For the past four months I’ve had the pleasure of working for 20.20, a 25 year old strategic retail and leisure design consultancy. Their heritage is in the design of ‘bricks and mortar’ brands and environments, and their client list is long and enviable. At their core is an understanding of environment, brand and design and how these elements work together to create great customer experiences in physical spaces.

We got together on the premise that the introduction of ‘Bring Your Own’ and In-situ interactive screens and digital technologies was blurring the lines between online and offline within the retail environment. Neither they nor clients could ignore the growing impact that technology was having on overall physical experience, whether by luck or design. I came on board to help work out how we could explicitly harness technology to enhance customer experience in these retail and leisure environments.

The collision of the web and the real-world retail environments, caused by the disruptive arrival of mobile and connected screens, throws up lots of questions and challenges. I love these grey areas, they are fertile ground for lateral and innovative thinking, and clients are hungry for answers and direction. The retail challenge is not dissimilar to that being faced by many traditional industries where rapid consumer adoption of connected technology is threatening business models that have remained fairly unchanged for centuries. Publishing and entertainment also spring to mind.

Of course, e-commerce is already a well established channel in the UK, but the drive now for many retailers is to start to fully integrate their web channels across their estate. Their aim is to create joined-up cross-channel customer journeys and thereby, they hope, move from a multi to omni-channel business model.

Omni-channel retail doesn’t necessarily begin and end with the web. For many multi-channel businesses, however, the web is the engine of growth – and mobile web in particular is seen as the most appropriate channel around which to pivot an omni-channel offering.

What this often means is that the drive for omni-channel is led by IT and the discussions and approaches I have witnessed around omni-channel seem to focus on commercial opportunities and the removal of perceived logistical and technical challenges. E.g. More range, more routes to sell, quicker fulfillment and mobilising the website and/or driving it in-store.

While IT and commercial teams work through the implications and opportunities from a platform and process point of view (and the board sits back with another box ticked) – from a user point of view there remains ‘One Brand’ and a clear and immediate need to maintain consistency of experience.

Users don’t differentiate between channels in the way that a business does. To them the store, the app and the website all belong to the same brand, and they naturally expect to have a consistent experience across the whole estate. Some of that can be data driven; a single customer view; being recognised across platforms, and so on. But the softer side of experience – how it feels to interact, and how the brand looks across channels is currently taking a back seat while the bright lights of technology take centre stage.

I’ve seen it all before, new technology blinds us with its opportunity while user experience, design and brand are put on hold. Witness the early days of mobile, with its redundant apps, unusable mobile sites and barely legible banner ads (ok, we’re not out of the woods yet, but things have improved).

The situation with omni-channel is exacerbated because each channel in the mix inherently has a different usage context and paradigm, a distinct user and business requirement and often a different business owner. Perfectly aligning brand and design across these competing priorities is not always possible from the get-go, but must be an ambition if a truly omni-channel customer facing experience is the end goal.

Defining alignment and how to converge brand experience will eventually need businesses to create and articulate an omni-channel brand vision, as well as developing cross-channel brand and interaction guidelines.  Right now traditional retailers especially need to balance design consistency requirements against multi-channel growth priorities as they struggle to battle off the e-commerce pure-plays. However, sacrificing the crown jewels of brand and user experience at the altar of e-commerce is not going to lead to long-term success.

Before the omni-channel brand vision is drafted, there are some simple design principles a multi-channel business could start to impose;

1. Ensure that users recognise the brand and brand elements whatever the point/channel of contact (consistent identity), and this can start with a common set of fonts, colours, language and tone of voice.

2. Insist that interactive and digital experience design reflects core brand values and guidelines (on-brand design)

3. Start to align E-commerce, m-commerce and in-store digital, interactive, 2D and 3D design activity to produce positive experience effects (seamless and cumulative design and message impact)

4. Create cross-channel interactive and off-line experiences that begin to converge in terms of design and user-experience with the aim of creating a common set of brand assets and language (across all channels from ATL all the way through to CRM)

Who calls the design shots in this brave new world is another matter. But design and UE consistency across a multi-channel business is essential. So move over IT, and say hello to the user-centric omni-brand.