Designing for Bridge Experiences

By Joel Grossman

Published: June 30, 2006

“User experience is a discipline that expects unending change, dramatic technological innovation, and unanticipated consequences. We thrive on remix, mashup, and appropriation and use them to help solve the issues that arise from employing these very same techniques.”

The practice of user experience lacks the historical pedigree of many of its constituent elements, including human/computer interaction, library science, social-science research methods, product-development methodology, and, most of all, design. What it does enjoy, however, is a pragmatic, multidisciplinary approach that encompasses the intertwined social, economic, and technological forces it engages. It’s a contingent amalgamation—an assembly of what works—and a set of perspectives and problem-solving techniques that define how we, as practitioners, think about creating products and services.

Sometimes this fact is lost upon us in the rush of day-to-day work.

The UX community, broadly construed, has done a fairly decent job of building real economic value over the last decade—to say nothing of producing artwork, developing communication vehicles, and distributing information. The fact that user experience does work tends to obscure the primary reason why it works: consistently flexible adaptation. User experience is a discipline that expects unending change, dramatic technological innovation, and unanticipated consequences. We thrive on remix, mashup, and appropriation and use them to help solve the issues that arise from employing these very same techniques.

This is not to engage in self-congratulation, but to recognize what has worked well in the past and acknowledge that it’s time to get to work again. We need to remember how well the practical approach we took when confronted with the demands of the Web has served us. We need to begin considering the tectonic shifts on the horizon that the emergence of ubiquitous computing in non-vaporware forms presents. And most immediately, we need to focus on a challenge that helps tie these two phenomena together. That challenge is designing bridge experiences.

What Is a Bridge Experience?

“A bridge experience is one in which the user experience spans multiple communications channels, document genres, or media formats for a specific, tactical purpose.”

A bridge experience is one in which the user experience spans multiple communications channels, document genres, or media formats for a specific, tactical purpose. Bridge experiences involve situations in which people must traverse different domains in order to communicate successfully, complete a task, or elicit a desired physical, mental, or emotional response. Without movement between domains, a user cannot reach the end goal that a bridge experience makes possible. Some bridge experiences correspond to the totality of a discrete user experience, while others comprise a single aspect of a larger user experience. The term can describe either a category of user experience or a particular aspect of a specific user experience.

Bridge experiences often emerge from the need to directly connect activities occurring in the digital realm with those in the physical. While it’s common today for an organization’s overall customer experience to have both online and offline dimensions, the notion of bridge experiences goes beyond the mere presence of multiple channels of communication and even the availability of cross-channel integration. It involves the actualization of a specific intent—either of the user or the designer; hopefully both—that demands movement across domains.

Bridge experiences also arise from the need to accommodate flexibility and openness in today’s technological environment. There is an empirically demonstrable increase in the level of standards-driven agnosticism regarding hardware, operating systems, platforms, software clients, and document formats. Our success in accommodating our environment’s business logic depends on strong conceptual models for creating transparent user experiences out of heterogeneous components. Bridge experiences let us conceptualize and design such transparency.

Consider some real-world examples.

One of the simplest examples is the use of uniform resource locators (URLs) on food and beverage packaging for contests and promotions. The consumer brings the package home and writes down the URL or types it into a Web browser on a computer or smartphone. The marketer gets a consumer’s email address and name; the consumer, a ringtone or a chance to win a year’s supply of a product. Pretty straightforward. Yet while designing this experience is trivial, it accomplishes a very sophisticated goal: linking identity and action in the physical world to a digital representation. The need for more sophisticated implementations of this type of experience—GPS watches for tracking kids, wireless localizers, the Semapedia, and similar products and services—continues to grow. Witness the FedEx Kinko Web-based ordering and specification systems for in-store fulfillment and services such as Dodgeball and Meetup.

Users actually design the overwhelming majority of bridge experiences.”

Not all bridge experiences link the physical to the digital, however. Another very basic example of a bridge experience is the use of email messages as request/response tools for Web applications. Spongecell, a Web-based calendar application, has an excellent feature that allows users to send email messages to the system and receive responses with the details about their next appointments. This model is hardly revolutionary in design or implementation, but it contains an explicit recognition of something that necessitates our designing bridge experiences: people live in a variety of different communications contexts. Each of these contexts has its own logic of the moment. I may be working in my email application, waiting in an airport terminal, and using a smartphone, or simply be uninterested in engaging with an involved user interface, because I’m talking with someone face-to-face. A simple email-to-Web bridge lets me retain context in such situations.

Lastly, consider the fact that users actually design the overwhelming majority of bridge experiences. Those of us who live on the Web or engage in so-called knowledge work constantly jump back and forth between different sources of information. Often this information is expressed in wildly different ways and delivered in a variety of formats. What is it that we’re doing when jumping from voice mail to search results to journal article to blog entry to social bookmarking site to Web application to email received via smartphone? We are processing content from different genres, creating a user experience that bridges all of them. Jakob Nielsen recently popularized this idea—though many years ago, Leen Breure, Kevin Crowston, and Andrew Dillon and Marsha Vaughan communicated this idea far more eloquently.

“Genre-bridging follows a logic entirely of our own individual making—driven by internal narratives, perceived causal relationships, and interpretive leaps ….”

Genre-bridging follows a logic entirely of our own individual making—driven by internal narratives, perceived causal relationships, and interpretive leaps that branch off from one another like a web of hyperlinks. Essentially, we’re building our own bridge experiences to compensate for the fact that there is no well-defined set of conventions to help orient us—save those wired into our brains. It’s a fact that may be somewhat uncomfortable for us as practitioners, because it highlights the fact that, no matter how well we design, the interpretation of our work occurs in a context completely outside our control. The products and services we design—our super-spiffy Ajax interfaces, the peer-to-peer, mobile content-distribution applications we optimize—all of these are open, interoperable, and addressable, but are there well-designed bridges linking them together? I think not. So while Jakob Nielsen and I agree that “there's no support for multisite behaviors,” I think designing bridge experiences is an opportunity to redress the situation.

At a high level, bridge experiences offer two closely intertwined benefits. These benefits are essentially two sides of the same coin:

  1. Bridge experiences help to preserve the continuity of a user experience. Shifts between channels, genres, and media carry with them unavoidable breakdowns in understanding, changes in perspective, and interpretive failures. Particularly in situations where task completion or brand communication is critical, bridge experiences provide a means of preserving context—visual, verbal, emotional, and functional—so users retain a sense of continuity throughout each aspect of the user experience.
  2. Bridge experiences help to eliminate gaps in a user experience. These gaps come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Some gaps, as noted above, are between the digital and physical domains. Temporal lags in the sequence of events comprising an experience cause certain gaps. Others emerge from a breakdown in understanding on the part of a user—for example, the breakpoints in MAYA’s Carnegie Library project. Whatever the source, bridge experiences are predicated on the discovery, minimization, and/or elimination of these gaps. And taking it one step further, some experiences transform the gaps into their focal points—for example, Geocaching.

Bridge to the Future

“The commercial Web, in a sense, began as a bridge experience.”

Many of us have been designing bridge experiences for quite some time. The commercial Web, in a sense, began as a bridge experience. We rarely consider that many of the first commercially successful Web sites were experiments by media and publishing companies—Time Warner, Ziff-Davis, and others—in shuttling their subscribers back and forth between new media and old. We now joke about the word synergy, yet the relatively transparent way in which we flit between multiple channels of content from a single source such as an RSS feed, Web site, email message, print publication, or broadcast has its origins in these publishing efforts.

The people who designed such experiences faced some basic, foundational challenges around issues of metaphor, interaction, and above all else, translation. How will people read article-length pages of text on screen? How can we use a consistent visual language in the Web browser and on the page? Should we correct factual errors or omissions without notice? How can we accommodate the time differences in publishing frequency? How do we make this work?

There existed no script, no so-called best practices, and no body of academic learning to draw upon in solving these issues. Instead, we got creative. We hacked the technical limitations of the software, adapted some ideas about layout from print design, incorporated notions of space and place from architecture, and liberally borrowed ideas about labeling from library science. In short, we were pragmatic about translating a set of considerations from one domain of experience to another. Mistakes were made, new opportunities emerged, and the lessons learned from what worked and what did not provided us with a baseline for a richer conception of user experience—one that traversed the gap between the screen and the real world.

People are applying the same pragmatic approach to designing mobile Web user experiences. Clearly, much work remains to be done. Rich functionality on mobile platforms demands much deeper consideration of the context of use than the personal computer does. It also demands a level of cross-application continuity that the Web just doesn’t have. But these challenges pale in comparison to the larger challenge I alluded to at the beginning of this article: ubiquitous computing (UbiComp).

Since I haven’t yet worked on a UbiComp project, I can comment only from the perspective of an outside, fascinated observer and speak to the intersection of UX and UbiComp. It appears that we are in an engineering, feature-driven mode at the moment, in which the very fascination with what is possible takes precedence over what we should do. Certainly this will change over time. Yet I think it is in the collective interest of the UX community to begin discussion and collaboration with early innovators in UbiComp.

The concept of a bridge experience provides a number of avenues that are useful in this regard. Adam Greenfield’s recent work, Everyware, covers some similar territory, in attempting to define discrete interactions that lack explicit states available in desktop and Web applications. Part of the solution to this challenge will come from a clearer understanding of today’s physical/digital breakpoints, and the ways in which we attempt to solve problems using currently available tools. Thomas Vander Wal’s wonderful conceptual framework of the personal InfoCloud provides another entry point, by identifying a potentially successful approach to the problem of multisite behaviors that scale across channels, genres, and media. The concept of a personal InfoCloud exists at a more strategic scale than a discrete bridge experience does, but addresses many of the same challenges. These are just a few of the conversations in which we can begin to participate—using the pragmatic, multidisciplinary approach of UX in undertaking the translation tasks that are essential to engaging with the design challenges of the near future.

Why Bridge Experiences Matter

“We need to pay a bit more attention to grounding our UX practice in some kind of theoretical framework. Defining bridge experiences as a category or descriptor of designed user experiences lets us collectively validate, compare, and improve our work.”

Bridge experiences merit specific attention and exploration by those of us within the UX community who are already and will increasingly be responsible for their design. The accelerating proliferation of new services, devices, and ideas that span channels, media, and formats demands designers who understand these types of challenges. Bridge experiences also offer an opportunity to elevate awareness of UX practice among constituencies that are not currently aware of their value. We don’t always have the opportunity to strut our stuff in front of folks from retail operations, sales operations, and logistics, to name just a few.

There are more high-minded considerations as well. As Marc Rettig has noted, we need to pay a bit more attention to grounding our UX practice in some kind of theoretical framework. Defining bridge experiences as a category or descriptor of designed user experiences lets us collectively validate, compare, and improve our work.

This is just a start. There’s much more conceptual groundwork to cover, to say nothing of practical design considerations. We’re not quite at the point of designing killer bridge experiences just yet. This article represents my initial attempt to establish a high-level awareness of bridge experiences—a concretization of ideas that have arisen in my practice over the last year or two—as well as to generate some discussion of their design considerations within the UX community. It’s important to begin establishing design directions and shaping some prescriptive guidelines for dealing with the challenges we face in designing bridge experiences.

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