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Interface & Design




The tail is wagging the dog. Or at least that’s how it must sometimes seem to those who grew up in the world of bricks-and-mortar retail. Where once the ecommerce channel was a separate part of the business, the emerging world of omnichannel retail, still very much a work in progress, is already blurring the lines between previously distinct channels.

More than this, technology initially developed largely for the web is becoming integral to all parts of the business. Consider the following example: you’re in a department store and a specific item you want is out of stock. The sales assistant heads to the till and checks both online availability and, information that perhaps isn’t available to you as a shopper, availability in other branches. You’re given two choices: buy via the web or order the item, which is in stock in another store. Either way, the item can be delivered or you can arrange to collect it.

If this appears routine, that in it itself is actually rather remarkable considering that 20 years ago this would have seemed like a scenario from a futurologist’s notebook. Yet such a scenario should be routine because it’s an approach that puts customers, who increasingly expect to be offered such options, at the centre of retail – and letting customers shop in ways that suit them is the essence of omnichannel retail.

“If you are starting up a business these days, I think you will only start it up in one way, and that is with the customer at the heart of what you do,” says Kees de Vos, chief customer officer with technology company Hybris. Indeed, he adds, it may even be an advantage to be starting out with a new company because you can look at the “end-to-end process [of retail] and then manage that in one place, other than buying two, three, four applications, maybe even more, to do the same thing”.

Put like this, the world of omnichannel retail sounds comparatively simple, yet the design challenges here are huge. At least in part, that’s because, while the technologies integral to omnichannel retail may have their roots in the web, many designers with a digital background have to learn new skills.


It’s a shift in emphasis that Joe Leech, director of strategy at usability consultancy cxpartners, reflects upon when he says, “I see myself as being more of a service designer than a digital designer these days.” What does this mean in practice? That Leech no longer works primarily on digital projects that are “viewed behind a piece of glass” by a person sat in front of a computer, but are seen and used outside this kind of environment too. “It’s got to be that everything you design is going to be used in a real-world, physical environment. It’s got to be around different touchpoints, different stages of the customer journey,” he adds.

Which brings us back to where we began, the ongoing evolution of omnichannel retail. As this process goes on, retailers have been looking around for technology that can cope. Understandably, many have turned to ecommerce platforms, already robust thanks to their long history of development for use on what’s increasingly being called the ‘traditional’ web (terminology that’s in itself another sign of how fast things have moved in the digital era).

“With the advent of the internet and the pervasive connectivity that now exists, the ecommerce platform is becoming the most logical approach for being that singular platform to manage those interactions,” says Rob Garf, vice president of product and solutions marketing at technology company Demandware.

That’s not to say designers don’t need to think about other factors too. As we discussed in depth when we last covered ecommerce platforms back in 2012, the effective deployment of front-end digital technologies, in whatever context, relies upon back-end systems being up to scratch. As Kees de Vos notes, “To deliver a great customer experience at the front end, you have to have the basics right, you have to have the data right, and in the customer experience world that’s not the sexiest thing to say.”


But at a time when even many larger companies need to look far more carefully at issues around big data and product information management, it’s important to remember that’s only part of the story here. While designers now talk increasingly about responsive design and the need quickly to be able to build interfaces for different scenarios, the language here can be deceptive.

The different interfaces – mobile, point of sale aimed both at sales associates and customers, the web – still need to be fit for purpose. And, to return to the point about the ecommerce platform underpinning much of this activity, all this work needs to be handled by design professionals who may not have any background in bricks-and-mortar retail – or indeed any knowledge of how the call centre works and how different parts of the business interact.

Not only this, but new technologies continue to arrive to make things even more complex. “[TVs and set-top boxes] are becoming more and more internet-enabled, they still have their own challenges since pointing, clicking and entering data can be done via gestures or pads or separate apps,” says Andreas Kopatz, business development manager with Intershop.

One piece of good news here is that a new breed of omnichannel professionals is beginning to emerge to undertake such work. Not only are there are those like Joe Leech who now see their work as about service design, but companies are beginning to create chief-of-omnichannel-style roles, where the job is in part to look at where silos and legacy systems may be detrimental to the company and to get different parts of the business talking to each other.

“There is certainly in many retailers a kind of unifying role or a role that is helping to break down some of these historic barriers,” says Rob Garf, “and just doing what’s right for the company and not just the technology area or the product category or the functional silo. That’s going to be key.”

One danger, of course, is that even where a company has created this role and senior staff are aware of the issues, this kind of business re-engineering can soon become horribly expensive. Yet it’s important to remember this is relative. As Joe Leech points out, companies often think nothing of spending millions on shop refits. In addition, according to Rob Garf, much point-of-sale technology is now due for upgrading (see the interface & design feature in our July 2013 special report), so the move to omnichannel may be occurring at an opportune moment, in that companies will need to spend money here anyway.


Still, that outlay needs to be spent wisely, and that means understanding what customers are doing. It may be a maxim within omnichannel retail that individual customers want to be able to shop in ways that suit them, but patterns do emerge – and these patterns vary from company to company. But how best to analyse what’s going on?

At cxpartners, the company produces “customer experience maps” in order to discover how customers are interacting with retailers. “We run research and we plot every single step the customer takes in their retail journey,” says Joe Leech. “That’s right from finding a need for the particular product right through to triggers that trigger them to buy, to pre-purchase, consultation during purchase, post-purchase. We map out the full set of steps the customer goes through and then we map the touchpoints of the organisation, and certainly some of those touchpoints are digital, but we tend to design in terms of a well-what-does-the-customer-want-now? journey and then look at all of the different journeys related to that.”

Kees de Vos echoes Leech’s words. “You have to go back into the enterprise, the broader organisation, question yourself, what is ultimately driving the customer experience?” he says. “That customer experience these days leads from attention to conversion to the actual fulfilment – the guy that comes to your door, does he come on time or not?”

As to how to act on such analysis, companies need to manage risk carefully, argues Joe Leech. In other words, the practical design skills associated with digital project management come into play. When working on a re-platforming, for example, cxpartners advises a “lift and shift” where “you lift an existing set of designs and approach onto [a] new platform”.

Leech continues: “Once you’ve ironed out the issues with the platform then you approach the re-design and re-engineering of what you’re doing, so you know the platform is bedded in and then you re-brand, re-design, re-approach the whole way you do things, but with a much more established platform. That way you mitigate risk but also the costs associated with it as well, because I think the most risks occur when a company attempts to re-platform at the same time as redesigning their approach to doing things. If you do two at the same time, you double the risk.”

There may be further complications too. “Sometimes it is necessary to invest in more than one design or application, because the user expects it and it leads to a better user experience for the one specific occasion,” says Intershop’s Andreas Kopatz. “The key is to decide for your organisation what the touchpoints are that you would like to serve, then once you have decided on the touchpoints you decide how to serve them. You might end up with responsive design, but it might also be a different approach with multiple solutions that fits your purposes better.”

Nevertheless, companies cat duck out such issues. The risk of doing nothing, of not upgrading systems and approaches are far greater. As for those who grew up in bricks-and-mortar retail, and worry about keeping up, perhaps it may help to think that things have come full circle. After a brief era of thinking about different and distinct sales channels, in the words of Kees de Vos, “We’re back to, ‘Hey we need to operate our entire business as one business.'” Omnichannel powered by ecommerce technology: in many ways, it’s just a posh way to talk about a big and complicated shop really.




Multiple users

“[One] thing that I find extremely interesting is that in the past designs were purpose-built for a specific application for a specific user. And that really flies in the face of what retailers are trying to accomplish today, which is designing an application for multiple usage across various users – consumers, store associates, regional managers.”

Rob Garf, vice president of product and solutions marketing, Demandware

User testing

“The testing of service design is quite hard. The way we approach a lot of work now is you effectively beta-test or trial designs before they go live to the general populace. You beta-test the whole end-to-end journey, and incrementally put the design live, and increase the number of people who are using it.”

Joe Leech, director of strategy, cxpartners

New analytics

“The big shift is the analytics that we used to have on websites only are being used across the channels, used to optimise the user experience and again the user experience across the channel. The best guys and the most experienced guys [within the design community] are moving into that space if they’re not there already.”

Kees de Vos, chief customer officer, Hybris

What’s changed

There’s a growing recognition that ecommerce technologies will be key to driving all retail in the future. Forward-looking designers have begun to prepare for this in earnest. However, we should add the proviso that challenges around, for example, how to design for m-commerce haven’t gone away.

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