Twenty years ago life was simple. It was the mid-nineties and by 1995 the internet would enter public consciousness and become privatised as the US Government withdrew its funding. AOL offered access to the web via easy to use browsers and both businesses and non-commercial organisations started to take the internet revolution seriously. They needed a digital presence and in those days that meant a website that could be viewed from a desktop computer or laptop.

Digital customer experience wasn’t even a consideration back then and if a brand engaged an agency to build them a website then the delivery of it, in a reasonable time frame and without breaking the budget, was the chief concern. Few even asked if the website would actually work (it was assumed that it would) and as a result many didn’t – I have attended usability testing sessions even in 2002 where ecommerce websites required registration in order to buy and not a single participant could complete the process.

The result of these failures was the emergence of the website usability agency. Equipped with various methodologies for carrying out user research and usability testing these pioneers started to raise awareness of the need for delivering an effective, efficient and satisfying experience for the user. Together with design and development agencies they birthed the idea of user experience which today is twinned with customer experience.

Although the industry was learning those were simpler times. With only one website to consider, virtually zero multichannel integration and nearly everyone using a 640 x 480 screen resolutions the choices available were quite limited. Also, relatively little was known about online user behaviour but because it was driven by the technology there was little variance and the context of use was almost binary – desk at work; desk at home.

Today we find ourselves in a very different world. Since the iPhone’s launch in 2007, smartphone usage has experienced year after year of growth. In the first half of 2013 there were more than 436 million units sold compared with 691 million in all of 2012. Tablet PC’s show similarly impressive growth and by the end of 2013 unit sales are predicted to have outstripped those of traditional PC’s (desktop and Laptop).

Creating a user experience that delivers across all these different devices presents new challenges for brands everywhere. No longer is there only one screen resolution to worry about the question now is how to deliver a multiplatform user experience. With that challenge comes greater choices that now involve technology investment and commitment to different approaches – many of which are still unproven or the subject of debate.

The three main choices available for delivering a digital experience on large and small screens are responsive web design (RWD), mobile optimised website or smartphone/tablet PC app. RWD is as much a philosophy as a technological solution and enables a website to resize fluidly when reduced in screen size. Mobile optimised provides a separate stand-alone mobile website and native app is a separate piece of software that we have all become familiar with. There are pros and cons with each but these are strategic decisions that few are equipped to take and add an unwelcome level of complexity.

But if the choices of how to deliver the digital experience to users have added to the complexity that is nothing compared with the behavioural changes brands are also now expected to cope with. Enter multi-screening, where a single user action such as a purchase is carried out using more than one device. 90% of your customers are doing it and understanding how they interact and the context they are operating in is currently very difficult.

The two dominant forms of multi-screen activity are known as sequential multi-screening and simultaneous multi-screening. Sequential multi-screening involves moving from one device to another over the course of a single day, or across multiple days, to accomplish a specific task. Simultaneous multi-screening sees the user engaged with more than one screen at once, perhaps watching TV, with an ipad on their lap, or using a laptop and at the same time running a search on a tablet PC.

As multi-screen behaviour becomes more prevalent, brands are going to have to learn to adapt to the changes in digital customer experience. It is the users that are driving this change and only by understanding how and why they interact with the range of devices available to them, based upon the different contexts they find themselves in, is it possible for brands to design experiences that adapt to their journeys. Establishing a leading position in the developing multi-screen ecosystem is the key to providing a great digital customer experience.

Whilst many may wish to return to the simpler days of the mid-ninety’s and early naughty’s, for those that embrace the changes the rewards are greater. For example, 65% of multiscreen journeys resulting in a purchase started on a smartphone. An end to end digital customer experience, as complex as it is, is a strategic imperative for the vast majority of brands today.

Paul BlundenPaul Blunden, has spent more than a decade working in the digital user experience sector as co-founder and CEO of Foviance and now founder and CEO of Usability247. During this time he has worked with a number of organisations including BskyB, CIPD, Nokia and Shop Direct helping them to improve the performance of the experiences they offer their customers and users.

usability247Paul is author of a number of papers about digital customer experience and was the driving force behind the publication of the first multichannel customer experience report. More recently he has focussed on mobile and multiplatform user experience with publications on mobile optimisation, multiscreen user behaviour and responsive web design. Paul is also a regular blogger at Usability247 on user experience trends and challenges.

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