• There is No Spoon: The Construct of Channels

    As products become services, and services become more thoughtfully and holistically designed, we are breaking out of our digital silos and endeavoring to support a more seamless cross-channel customer experience spanning every touchpoint between the customer and company. But what constitutes the channel in cross-channel? And what implication does this have on the customers’ experience when interacting with your product or service?

    When we are trying to gain an experiential view of the customer journey, channels aren’t the best lens to view the experience. Cross-channel, as a concept, makes sense for information architecture. Through the lens of making content objects persistently findable, consistent, and connected, it makes sense to think in terms of that information across channels. But when you think of the consumer experience, they are not traversing channels. In this sense, “cross-channel experience” is a bit of a misnomer. Yet we often lead with channels and even, detrimentally, silo our organizations around channels.

    Ceci n’est pas une channel

    A channel is typically the means, or medium, in which information is conveyed. In the past, channels, broadly speaking, were conflated with medium, platform and other ways of thinking about the means by which people were exposed to or interacted with content, brands, or services. Print, Broadcast, Radio, Digital, Environment—as media/platforms/channels for communicating to people—were defined by fairly rigid rules of technology and distribution (printing material, airwaves, pixels, physical environments, etc.). But these older definitions don’t hold up as well in our connected, interaction-defined world. Many channels identified as such, from email to social media, aren’t channels under a traditional definition. But we’ve come to use them because of their unique characteristics that enable us to communicate or interact with customers or end users.

    I don’t claim to have a new authoritative definition of what constitutes a channel. But I know any formal definitions I’ve found don’t accurately reflect the work I do. My definition applies to how I use channels when defining the strategy and design of products and services.

    A channel is a medium of interaction with customers or users

    Most of us have some sense of what this means. We can roughly identify a channel in the wild. Call centers, websites, print advertising, are all common channels for reaching out to and interacting with customers. But the broadness or granularity that defines a channel can vary widely based on context. The fact is, channels can work in concert within an experience exclusively, sequentially, or even simultaneously. Your organization should then have its own definition of relevant channels depending on its need to support the experience of the customer.


    Photo: Katie Greiner, @klgreiner

    In the image above, we have a single touchpoint—a customer getting their rental car—but a concert of channels: physical ‘retail’ space, video with remote agent, touchscreen kiosk interface. Perhaps the mobile phone in his hand has an email with a confirmation number, or even a Hertz or Tripit native app? And that doesn’t include wayfinding or printed collateral. There is a conversation happening between company and customer, with a goal at the end. The channels that are involved—touch interface, video, mobile— define how the company supports that conversation and that goal. The information needs to be consistent between video, kiosk screen, mobile and physical retail space. The information is cross-channel, but the experience is not. The experience, to the customer, is singular.

    Channels aren’t a place

    Let’s start with the recognition that channels aren’t a place that customers are at in any point in time. Customers don’t think in terms of channels in their mental model. They think about their experience, the sum of all their interactions across time with a product or service. Customers think about their goals, and not whether they are traversing a landscape of channels to accomplish that goal. Think of the image above: if you take a typical siloed company organized by channels: the mobile group, the digital gruop, the customer service group (video), and the retail group, this concert becomes increasingly challenging.So customers don’t think in channels, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. Though, at best, they’re a construct.

    A channel isn’t the point of interaction. A channel is the means by which a point of interaction—a moment—is enabled or constrained.

    We construct them as a way to define those opportunities or constraints around a particular moment—a touchpoint. If you think of the mobile phone as a channel, you are now afforded opportunities, and presented with constraints, in how you and your customer or user interact.

    When thinking about supporting an experience at a particular moment, isn’t that what’s important? What am I able (and not able) to do at this point to support my customer’s journey?Channels are completely fluid to the context of our needs. We can define them broadly: digital channel versus phone channel. Or we can zoom in and define them more narrowly: mobile channel versus desktop web channel. Or more narrowly still: native app versus mobile web. The purpose of defining channels largely depends on the context in which they are being discussed—at what detail do you need to define a particular channel to support the experience? You’ll typically define them more broadly at the organizational level, and then more narrowly as you move down to the strategic and then tactical level.

    You keep using that word. I don’t think it means what you think it means.

    But you can’t create a hierarchical taxonomy to define channels (digital>mobile>app)—after the highest level: Print, Mobile, Web, Environment, etc., things will get muddy fast. Just as an exercise, list every term you’ve used to represent a channel and you’ll see overlap, redundancy, and conflict. Some of these channels are defined by their context of use (mobile), some by the means of interaction (tablet) others their technological means of distribution (web), others still the content or information they distribute (social media), or a combination thereof.


    It’s more realistic to think of channels as having facets and defining them in more qualitiative terms, such as means of interaction, information, and context.

    • Interaction: What’s the means, or affordance, by which the customer interacts with you? Examples include touch devices, mouse and keyboard, keypad, or voice.
    • Information: What is the nature of the content being provided to or exchanged with the customer?
    • Context: What is the context—from environment to emotion—in which the interaction is happening?

    Sometimes a channel is defined by one of these facets, but in many cases, it may be defined by two or all three. But defining channels by these facets illuminates what opportunities and constraints are afforded to you.

    Not too long ago I was doing stakeholder interviews for a client. I was interviewing a particular executive about their “mobile strategy,” and when he was discussing what he was imagining they would be supporting, he discussed capabilities that could only be supported by a native application (harnessing sensors and accessing local directories). However, I already knew that what they were working on was a browser based, responsive web application that wouldn’t be able to do the things he was describing. Clearly there wasn’t a shared understanding in the organization of what “mobile” as a channel meant in terms of opportunities and constraints.

    Another example comes from working with a large company that offers live chat as a means of communicating with its customers. Their chat is manned by the same customer service representatives that take phone calls. Chat is enabled by the same desktop software that they use to manage customer calls and customer profiles and transactions. From the perspective of supporting the customer experience, this would typically be a “digital channel” (live chat, through a web browser, using a keyboard), though from the standpoint of the backstage, this service was supported through the “phone channel”.

    But what’s really important is not to define this experience first by the channel. This touchpoint should be defined experientially from the customers’ perspective. Then identifying live chat as a channel isn’t about digital or phone, but about a shorthand articulation of the means of interaction, the content, and the context you are provided with to support the experience at that particular moment.

    Ultimately you want to recognize that in any interaction with a customer, what you’re trying to support is a conversation. Identifying a channel through which the conversation takes place is just a means of understanding what constraints and opportunities enable the conversation. Companies should not organize around channels. They should understand that the role of channels in the journey is as a catalyst for the customer to move forward on that journey.

    There are 5 thoughts on this idea

    1. SBG

      I could buy into this if I hadn’t sat in the user testing groups where people identified their favorite TV show by naming a channel, but were unable to come up with specific show names when asked for specifics. Channels are a very real thing in the minds of TV viewers. Sorry.
      Maybe down the road, as more people stray from TV to viewing content on the web it will change.

    2. Chris Risdon

      Thanks for the comment. The channels you refer to are a different application of the term, related only in the sense of the historical context of the uses of the word “channel”. Here it’s discussed as it’s applied to cross-channel information architecture and experiences, including beyond the web — different media, platforms, channels we use to communicate and interact with customers (such as email, native mobile apps, social media, etc.), that we commonly refer collectively as “channels” (i.e. cross-channel experiences). Different, though related, to consuming media (shows and movies) on television or the web, instead more applied to completing tasks with a service system.

      Nick Finck’s video from his presentation on Cross Channel Experiences is a good primer on the subject. (http://vimeo.com/39416069) Resmini’s and Rosati’s book, Pervasive Information Architecture is another good source.

      – Chris

    3. Morag Johnston

      Just the article I was looking for! How can I quibble with something that includes a quote from The Princess Bride?

      There’s a mind shift and even more matrixed interaction required within the organization to address cross-channel “conversations”. Success measurement is affected as can be the attribution of revenue. It’s big.

      Watching a movie or a TV episode can be considered a task. Cable co’s and broadcasters are specifically addressing this in their products by removing the need to consume a video live, and figuring out what the cross-platform flow should be.

      Completion of any customer task dependent on a single platform? Inconceivable.

    4. Follower

      Hi Chris, very well written, thank you. Working for a retailer with online and brick and mortar presence, I’ve been pondering the word channel for a while in terms of its traditional definition. It was hard to comprehend whether it was a sales channel, marketing (content/communication) channel, etc. Also, channel vs. platform was something I ran into. Glad to hear you recognize and address it. Curious, if you have any thoughts around how an organization should structure itself to really build a unified customer experience. I’d love chat more offline. Thank you.

    5. vidhya

      Wow! Excellent clarity and illuminating examples that drive home the msg. I arrived here from the links on experience map from adaptive path.
      Folks, if you thought this article was awesome, you should sure check out the experience map pdf that is one terrific storytelling from adaptive path that weaves all the pieces from Chris’s and the like 🙂

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