Monday, 16 November 2015

On communication and fragmentation

The Rosetta Stone, British Museum by Gary Denham

I've dealt with work flows that result in communications for many years and one trend that I've noticed over the past 5 or so years is that unlike previous communications channels, which might have remain relatively small and fragmented before they become widespread, there are now various avenues for communication and people will be comfortable using more than one; even from the same device. For example, I have friends that will use email, Facebook messaging, WhatsApp, Snapchat and SMS (or iMessage) between the same set of people depending on both the context and content of the messages.

Some background

I was recently at a conference where Patrice About from AirFrance made the point about various customer service aspects for airlines now don't have a single way of achieving that service and passengers expect to use the most convenient method available to them, for example for check-in they want to be able to choose between online, at a counter, self-service kiosk or using an app.

This blog post has been in my drafts since the very early days of writing it, it has been interesting reading the new articles that I collected showing how the future might develop. For example although QR codes and NFC have been contenders to provide localised services, neither have really achieved the potential that either has worldwide - although Apple including NFC in its latest products may change that.

So what choices does a service provider have? And which should they choose? Here is a short round up of the main communications channels...


Email has become ubiquitous in modern life as it is quick, asynchronous, "free" in a per message sense. However, for bulk or any kind of commercial send there is a need to consider deliverability - from infrastructure to authentication and reputation. The first quote that sums up email is
The second, which I can't find a reference for, is something along the lines of 
Email is a to do list created by people who don't know your priories or value your time
This really resonated with one of my colleagues, perhaps because it is so easy to send emails it has created a love hate relationship along those lines for me as well, especially since I find typing emails on my phone so fiddly!


Voice messages can be synchronous, which is good in gaining immediate feedback, but bad in that it is a slow send channel to use with the amount of time to send tied to that to receive it. The main value I can see is that this can be very good way of extending the call centre and dealing with the easy cases running an automated script. Difficult cases can seamlessly be transferred into priority call centre queues to be dealt with by a human,


Compared to email SMS never really fully flourished, with smartphones and apps curtailing any serious use of MMS by businesses, although shortly after I started writing this post in 2012 some still thought MMS was the future. In selecting SMS gateway providers there are thousands of choices, but few provide a consistency of service that you can receive with email providers. Some of the issues that you have to deal with when sending text messages include ported numbers, various number formats in collected data, different message formats and character sets available, even differing handset capabilities ... although I'm not sure if any of those features like Nokia lock screen animations even apply anymore!


Interesting recent development, requires smart phone, tied to device. The way that Apple and Google have evolved the frameworks to make other devices such as smart watches hook into general notification services means this has become less of talking point in the last year or so. I must admit I thought this would have had a bigger impact than it has when I started this blog. It has various negative points like being tied to a device or app and requiring network/battery power that email might not have, but does have massive bonus in immediacy that even mailbox alerts don't always provide - I've missed a number of emails recently where the push notifications didn't come through!

Social media

Something I hear in advice to use social media is that "you need to be where the conversation is" but, in my opinion, this only tells half the story therefore it's only half a piece of advice. You need to factor in why the conversation is where it is and what it is about. Buying a service by one channel but then being communicated to exclusively by another channel can be a disconnect, for example WeChat has a bit of an ecosystem to it that if you were to make an airline booking there but got your communications via email it might seem disjointed.

For social media I would argue that you do need a much better idea of the demographics of your users and their needs than you might get away with using email as an interface or communications tool. There are several different models such as public broadcast, public conversation, private notification or private conversation? Then you need to think for your geography and demographic which network? Facebook and Twitter are both popular globally but regional sites such as Renren in China, VKontakte (Russia’s Facebook equivalent) or Hyves in the Netherlands might need to be considered. In fact behind the great firewall of China a local platform like WeChat might be the only viable and operationally effective choice.

KLM have made social media expertise their calling card, although I would imagine a lot of debate goes on internally in treading the line between not over investing in marketing gimmicks - the social seat maps looked like a fine line here - and being careful not to miss the next big thing or not capturing a younger market. To me they embody the choice of channels approach, it remains to be seen how many of these initiatives will last the course or they will become more targeted to the niches they serve.


Finally, this tweet says what I feel about fax ;-) ...

In summary, my advice for choosing the right communication medium is quite simple - know your audience and know what's appropriate in your context but never forget your users' preferences. Also don't forget that expectations change and you need to live up to them for good customer experience...

 Further reading

Should we design better products for older people?

This week I've been having a bit of think about products for an older audience, prompted by this tweet by Tom Peters ("The red bull...