As we build our learning and body of knowledge around user context in a multi-channel world, we increasingly recognize the intrinsic values of consistency. Productivity, familiarity, effectiveness and success are some of the ways users express satisfaction when they encounter intuitive and repeatable patterns in user experience. And these are the kinds of feelings that make people come back. Of course we aren’t talking about un-changing, never-ending consistency, because that’s boring. We simply do new things in similar ways that bend to take advantage of the unique capabilities and opportunities provided for experiences in each channel.

So if you’re in the business of improving customer experiences across multiple digital channels, then you need to be able to learn from your customers both in each channel and across all channels. This is the only way you and your team can reliably target and refine the creativity and delivery of the experiences you offer.

In the physical world, consistently good services can be simple things like basic courtesy, smiles, friendliness, respect and paying genuine attention to the customer. It need not be over-the-top, excessive acts of customer appreciation. Cancel the roses you just bought for your last client; it’s creepy.

In this article, I’ll explore ways we can fuse our expectations and experiences from real-world relationships into the digital space in appropriate, innovative and engaging ways.

The Problem with the User Point of View

Consistency of brand, interaction, process and design from the point of view of the user is all around us. There is a consistency to life, and our experiences. Think of the consistency (and/or texture) we all know and love from smoothies -- a wonderful jumble of our favorite fruits and flavors.

If the consistency of our experiences is too thick, we can't consume it effectively, or if we can, we will feel like we put in too much work to get the reward, just like our beloved smoothies.

On the other hand, if the consistency is too thin, we’d probably find it bland, boring and un-engaging. If I were to give 100 strangers watered-down, barely recognizable, “notional” smoothies -- none would come back for a second. I could write an entire article on harmonious uniformity, but I want to focus on the other kind of consistency that matters -- consistency of brand, design, interaction and behavior.

Moving the Cheese: Do It Carefully

Everyone I have talked with about this agrees that being consistently inconsistent either by changing things all the time or doing things differently in different places is not awesome. That’s because consistency is the key to getting things done and feeling good about them.

In the same way that most of us crave trustworthy consistency in our personal lives, we intuitively hope for it to be present in our business life, too. We want things to work the way we expect them to, and the consumerization of IT trends has documented this phenomenon exhaustively.

This is bad if I get it wrong. How bad?

Well, it leads to collective confusion, and unfortunately there is not a “Who Moved My Cheese” support group for individuals dealing with inconsistency shock. Instead, there are Facebook and Twitter, and people let you and everyone else know they don’t like how you do things in a New York minute.

People like new things much more than change. In fact, when most people say change, what they mean is new.

Want proof? Recently, there were a few changes to the Facebook layout, and there are about to be even more. Would you classify those as a massive hit with users when they were first rolled out? And, how do you or they feel about them now? It turns out that if you look closely, there was little change to the things that were there. What there was instead were new sections on the page, new features in the way things were presented and some new ways of managing those features. It’s now a week or so later, and I’m not sure how it ever worked without those new features.

See what I did there?

The Only Constant is Change, and Design is in Service of This

Heraclitus said it best: “You can never step into the same river twice.” He got it; change is indeed constant. Now, I don’t have change-a-phobia, because change, when organic and driven by meaningful input, is awesome.

But then there is the pesky kind of change that leaves you scratching your head -- for example, not knowing where to click to do something that you were able to do just yesterday. That is definitely less ideal than using an affordance from the operating system or other common actions that would make it even more intuitive or easier.

When wanting to make changes or introduce something new, we increasingly see companies move to involve their customers, employees and partners in the decisions. People are going beyond the group-think in boardrooms and doing things together with the people or customers that matter most to success.

Oliver King, a co-founder of design agency Engine, states, “We do service design with our clients, not to them.” It’s this type of thinking that allows companies like Fidelity to meet face-to-face with its customers, capture their benefit needs as a craigslist ad and then compare benefits enrollment with the perfect first date. Truly innovative.

Just like a social media site that stores every-little-thing we have ever said and done, we, the user, store subconscious and conscious information and patterns about every-little-thing we have ever said or done on a website. We constantly compare things to how they work elsewhere, especially when they are not the same. If not the same equals not as good, then we typically start sharing that information with other people such as co-workers, friends and in many cases competitors and customers.

Unfortunately, this is all too common. Many companies are shamelessly addicted to success and effortless achievement, and breaking away from that comfort will require wholesale culture change that encourages the best work no matter how difficult. This might happen when a designer moves the button we used to click on 200px down the page and puts an ad on top of it because it was clearly prime real estate according to the heat maps. Or it might happen when a trusted content source starts only marketing and broadcasting at too high a frequency. Or it might happen when a subtle change is made in a product or service offering, but the change is not explained.

Companies should realize that “context is the history that helps our understanding of an object or situation” (Aaron Irizarry, The Value of Context in Design).

The reality of context from a systems perspective is that it is going to be shared across multiple parts of a system or even multiple systems, and this presents a challenge at the presentation or experience tier. Designers and developers need to collaborate to persist the user’s context, or systems of engagement need to be selected that “think” this way out of the box.

The Illusion of Control

In the 70′s, Ellen Langer, a researcher from UCLA, coined a phenomenon known as “the illusion of control.” The term stuck. Since then, many thinkers have agreed that this so-called positive illusion gives people the very real illusion that they have control over the events in their lives even when, or especially when, that control is impossible.

Ever thrown dice harder in hopes of a higher roll (daddy needs a new pair of shoes), drove rather than be a passenger to avoid an accident, or chose lottery ticket numbers yourself so you would have a better chance of winning?

This becomes more interesting in the context of a shared experience. With people spending more time on social networks than any other online activity, it is safe to assume that some part of nearly every experience is being shared. The opportunity here is to embrace this active participation and be an equal participant in the experience equation. In the rapidly growing Google+ community, there are now people with no direct connection to Google going so far as to write out and share complex requirements documents, debating patterns and logic for things they would like to see implemented. And the engineers and leaders are interacting with the users and discussing how the changes might be implemented.

These are exactly the types of patterns Adobe has built into digital marketing technologies -- myriad ways of interacting across channels, social networks and enterprise content properties and intelligently measuring those interactions -- to bring both the conversations and the sense of consistent and appropriate intimacy back into the marketing, design and product organizations that need it most. Done right, this translates to conversion, loyalty and advocacy in unprecedented levels. Now you know just how awesome you are, all the time.

It’s okay to have compelling events and big flashes to attract attention, but in today’s environment it’s almost more important to be there always, when people need you, on their terms. This is a much safer approach as it pertains to investment since there is less wasted effort, and the audience who is interacting with you has a specific desire to be there beyond just responding to some external stimuli to change their patterns.

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When you make sweeping changes to how users get access to your content, you should consider the aesthetic and brand as well. -- Image used with permission -- Charlton Baretto, Digital Walkabout -- charltonb.typepad.com

Conclusion

To wrap up, I think the power to get this right needs to be given to skilled designers and content creators who work on leading-edge tools with access to deep data -- and they need to work together to help make the digital world a more fun, helpful and navigable place. Make sure your decisions are rooted in context, not some whimsical, fleeting idea (not that those aren’t great sometimes). Don’t creep your customers out; deliver professional, consistently good reward for effort but don’t show up at their house unannounced. Finally, if change is the only constant, you’re going to have to dig deep to engage your customers, staff and partners in new experiences that are consistent with everything else you do.

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