2014-23-July-Choices.jpgImagine changing a flight or booking a hotel, comparing mortgage rates or researching healthcare providers. You’re probably thinking about specific websites that can help accomplish these tasks -- or maybe a search that could start the process.

Now imagine doing any of these things on a smartphone. Chances are it would take several false starts and -- if you were dedicated to the goal -- a lot of struggle before the job was done. It has little if anything to do with the screen size. Instead, it’s a reflection of design and content that doesn't match the contextual needs of the user. And it doesn't take an extreme example to illustrate this point.

For all of the attention it has received, the mobile web remains a frustrating place for users. Businesses big and small, across industries, struggle to create seamless, functional and appropriate experiences for the many channels through which consumers now engage. At the same time, mobile optimized websites are increasingly important for businesses.

In January of 2014, mobile app and web use eclipsed the desktop in terms of total time spent with the Internet for the first time ever. Underscoring this trend, in a recent survey conducted by Braun Research, 91 percent of millennial respondents claimed their smartphones were just as important as their cars -- or deodorant. Clearly, to communicate with this growing group of consumers -- and consumers in general -- businesses must provide an effective, enjoyable mobile experience.

Through extensive usability testing, the Nielsen Norman Group has identified four important elements for the design of cross channel experiences.

  • Consistency, established and maintained through a persistent visual design and tone of voice, helps orient users within each channel -- even on the first visit via an unfamiliar device.
  • Creating a seamless experience is also important -- one that allows users to start a task on one device and finish it on another.
  • Availability of features across channels and devices is critical.
  • And perhaps most importantly, experiences must be context specific -- prioritizing information and functionality in accordance with the needs of users within the most likely environments each device will be used.

As important as these elements are, most can be addressed with a careful design and copywriting strategy. However, the last factor -- creating an appropriate, context-specific experience -- is more challenging. And since it addresses the needs, intent and unique mentality of users, it’s also the most important. Creating a context-specific experience requires more than design expertise or an understanding of industry best practices. Instead, each business must determine the needs of their own customers for each channel.

A/B testing and optimization are the most powerful tools available for building this understanding of actual customers. Through an iterative, experimental approach, it’s possible to create detailed user personas for each channel and, more importantly, verify strategies for addressing their needs and desires.

Specifically, testing can explore these three critical factors:

1. Establishing Authentic Relevancy

Thanks to engineering frameworks like responsive design, it’s easy to create a website that stretches and shrinks to fit the frame of nearly any device. Such an approach solves the problems of consistency and possibly seamlessness discussed above, but fails to address needs for context specificity. Mobile users, for example, may need simplified or even different information. Tablet users may respond to different images than desktop users. Establishing this relevancy can be difficult.