On any given day, a consumer may experience a brand on a website, through social media, on blogs, or by reading e-mail–all while browsing on her smartphone, her tablet, or her computer at home or work. She may interact with a brand in a real brick-and-mortar store, through a letter or flyer she receives in the mail, or simply by taking in advertising from print ads, billboards, catalogs, or from banner ads anywhere on the Web.

While most big enterprises already know they need to market and design [1] [2] for customer experience across all these touch points (and any that may erupt tomorrow), few UX practitioners have discussed specific strategies for conducting user research on user experiences that span channels. How should enterprises plan for research on interfaces that they already have out there in the world…that their customers are already leapfrogging between every day? Here are a few examples of channel-crossing insights that the AnswerLab research team uncovers every day.

Cross-Channel Experience Map:

Desktop Web or Mobile Web –> Call to Local Store or Call to Call Center –> Brick-and-Mortar Location

A major shipping company recently brought AnswerLab in to test a new web-based store locator to be used by their customers on desktop, on mobile phones, and on tablets. The client was really interested to know whether users thought it was easy to find a nearby location to ship their packages. Smartphone usage had the edge, since users could find locations on-the-go, within a few blocks from where they stood.

One interesting unintended finding was that nearly all of the smartphone users said that they would simply tap to call one of the stores they found using the locator. Though the new website provided lots of ways to sort through nearby locations to find the right services, customers thought it would be easier to call and get a staff member to tell them what shipping services they provide, or even just to find out store hours or the last express pickup time of the day. In the end, our research found that our client’s great new multi-platform experience made it even easier for their customers to cross channels– from their mobile website to calling their stores or call centers.

Research Opportunity: Extend the interview to observe users’ calls to the stores or customer support. Capture the feedback they get from staff and how that adds to what users experienced on their desktop, phone or tablet. Identify what insights staff are sharing that the customers didn’t get from the website. Last, use those findings to help decide whether to bake the right information into the web-based locator, or perhaps strip down the locator even more to facilitate those quick phone calls when it’s most useful to customers.

Cross-Channel Experience Map:

Mobile E-mail –> Desktop Web –> Mobile Phone to Call Center –> Mobile E-mail

Not long ago, I checked my personal e-mail on my smartphone during a break in conducting research, to discover $100 in mysterious iTunes charges to my PayPal account. PayPal recognized this was fraud even before I did, but when I reviewed the case history on my account portal on the PayPal website, I found that none of the alerts and messages described what my next steps should be as the account holder. What would I need to do–if anything– to make sure the charges were removed? How long would I have to wait for a refund? I called the PayPal customer service line and was connected quickly to a customer service rep who explained that I could either wait for PayPal to resolve it, or I could call iTunes myself if I was anxious to receive an update. The customer service rep offered to send me the toll free number for iTunes, using the e-mail address he saw in my account profile. Clicking back to my e-mail inbox, I saw that I received his e-mail instantly.

Research Opportunity: Simultaneous intercept for callers and web visitors: did they recently receive a message about suspicious activity on their account? Invite them to participate in a web-based survey or a live qualitative study evaluating alternatives to the notification format, such as alternate e-mail content, text messaging, outbound calls to their registered mobile. Find out what customers’ first concerns were on notification, and develop recommendations for how to pro-actively follow up with them in the channel they use most– or all of them.

Cross-Channel Experience Map:

Mobile Web and E-mail –> Incoming Automated Call –> Mobile Web and E-mail

Here’s an example of the kind of cross-channel experience your enterprise doesn’t want to create. This spring, a major airline changed their notification strategy for delayed flights from e-mail messages to sending passengers an automated outbound call blast every time an update hit the system. Before grabbing a taxi for the airport, a researcher picked up her smartphone to find seven missed calls and voicemails– all recorded messages from the airline, with a new departure time for her flight. She checked the flight status using a different mobile app, then hopped in a cab. Later, with passengers already on board, the pilot announced that the flight would be delayed another few hours while they worked to repair equipment issues. Everyone sighed and switched on their phones to check their e-mail, Facebook, play games, and to call their families. Ten minutes later, a chorus of phones rang in unison throughout the cabin. It was the airline, telling customers what they’d already found out first hand, then double-checked on any number of mobile apps and websites. Laughter and groans from their customers was undoubtedly not the cross-channel experience the airline had hoped for.

Research Opportunity: Diary studies and/or qualitative interviews with frequent travelers: where are they when they find out about updates in flight status? Crucially, what do they do next? Does the notification strategy drive a change in their behavior? Does it help them plan for the inconvenience, or does it cause more disruption? Find out more about their behavior in this frequent rainy-day scenario by testing the sequence, across as many interfaces as users might encounter, with airline customers themselves.

These are just a few observations about the kinds of situations where your customers will migrate across several channels while trying to interact with you– and you need to know when and why it’s happening. User experience research can help uncover any hidden glitches in these interactions even before your organization has implemented a cross-channel customer experience strategy from the top down. Another lesson learned here: even if your existing interfaces and applications give your customers the tools to answer their needs in one channel, it doesn’t mean they’ll choose to stay only in that channel. Prepare for them to ricochet between whatever touch points are handiest for them in the moment– and make sure to study what happens when they move from one channel to the next.