Omni-channel is a frequently used term in the retail industry, but what does it really mean? Is it applicable to other industries like banking? Tobias Rosman, a master’s student in Interaction Design at KTH, has investigated these questions at Screen Interaction as part of his master’s thesis project. In this article, he summarizes his research and findings.
The omni-channel idea and concept has been developed in the retail industry in recent years with the intention to solve the obstacles the customers meet when trying to move between channels. In retail, an omni-channel experience implies that the customer can approach a brand through the channel of her choice. It could be a desktop, mobile, physical store or magazine, which allows her to experience the brand, and not only a channel within a brand.
Fashion retailer Burberry is a good example of a brand that has taken the concept of omni-channel far by delivering a unified experience across their digital and physical channels. They provide a consistent look and feel across channels, offer a seamless transition to other channels when limitations are encountered, and personal preferences and purchase data follow the customers through all channels. Three best practices of omni-channel have been identified and promoted in recent years;seamlessness, consistency and optimization across channels.
Many have proposed that the banking industry would benefit from adopting the omni-channel approach to merge technically siloed channels and give the user a more unified experience across channels. The Google report, The New Multi-Screen World(2012), is often referenced when emphasizing the importance of having the bank channels work together. According to the report, 90% of participants have started a task on one device and completed it on another, and 46% of these have done this when managing finances. However, the study does not give any details about how often the participants switch channels, if they prefer doing it, or even what financial tasks this behaviour covers.
A report (2014) from the TATA group challenges the common belief that bank customers are high frequent channel switchers. Instead, it found that they are mostly ‘uni-channel’ and prefer to use a primary channel to perform as many of their tasks as possible. Only when the preferred channel fails do they switch to a second channel.
The contradictory reports and uncertainties of how bank customers use different bank channels motivated my research. To determine if the omni-channel approach was applicable to banking and in what way, I needed answers to questions such as: How do Swedish bank customers use different channels today? Do they use multiple devices to conduct the same banking task or not? Do they switch between devices, and if so, why do they do this? Do they want to use multiple banking channels or do they prefer to use one?
Qualitative user research methods were chosen to get closer with the users and understand not only how they use the different channels, but also why they use them as they do. Six participants reported basic information about their online banking over a two week period, describing what they did, on what device and in what context. This information was later used to prompt interviewees when we discussed their usage. The study was delimited to day-to-day financial tasks like checking balances, transferring money and paying bills, and also to the two most commonly used channels, mobile and desktop.
The study gave insights about how customers use different devices and what motivates their channel choice, and also about how their usage might change with a more unified design solution. The results and insights are briefly presented below.
For the tasks included in the study, there were a minimal need to use both channels for the same kind of task. This means that the users are not prone to switching between devices to conduct these simple tasks, but rather dedicate their different tasks to different devices or to do everything through one single channel. If the users don’t switch between channels and don’t show a need to use multiple channels, the omni-channel approach lacks relevance and will not have a significant impact on the experience.
The driving factors for the different devices were both software and hardware related. Examples of differences in software are the more complex login process on the desktop or the more efficient information architecture of the mobile which lets the user find a specific feature more quickly. Examples of hardware related factors are the portability and availability of the mobile, which enables usage across a wider variety of contexts, times and situations. The driving factor for the desktop that was emphasized by the participants was the greater screen size, which they felt provided a better overview, hence a feeling of safety.
To figure out if the ‘different task on different device’ behaviour depended on software differences, a design suggestion that unifies the experience over the two devices was put forward to the participants with the question of how it would affect their channel choices. The design would be consistent in look, feel, interactions and functionalities across platforms. For example, it would be as easy to log in and transfer money on the desktop as it is on the mobile, and the mobile would give a better overview that is similar to the desktop.
Five of six participants argued that their usage would not change much with a design that focuses on uniform and consistency. This was because of driving factors that are dependent of the hardware-related characteristics, such as screen size or portability, factors that could not change with a more uniformly designed software. The availability of the mobile would still be greater because of its portability, and therefore the tasks that the participant mostly did on the go, like checking a balance before a purchase in-store, would still be done on the mobile.
In the same way, the tasks that take more time or that require more information and analysis would still be done on the desktop because of the larger screen that provides a better overview. This implies that the hardware-related device characteristics plays a significant and important role in channel choice in the context of digital banking. These characteristics are unique for the specific channel and are also its strengths.
Since the users expect to benefit from the unique strengths of each device, designers should focus on utilizing and enhancing these strengths, such as the greater portabilityof the mobile, and the greater screen size of the desktop. Taking advantage of each channel’s unique strengths would build a greater user experience in each channel, and hence the user would get more out of the system as a whole.
Speaking in terms of omni-channel principles, in cases where the principle of consistency across devices is in a trade-off relationship with the principle of optimization, the optimization principle should be given higher priority. Of course the channels should be unified and consistent in visual identity, look and feel and tone of voice; this is very important in building brand, trust and recognition. But when it comes to task design and task prioritization in different channels, it’s more important to optimize design for context, screen size and other channel differences.
Optimizing channel design by taking advantage of its unique strengths and benefits will generate a greater user experience across channels and are in line with the users’ expectations and needs of today. It will help build trust and loyalty, and will also encourage the customers to engage more in their finances and hence build closer relationships with the bank and its services.
“Optimizing channel design by taking advantage of its unique strengths and benefits will generate a greater user experience across channels”
In my study, I concluded that the omni-channel approach lacks relevance for simple day-to-day banking tasks, but for the more complex task areas within banking the use of multiple channels could be more beneficial. Areas like budgeting, stock trading and deciding what insurance to purchase have aspects that could benefit from both the quick and easy use of the mobile and the better overview and safety of the desktop. These insights open up questions as to how we practically could design the experience of using multiple digital banking channels to make the whole become more than the sum of its parts.
How could the unique strengths of different devices be utilized to a greater extent within banking? For example, how can we use the contexts the mobile brings and the great overview possibilities of the desktop to create a richer overall experience? The behavior patterns of using multiple devices for the same task areas exist as Google showed in ‘The New Multi-Screen World,’ but the digital banking channels are not designed to meet this behavior. How could digital banking channels be designed so that the customers benefit from using multiple channels? How could the channels work together in a way so that the whole becomes more than the sum of its parts?