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When Speed Is of the Essence

Time for It to Take a Lead

Time for It to Take a Lead

International design projects needn’t be long and complex. There’s a lot to be said for companies rolling out projects quickly and learning as they go. But only if they also look at wider issues around how the company handles data, discovers Jonathan Wright

To play devil’s advocate for a moment, retailers babble on incessantly about the difficulties of moving into new territories. Really, you would sometimes think that opening a new Italian branch of a virtual shop is the equivalent of Napoleon marching his army into Russia’s heartland.

Okay, so that’s something of an exaggeration, but it does highlight how big, top-down-driven, cross-border projects can sometimes start to loom so large that a sense of proportion gets lost. That’s particularly relevant at the moment because these are strange times for retailers. On the one hand, the wider economic outlook continues to look uncertain, an argument for caution.

Against this, there are huge opportunities, for example, for grabbing market share in territories where ecommerce is as yet underdeveloped, an argument for investment and expansion. Stick or twist, which is it to be?

One answer is to choose both, which isn’t necessarily as contradictory as it first appears. Without wishing in any way to underplay the difficulties around cultural factors, logistics and wider strategy outlined in the features that follow in this supplement, it’s worth remembering that one reason that new virtual shop in Italy looks such an attractive proposition is often because Italian customers have already found and started using another version of the website.

Instead of an expensive, bells-andwhistles launch that anticipates every single design problem a retailer might encounter in Italy, why not build on what the retailer has already learnt? “What we see [in the market] is it’s not the oneplatform-fits-all approach anymore,” says Stefan Schmidt, vice-president of product strategy at ecommerce technology company Hybris . “People are basically looking at how can we design the international operation according to the market, and how can we enable the new outlet, the new market very quickly, and then let that grow to its own rhythm? And then, when it actually grows, do we want to bring it back into the enterprise, the organisation, or do we let it keep going?”


It’s both an approach that’s in keeping with the quick-and-nimble ethos associated with working with digital technologies (an ethos that sometimes gets pulverised by the day-to-day reality of life in big organisations); and an approach to design that sees it far more in terms of an ongoing process rather than a series of grand, project-driven exercises that have specific and fixed goals in sight.

This may initially appear to be a rather flaky approach, but a paradox of looking at design projects in this way is it requires real discipline. If something doesn’t work, this needs to be recognised and fixed. Where something does work, it needs to be reinforced and built upon. Feedback loops matter.

As, it has to be emphasised before moving on, does the underlying foundation from which retailers operate. A recurring theme in these supplements in recent months has been an increasing recognition that the way companies handle (big) data is in part a design issue. One reason that companies such as B&Q have invested so heavily in product information management (PIM) systems is to ensure data is from the same source wherever it’s used. Such systems can be used to ‘feed’ international websites so that information is consistent across the company.

“From the vendor side, I think the central challenge for cross-border is how do you make a workflow where you efficiently produce regional content and organise and manage it,” says Mo Syed, head of user experience at ecommerce specialists Amplience . “That’s a difficult thing to do, you’ve not just got different languages but potentially different assets as well.” These assets, he adds, may ideally even need to be presented in different ways within different regions of a territory.

Telling a similar story from another part of the industry, David Brint, sales director of image specialists SpinMe, says companies are also starting to look anew at how they organise photography. “Retailers have been looking at how to ship goods internationally, more effectively and quicker,” Brint says. “Now they’re looking at making sure their website enhances the products and works internationally.” This has meant companies looking, for example, to set up studios in China so that goods can be photographed in different ways ready for use on websites before they’re shipped overseas. (See the merchandising feature on page 14 for more on imagery.)

A quick-and-nimble approach, then, doesn’t somehow preclude grappling with big questions. Just the opposite, it throws the spotlight on the place of design in business processes because it’s a lot easier to move into new territories if the overall way a retailer handles information has already been thought through. For similar reasons, responsive design, which allows companies to distribute information dynamically across different kinds of interfaces, is also becoming more and more commonplace.


But whether companies prefer to jump into new territories or take a more traditional approach that emphasises market research and stronger controls from the centre (and it’s worth noting we’re in no way arguing against this per se, but exploring other approaches), business processes, workflow and dynamic design will only help so far when it comes to tackling cultural issues. To take an extreme example from a European perspective, consider a country such as South Korea. Compared to his home country’s websites, Psy’s kinetic ‘Gangnam Style’ video, in which the K-pop star barely stops moving except when he’s rapping while sitting on the toilet, is positively understated. Or less noisily, consider the ubiquity of online marketplace Taobao in China when compared, say, to the place eBay occupies on the retail landscape in the west.

Yet the undeniable fact that we’re all horse-dancers now, at least until the next cross-border meme comes around, and that Taobao in 2012 moved towards accepting international credit cards, emphasises that we shouldn’t see these cultural differences as somehow fixed. As consumers, we all hanker after novelty, which in turn produces new mutations and hybrids.

“[Even if you had a user interface] that was incredibly fussy, that was drawing for its inspiration from Korea, by the time it’s come over here, it’s done as irony not as culture, that’s the classic dialectic,” says Richard Sedley, design director at customer experience and design specialists Seren. “It might even look the same, but actually the context in which it’s in gives it a different meaning.”

Another way to look at that is to say the context changes the story. Looking ahead, as a few forward-looking brands are already beginning to do, this is something that companies may need to think about far more. One of the problems with moving into a new territory is there will likely always be an existing and established competitor that understands the market. How can a company differentiate itself?

One way is to look at customer service. Richard Sedley is interested in new kinds of companies that combine retail with services. He cites the Dollar Shave Club, where customers have razors delivered each month. While he concedes that “providing services across borders is sometimes not as easy as simply shipping a product”, the other side to this is that effectively designing a new approach, telling a new story, can be a great way to make a company stand out. However, this story still needs to be tempered for local markets.

“You do have localised preferences,” says Sedley. “Germans are much less likely to share, because they’ve got a much greater sense of privacy than in the UK. It’s partly generational. I know it’s a caricature, but people don’t tend to care about what they’re sharing in the UK, especially the younger you are. So probably if you were going to create something that’s a bit more focused in terms of story for the German market, you’d emphasise the privacy aspect probably more than the ease of sharing.”

Some ideas and stories, though, do travel well. To return to the idea of consumers wanting novelty, product customisation is an idea that crosses borders because who wants to turn up at a party wearing exactly the same clothes and shoes as everyone else?

“You’re starting to see a lot of the product customisation stuff coming over here, whether it be Converse or Nike ID,” says Sedley. “There are lots of small companies coming out of San Francisco that are starting to use design in interesting was, producing very bespoke products. From a design/UI perspective, they tend to be very heavily image-led and that stuff’s beginning to come over here. I’m not sure that’s really been picked up by the large retailers yet, but smaller companies are being more design led on that front.”

It’s important to realise these kinds of companies won’t replace volume retailers, it’s more a case that the approach of these companies, in a sense the way they design their businesses, will likely influence the rest of the market – internationally.

Besides, even the approaches of volume retailers may collide with new markets in surprising ways. Recently, warehouse retailer Costco has gone online in the UK, having previously established a bricks-and-mortar presence. It’s easy to think of such a retailer as being cheap and cheerful, low end, yet a huge bottle of a premium product such as maple syrup at a price vastly cheaper than offered by the established supermarkets may yet prove a powerful incentive to even well-to-do customers in these straitened times. Meantime, the attraction of the company for those on tighter budgets has long been obvious.

Innovation and change sometimes come from surprising quarters.

Speaking from Experience


“Regardless of what market you go into, mobile has become a major factor and smartphones have certainly helped. But even if you go into markets you might think of as undeveloped, the fact is actually mobile is often a much bigger force there than the landline. The infrastructure is what enables mobile there.”

Stefan Schmidt, vice-president of product strategy, Hybris


“One of the key differences with Japanese and particularly Korean markets is the amount of noise they have, that there’s a constant battle for attention and a mass of items. Levels of expectation in terms of the amount of noise and information provision and the kind of available distraction is much higher in Korea than in the UK. Most people in the UK would just be off the site immediately, but maybe we’re going to see more Korean-influenced design on the basis people are more interested in it now.”

Richard Sedley, design director, Seren


“There’s a lot of complexity around the way that people produce content for one region and it’s not complexity that should be there, but because of bad design. It’s generally quite hard for certain people just to change the content of their UK “ site. I think we’ll see that getting a lot better and that will make it easier to do cross-border.”

Mo Syed, head of user experience, Amplience

Recent Developments

A nervousness about getting it ‘wrong’ when designing for different cultures is gradually replaced by an enthusiasm to explore new markets. This is partly driven by an economic imperative, yet there’s also a sense that as cross-channel retail becomes the norm, larger companies are sorting out back-end and business process design so that targeting new markets is less problematical. For smaller retailers, ecommerce technology specialists are increasingly offering help with, for example, localising payment options, again freeing up resources to launch overseas.

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