THE COMPLEXITIES OF DESIGNING FOR OMNICHANNEL CAN SEEM OVERWHELMING.
BUT AS RETAILERS ADAPT TO THE REALITY OF A CHANGING RETAIL LANDSCAPE,
NEW APPROACHES TO THE CHALLENGES HERE ARE BEGINNING TO EMERGE.
JONATHAN WRIGHT REPORTS
There’s a recurring narrative around planning and designing for omnichannel that rests on the challenges it poses for retail professionals. Roughly speaking, the story goes like this: it’s tough enough designing websites that are both good to look at and functional. When it comes to omnichannel retail, with its ideal of consumers being offered a seamless experience as they move across different channels, the complexities are exponentially greater. It’s a glass half-empty tale of designers having insufficient data about what customers do out in the real world, of battling incompatible legacy technologies and institutional silos, and of customers driving change by adopting smartphones and tablets far faster than anyone predicted. Gloom descends.
Except there is a glass half-full reading of what’s going on too, one Mo Syed, head of user experience for technology company Amplience , touches on as he considers the constraints of designing for small-screen mobile.
“That design perspective forces you to do something which is massively valuable to you across all channels,” he says, “which is really focus on the core of your buying experience, really focus on showing your product in the best possible light, really focus on making it as easy as possible for you to buy that product within that channel – and on a mobile it’s most acutely important for that checkout process to be as frictionless as possible.”
Lessons from this process with its onus on a “focused, simple experience which converts well”, Syed argues, can then be applied elsewhere. “In a way, designing for mobile is a way to focus on what really matters within your experience, and often you’re not losing but gaining by removing aspects of your design that really didn’t support the buyin process beforehand,” he says. “That’s not to say some channels shouldn’t be richer and have additional aspects t them, that’s not to say there isn’t a difference between channels, but what I am saying is it’s an opportunity [to refocus digital design work] that a lot of retailers have serendipitously found.”
SPEAKING FROM EXPERIENCE
“[Companies need and are beginning to] start designing customer experiences across the channels. What does it mean if I am watching television and want to look at that product you’ve just shown on an advert? How do I make it as easy as possible for somebody to use their tablet and jump to that particular product, to maybe add it to their basket, or pick it up from store? How many people are doing that? How do we optimise that customer experience?”
Kees de Vos, chief customer ofﬁcer, Hybris
“[Getting a single view of the customer] sounds like a massive engineering piece because we’ve got to rip up what we’ve got, we’ve got to take all the different bits of customer data that we’ve got spread across all of our multiple different systems and get this into a single view, a single database. Actually, in our view, that’s not necessarily the approach you need to take. You certainly need a uniﬁed view of the customer, but it doesn’t need to be in one monolithic database or system. With relatively simple integration, you can unify all those different views of the customer.”
Daren Ward, associate partner, Glue Reply
“While people are talking about the conclusion [of the journey towards omnichannel], there are still a good number of steps that need to be taken on that journey to get there. We’re still taking those steps and design culture will have to go a bit further if that kind of omnichannel thinking is going to be made real.”
Mo Syed, head of user experience, Amplience
KEEP IT SIMPLE
If Syed’s approach has an air of back-to-basics about it, that’s no bad thing. After all, designing for retail is usually, although not exclusively, about trying to drive sales. It’s certainly not about trying to create pretty front-end designs for the sake of it. Besides, Syed makes a second telling point related to the way many companies’ digital presence has grown over the years. Why not use the move to omnichannel as adopting a less-is-more approach?
“You are quite literally making it easier for yourself when you strip a design down,” he says.
“To take it to the other extreme, when a design has many, many, many moving parts, it’s often impossible to separate out what’s causing a certain behaviour. It’s impossible to know for certain whether that promo panel on the right-hand side was distracting people when they were trying to look for the add-to-basket button.”
None of this is to say that designing for omnichannel retail isn’t complicated, it is. It’s more that a move to omnichannel is a chance for retailers to pause and take stock of what’s been working and what’s not – and all too often what’s not working is that many companies aren’t yet aware enough of customer behaviour.
So why not use the move to omnichannel as way to refocus on customers? It’s an approach advocated by Daren Ward, associate partner with technology consultants Glue Reply. “The focus has got to be on the customer and, an expression we use a lot, the conversation you have with the customer, and that continues across the multiple different channels,” he says. “I think when you’re designing, you need to stop thinking about the individual channels, and maybe focus on using the tools and technologies that the customer is using – and using them to their best ability.”
That's fine as far as it goes, but it also poses a big question: how do retailers go about determining how best to employ these tools and technologies when it’s often unclear precisely what customers are doing? While, in an omnichannel nirvana, retailers would be able to follow consumers across channels, we’re certainly not there yet.
Nevertheless, there are some intriguing developments here, by no means all in the research realm. The SceneTap app, for example, uses face-recognition technology to enable smartphone users to see how many people are in local bars and clubs, as well as giving the age of these customers and the male-to-female ratio. It doesn’t take much of a leap of imagination to see retailers being interested in such technology, although news of SceneTap rolling out did produce press coverage that suggests people are spooked by such developments.
A way to counter these kinds of worries is for consumers always to have an opt-in/opt-out option (something that may anyway be enshrined in legislation), but how do retailers design for customers who value privacy and will never opt in? One answer is to sidestep the problem and think about context, the idea that different kinds of user experiences are appropriate for different situations. Designing for omnichannel isn’t about producing a uniform experience, it’s about consistency, and there is a difference.
“If you’re [designing for] phone, don’t design something that’s incredibly complex, use something where you can press simple buttons with yourb thumb because that’s what most people do when they’re using their phones,” says Daren Ward. “If you’re on a tablet, you can be more immersive than that.”
Straightforward advice, but the nagging point remains that having rich customer data underpins ideas around omnichannel retail. Don’t be surprised if supermarkets turn out to be in the vanguard here because these are companies that have already done much of the necessary back-end work. Loyalty card programmes may be old hat compared to that shiny new app, but they’re brilliant for gathering information on consumers.
“Having that customer data so that you have channel they join means you can, when they do come into the store, say, ‘Did we manage to resolve the issue that you had and you called us about?’” says Ward. “Or, ‘We can see you’ve been checking out these certain products,’ and that continues the conversation, instantly engages the customer with something that’s relevant to them.”
FROM REACTIVE TO PROACTIVE
Stripped-down design, a focus on customers and an appreciation of context: put in these terms, designing for omnichannel actually sounds a relatively straightforward proposition. Except it’s worth remembering that we’re only talking about pause and get back to basics, but what next?
It’s a question given particular pertinence by the idea that, in many respects, it’s customers, not retailers, who have led the drive towards omnichannel by, for example, insisting on buying big-ticket items on their mobiles at a time when learned industry commentators still doubted this would ever happen.
Although there are dangers with trying to be too prescriptive, it’s perhaps time designers and retail professionals tried to get back in the driving seat here. This necessarily involves design professionals moving beyond interface design and considering such issues as back-end systems and such problems as institutional silos, moving beyond thinking just about consumer behaviour and towards a more holistic view of the company.
In this context, Kees de Vos, chief customer officer with technology company Hybris , agrees with the proposition that companies need to work towards a single view of the customer, but goes further. “I always tend to talk about four reference points that are absolutely crucial: the single view of product, the single view of customer, the single view of orders and the single view of stock,” he says.
This is important, because it’s utilising this rich data that will enable retailers to take the lead. “Having a better view of the data within your organisation allows you to optimise how you run your business, which products you buy, how many you buy, what stock you keep, how you run your promotions, etc,” says de Vos. “If you can do that over all your estate, over all of your channels at the same time, you can make some significant efficiency gains."
That may sound like an operational issue rather than the province of designers, but there’s more. It’s using this data in imaginative ways that will set retailers apart, and that kind of challenge most definitely requires design expertise. "You need to start taking the lead and build a proposition that is a true differentiator, because what you thought was differentiating – click and collect, having a mobile app – that’s no longer a differentiator, everybody does it,” says de Vos. “Now it is about how do you combine your channels, how do you define a user experience that really stands apart from the others?”
There are no simple answers to that question but, to return to where we began, taking an incremental approach to this question is better than being overwhelmed by the sheer complexity of the task. Think of the glass as half full.
A year ago, many design professionals were still thinking theoretically about the challenges of omnichannel retail. It’s still early days. However, in the subsequent months, it’s become clear that design for omnichannel is not just about tackling a series of individual problems that need to be solved, but a more nuanced, connected and seamless activity – like omnichannel itself.