

It is commonly thought that Apple owes a large part of its success as a company and as a brand to an "intuitive" design in all of its products. Or to a "User friendly" design & development. Or just to "cool" features.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

The word and concept of intuition comes from the latin "intueri", as in "to look or contemplate inside". It is commonly understood as the ability to acquire knowledge without inference and/or the use of reason.

Many if not most Apple users claim that their experience with Apple products does not require any mental effort, that it is automatic, that it seems natural, comes easily, etc.

And yet this is clearly not the case.

The "reality distortion field" that Apple has created so successfully has hypnotized its customer base and admirers, the media, and even its competition into believing that an intuitive and user friendly and cool design is the reason for its success.

Cognitive Marketing and cohesive UX branding

Ten years ago three year olds did not walk up to a TV screen and try to swipe the screen across using their fingers, or zoom in or out by pinching or separating their fingers on the screen.

Cognitive Marketing and cohesive UX branding

Yet now many do exactly that.

How can this type of behaviour be labelled as intuitive, if they did not attempt the same behaviour on TV screens before the iPhone and iPad existed?

Because it is a learned skill. They may have learned it by watching their parents and siblings or other persons interact with a tablet and smartphone. Or they may have played with the devices, and used their innate exploratory urges to figure it out.

But their behaviour cannot be categorized as intuitive.

The iPod of 10 years ago, with its physical wheel, is vastly different from the current iPod, with its touch sensitive screen.

Cognitive Marketing and cohesive UX branding

Many users of iPhones find themselves at times touching the screens of old iPods, expecting them to react in the same manner as their iPhones, and are surprised and chagrined when they do not respond in the manner they expected.

Clearly, neither of the above interaction designs is intuitive, and both had to be learned.

Which was also the case with the point and click mouse and windows system invented by Xerox and popularized by Apple and then Microsoft.

And yet, users feel as if all of the above interactions are intuitive, and do not need to be learned.

So what is going on?

It all comes down to consistency and coherence.

Apple has shown that by being fanatical about consistency within a product feature set (i.e.: within the iPhone or iPad), and across a product family (iPod, iPhone, and iPad), as well as across multiple sales channels (every Apple Store in every mall or outlet), and even across every advertising medium (TV, Billboards, In-Movie Placement), it creates fanatical customer loyalty and evangelism, and a massive brand uplift over time.

This works because once a user has invested the mental time and effort to learn the new apple interaction method (whether a product or feature interaction, or how to interact with an Apple store outlet for customer support, training or purchases), he or she never needs to re-learn it. The method is consistently and coherently applied throughout.

So after the initial learning, the user or customer does not need to think. Even if he or she starts using or exploring a completely different feature or product. They feel exhilarated at their "intutive" understanding of how to interact and use the product or feature. And how close the branding and messaging and look & feel of the advertisements and product placements fit in with the user interfaces.

Cognitive Marketing and cohesive UX branding

So that it all seems so incredibly cool.

When a new advertising theme, look & feel, design and copy is introduced, it takes its inspiration from, and is very closely tailored and aligned to, the existing feature set and product family. And is consistently and coherently applied acroos all outlets, channels, and media.

When a customer walks into an Apple retail outlet, the store interaction is extremely innovative and different from what the customer or prospect is used to in any other retail outlet (and thus, is not "intuitive"); the customers can freely play with all the products for hours on end, there is a demo room for viewing product videos and listening to tutorials, there is a customer service center (with appointments made online), there is no need to approach a checkout counter, every store assistant is a walking checkout/payment assistant, etc.

Cognitive Marketing and cohesive UX branding

This "cool" approach to retailing is consistently applied everywhere in the world, whether it be San Francisco, Palo Alto, New York, Madrid or Tokyo. So once experienced and "learnt", customers feel comfortable and at ease in any Apple store anywhere in the world; they have experienced the Apple "Reality Distortion Field" and know they will not be surprised with differences or inconsistencies.

The above is no different from what differentiates a good movie or book from a bad one. An author or Script Writer or Director can use all kinds of magical, not-invented yet, science fictional artifacts, as long as he or she maintains an "internal logic" in the set of rules governing the magic he or she introduces into the story. In that case, the reader is willing to "suspend' his or her disbelief.

But woe to the author who changes the rules of the game mid-stream; or introduces a "Deux Ex-Machina" to save an incoherent narrative.

An initial investment of time and effort is necessary on the part of the user or customer to learn new interaction methodologies, retail store processes, look & feel, advertising concepts etc. Steve Jobs leveraged his mastery of PR skills to create, out of both the media and his fanatical followers, a legion of educators who taught and teaches the rest of us how to use each succesive interaction innovation.

The effort necessary to master each succesive innovation, even if facilitated by Apple's PR and the collaboration of its followers, implies that each of us who engage in this effort has become "vested" in the feature, product, process and ultimately, brand.

And human beings do not mind having to work hard at learning a new skill. In fact, it is a core part of our "exploratory" urge. Steve and Apple leveraged this urge and thus taught us all new methods of interaction with their successive innovations. We are seduced by the game of learning new things.

But we are enthralled by the mastery we feel when our learning can be applied, and shown off, across all sets of features and products. And we come to believe that our emotional attachment is due to a "cool" and "intuitive" design, rather than our vested effort at learning, and our satisfaction at mastering.

Cognitive Marketing and cohesive UX branding

Interestingly, the one area where Apple has failed to have a consistent and coherent branding and user experience approach is in most of its non-App and non-iTunes online websites. They are largely indistinguishable from non-Apple online properties, and very distinguishable, in a negative sense, and inconsistent with, iTunes and other Apple products and services.

Thus, if we visit the regular Apple websites, we do not see the nexus, whether in the interaction design, look & feel, design and ultimately, user experience, with iTunes, or the AppStore, or other online properties and product sets.

This is a result of the separation and fragmentation (silo-creation) of resources alluded to in the beginning of this article, and as a consequence, Apple's websites are boring, no different than any other website, with none of the innovation of its other products, channels and features, and inconsistent with all of them.

The bottom line?

We need to focus on ensuring consistency and coherence across the multiple channels of both sales and branding that the new interactive marketing ecosystem allows for. We need to ensure that the multiplicity of expertise, organizational structures and departments that deal with the diverse set of interactive ecosystem channels does not lead to a corresponding fragmentation of the user experience.

If we succeed we will create passionate and loyal advocates and evangelists of our brands and products.

Cognitive Marketing and cohesive UX branding

If we don't, we will create a sense of indifference and boredom at best, and customer frustration at worst as users and customers have to relearn interaction methods at every juncture of the advertising-sales-product-feature-support touch points.

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