Jul 25 2011
As of March 2017, this article only holds historical value. For an up-to-date discussion of cross-channel experiences, refer to The architecture of cross-channel ecosystems.
Me and Luca Rosati have been thinking and working together on cross-channel information architecture since 2007 (see here and here). Luca laid out the foundations between 2006 and 2007 in his book “Architettura dell'informazione”, printed by Italian publishing house Apogeo, for which I wrote an appendix on way-finding. We have been working with, writing about, and presenting extensively on the subject ever since.
This means we had plenty of time to iron out the base concepts that we explain in the Pervasive Information Architecture book, and one thing that we investigated to death was if and how what we were saying was connected to existing concepts such as ambient intelligence, ubiquitous computing, or ambient findability. Because of this, we worked quite a bit on the labeling and we changed our mind a number of times: we called this vision of information architecture digital-physical, cross-contextual, cross-media, and many other names we should be ashamed of.
In the early stages of framing, Joel Grossman's Designing bridge experiences and Henry Jenkin's book Convergence Culture were the recurring soundtrack, but as our conversation got more and more focused on design problems we became increasingly dissatisfied with both the crossmedia approach  and the vision implied by bridging.
Now, one book and a few hundred hours of conversations and readings into the process, I think we have reached a certain (if certainly momentary) clarity on what the different labels mean. Nothing helps telling solid ideas apart from incoherent mumblings like having to go through the actual act of writing a book.
So: multi-channel, cross-channel, crossmedia (or transmedia). Are these synonymous? Are they different things? Should we even care? The answer is no, yes, and you bet.
Before I introduce my take on this, a couple of clarifications: I won't make any distinction between products and services here. I use the word service in accordance with our manifesto: products become services. That seems to be Don Norman's opinion as well, if you just don't buy it from me and Luca. Furthermore, a ubiquitous ecology is the set of elements and relationships pertaining to an ecosystem: it comprises devices, actors, information being shared, touchpoints . A pervasive information architecture is the information layer that enables and connects all touchpoints participating in a ubiquitous ecology or an ecosystem.
Multi-channel is a way of delivering services that allows users / customers to interact with the system through a number of different channels and enables successful completion of tasks through any number of these in complete and discrete fashion. The typical example is the way you can interact with a bank: you can use a dedicated phone number, go to the website, use a mobile application, or walk to the closest branch and interact with staff. In any of these channels, you can perform a varying number of tasks from start to finish without resorting to any other channel.
Most of the discussion on crossmedia we owe to Henri Jenkins . His basic stance is that crossmedia can be experienced as a whole (if ever) only across a number of environments, media, and channels. Jenkins refers to The Matrix movies as a good example of this strategy: the website, videogames, novelizations (or comics), side-projects like the Animatrix shorts, and the movies themselves, they all introduce obscure references, unexplained nods, cues, and connections that are introduced for increased depth and complexity and that are completely lost to the casual viewer. Full appreciation is bestowed only on those who delve deep into the narrative universe of the movies by polling all the different media channels. Crossmedia is expressly designed to be experienced fragmentarily: no single medium provides the full package. Furthermore, there is an emphasis on entertainment and media-related experiences and consumption (movies, music, tv).
Cross-channel offers a different stance: a single channel might or might not offer a complete path through the ecosystem, but the fact is that most of the users / customers will not stay in that channel from point A to point Z. In other words, it might very well be that in a ubiquitous ecology some channels do allow users to complete their experiential journey without resorting to other channels, in contrast to crossmedia, but that is not going to happen very often (or at all, in contrast to multi-channel). This is where the specific nature of cross-channel lies, and where the challenges for design reside. Let me stress the design part: cross-channel is not about technology, or marketing, nor it is limited to media-related experiences. It's a systemic change in the way we experience reality. The more the physical and the digital become intertwined, the more designing successful cross-channel user experiences becomes crucial.
Simon Davies and Tomas Cederlund are two pretty well-known interior designers and tv hosts over here in the land of Svea. Their shows, one of them the unfortunately aptly-named Sveriges fulaste hem (Sweden's ugliest homes), are reality-like constructions where they usually get to improve or totally redo houses or apartments all over the country. They don't usually work on the structure, and keep the reshaping of walls, spaces, rooms and levels to a minimum (if it's there at all).
Simon and Tomas are likable characters, know how to play their audience, and their shows receive good ratings. So what's up with them? Well, they give me the opportunity to make a point I've been making for some years even more explicit: you can do design (or architecture, or information architecture and user experience) in more ways than one, working within very different constraints and producing very different results that are nonetheless valid. Simon and Tomas, either because that's the way they like it or because of the way the tv settings shape their approach, usually tread down the 'redecorating' path. I don't mean this in a condescending way: good skinning goes a long way to make our lives better, and they always come up with good (or interesting) results. But that doesn't mean you couldn't go for a totally different approach and still claim you're in the same line of work they are. Matter of fact, that's what I always did myself.
I had the privilege of designing a few apartments through the years, and of course I designed the ones where me and the family have lived. Those of you who visited us know that even after a few years some ceiling lamps where missing, or a few required pieces of furniture weren't very obviously there (oh, the snarky comments I'd get from Simon). On the other hand, even though in Italy we lived in apartment buildings, our places were unique in more ways than one, as I completely redesigned the layout, the number of rooms, the different spaces, and how they were connected4. The outer constraints I could not change, but the inside was mine to shape.
Successful cross-channel experiences are built on our perception of this wild array of elements, information, users, devices, and places as one or more coherent "digital dwellings", as Andrew Hinton put it . Where we place the walls, how we shape the connections from one room to another and how much light we let into is much more important to me than what style the table should be. In the context of services, I believe this is the role of information architecture, and I think it's foundational.
But: this is my view, and Luca's. Much like Simon and Thomas and my apartments, that does not mean it's the only way to tackle this pesky cross-channel thing, not at all. This is why, in our nick of the woods, if you are interested in the subject you should follow up what Peter Morville, Samantha Starmer, Nick Finck (who's currently writing a book on cross-channel UX), Jess McMullin, Dan Willis, and Mike Kuniavsky  are saying and doing. They might have different opinions, and that's what makes this conversation interesting, and productive. And if you have something to say, I'd love to hear it.