Multiple Touchpoints, Multiple Challenges
Designing pretty interfaces is comparatively easy. Designing interfaces that are fast, reliable, simple to use, engaging and make customers think they're valued, that's tough. Jonathan Writh outlines some of the latest thinking around interface design within cross-channel retail
There are pitfalls to introducing screens into bricks-and-mortar environments. As Giles Colborne, managing director of cxpartners makes clear, even a kiosk designed to make customers more comfortable may actually have a negative effect. One reason for this is simple: a digital interface that’s relatively easy to operate when a consumer is relaxed becomes a far more complex proposition when the same consumer is put under pressure.
Take a car dealership. It’s a stressful place for customers. The salesperson who is initially helpful will, as a sale gets closer, morph into someone trying to extract the maximum amount of money from the transaction. Surely, a kiosk will help here because it postpones the moment when consumers have to speak with this confusing mix of genial friend and commission-hungry adversary? Actually, that’s not necessarily what happens. Instead, consumers are often scared of making fools of themselves by not being able to use the kiosks properly, a fear only compounded by this occurring in front of the salesperson.
“How embarrassing is it and how exposed do people feel?” laughs Colborne. “Well, it’s worse than talking to a car dealer, it’s that bad.”
One immediate answer here is to hide away the kiosks so that consumers won’t be so embarrassed to use them, but in a sense proposing this kind of ad-hoc solution simply illustrates the wider problem here: unless retailers think carefully about all the different touchpoints that customers use, there’s always the risk technology-based initiatives won’t work as foreseen.PLANNING FOR THE FUTURE
In contrast, efficient and effective design for true cross-channel retail is concerned with understanding how consumers use different touchpoints, and then designing interfaces that reflect and build upon this customer behaviour – working with the grain instead of against it. That may seem basic, yet even some bigger retailers really don’t as yet have a clear picture of consumers’ crosschannel journeys across the internet, mobile and the bricks-and-mortar store.
It’s not as if a lack of information is a problem here, points out usability expert Catriona Campbell, director at customer experience specialists Seren. Bigger retailers in particular have vast amounts of data about customers. The same retailers also have access to external sources of information, such as the Mosaic UK database. Rather, the problem is that data is not always shared across the company, but sits in silos so that, for example, a marketing director might know what kind of advertising will appeal to consumers, but then have no clue as to whether the same consumer will buy online or prefers to go to the bricks-and-mortar store.
The ‘single view’ of the customer, it seems, remains as elusive as ever, yet this shouldn’t and needn’t be so.
Looking beyond the idea that companies need to spend time organising back-end systems and ‘big data’ as an exercise in ‘deep design’ (something that’s crucial, but which we’ve covered in detail in recent supplements, all available online) retailers also need to spend time putting together ‘personas’ of key customer groups.
In the context of new digital technologies and the emerging world of cross-channel retail, this is important because these personas aren’t just about age, gender or even income, but even about how customers use different interfaces. Let’s say one persona is of a customer who’s aged between 40 and 60, female and likes to shop at M&S. While she owns a smartphone or tablet, she may be entirely unfamiliar with consoles.
At a time when new standards for the different digital devices we use have yet to settle down in the way web standards have, this kind of insight is crucial because, at the most obvious level, gaming-style interfaces in the bricksand-mortar store may be inappropriate in this case. Instead, suggests Campbell, retailers need to develop interfaces that reflect the technologies customers already use. (An iPhone-savvy demographic, for example, will certainly know about ‘swiping’ screens.) “Let’s make life easier for our customers, and utilise what they already know and how they interact already,” says Campbell. This is an elegantly straightforward idea, but there are other factors at play here, in that customer behaviour isn’t just determined by one retailer or one technology company, but by a combination of factors. “You need to have an understanding of the outside influences on that customer,” says Campbell, “so they may be a John Lewis customer, but they will also be a customer of Apple, and they’ll have an ‘ecosystem’, and John Lewis plays a very central role in that, but then again so does Apple.”
If that sounds complicated, it’s because it is, but that doesn’t mean retailers should look for similarly complicated solutions to what we’ll for now dub the Apple-John Lewis coexistence conundrum. After all, John Lewis has become an exemplary cross-channel retailer without too much recourse to filling its stores with eye-catching screens, but by focusing on customer service. If an item isn’t in stock in a branch, a sales assistant will typically check availability and direct a customer to the web if that’s the best way for the customer to get hold of an item quickly.
“Because [staff] are in a partnership arrangement, they don’t have these silos, they just want sales for John Lewis and they don’t mind which channel these sales come from,” says Campbell. “They go out of their way to make sure you buy from John Lewis and nobody else – on any channel.”SPEED IS OF THE ESSENCE
This may be a solution to a specific problem, lack of stock, driven by an old-fashioned notion, a customer-service ethos, but it’s worth noting that it’s not inherently a retro solution. In order to give this kind of information to a consumer, staff members need access to reliable and up-to-date stock information held on the company’s database. Also, because customers increasingly expect information to be available instantly, in-store systems need to be robust enough for staff always to be able to access this information. Back-end duck legs, as it were, are paddling like crazy beneath the surface.
Moreover, it’s worth emphasising that John Lewis hasn’t turned its back on digitally enabled retail here, it’s that having staff mediate the digital layer is currently what works best for John Lewis within this specific scenario.
That’s not to say this won’t change. Customer behaviour is evolving at a dizzying pace. To return to Catriona Campbell’s female shopper, what’s really interesting and important is not the technology this shopper’s not using, it’s the technology she is using. Take the following scenario: this archetypal shopper is researching buying a bigticket item at night. With children doing their homework on desktops and laptops, the only spare screen to do this is her smartphone. It’s not ideal, but she perseveres.
To look at that another way, we don’t just do what we might describe as prescribed tasks on different devices these days. It’s for this reason Giles Colborne is worried about a recent spike in average page file size. Effective crosschannel retail within a bricks-andmortar environment isn’t just about what happens within those four walls, it’s about retailers always being accessible to their customers, even prior to them visiting the store, and that accessibility being fast, whether it’s via a kiosk, a smartphone or a PC.
“Basic user experience is, ‘Did you respond to me? Did you respond quickly?’” he says, “and it’s kind of [analogous to] the amount of time that supermarkets spend in making sure queues don’t develop at their checkout lines. That’s the level of priority you have to give this stuff, because anybody who runs a supermarket knows that somebody will spend half an hour filling a supermarket trolley, but then if they spend 10 minutes in the queue they will abandon it. The opportunity-cost on that seems crazy, but waiting hurts people. If you want something to feel simple, make it instant.”FUN, FUN, FUN
Again, this is a reassuringly straightforward message. And yet, if cross-channel retail design is all about customer service and speed (and the latter in a sense is just a subset of customer service), how to explain those digitally enabled flagship branches that are starting to crop up in central London? Clearly, something else is going on too, but what?
One answer is be found by returning to the idea that it’s not technology we don’t use that matters, it’s the technology we do use.
A kiosk in a car dealership may be a dreadful prospect, but the Cisco virtual mirror is altogether far more enjoyable, especially because there’s a social element in the way customers can take a snap and share it with a friend. Even with all the caveats outlined above, it’s not too fanciful to foresee a future where bricks-and-mortar retail environments are far more fun and playful places.
Indeed, they may need to be. Increasingly, certainly in the posher Sunday papers, there’s a debate around the value of the information we all give companies. So what if we, as consumers, took control of this data? This seemed a vaguely fanciful idea when Layar’s Maarten Lens-FitzGerald first suggested it to Internet Retailing several years ago, and yet it’s an idea that’s looping round again.
It’s being driven by the potential power of what Jonathan Freeman, managing director of digital media research There are obviously huge privacy issues here. “The only model that will really be acceptable to consumers will be consumers owning their own data,” says Freeman. “That’s obviously a challenge from retailers who like to extract value from the customer data they ‘own’. That will be a potential shift in where the value sits, but really it’s just making explicit that data is valuable.
“It’s often referred to in discussions as vendor relationship management instead of customer relationship management, the idea being that customers can manage what they share and present to vendors in order to get specific offers from the vendors, rather than at the moment vendors or retailers managing what they show to customers, dependent upon what they know about the customer – it turns the control round.”
This all lies half a decade ahead at least, but here’s the thing: would you as a consumer rather give information about yourself to a retailer that’s made the effort to find out about you and seems to understand your interests, or to a retailer that’s spamming marketing messages? Whatever the precise contours of the retail landscape that lies ahead, understanding customers is going to be key to designing the way forward.Speaking from Experiece
THE EXPERIENTIAL STORE
“My view of the future is that simple transactional services won’t need to be located in a retail environment. They can be wherever you are, whether it’s at work or on the train, but the role for the retail space will be more experiential and will make the transaction richer.”Jonathan Freeman, managing director of i2 Media Research and senior lecturer in psychology at Goldsmiths, University of London
THE LIMITATIONS OF CONTEXT
“If you’re trying to make something simple, one thing to do is to read the user’s context and only give them the stuff they really need, so you’re not burning them with menus and stupid questions. The thing is that context is not something you can measure, you can’t tell somebody’s context from their GPS location, you can tell their grid reference – and there’s a big difference. In fact, context is something social, context is somebody’s social interpretation of their situation.”Giles Colborne, managing director, cxpartners
NEW INTERFACE STANDARDS
“I think what we ought to do is learn from the tactile and gesture-controlled systems that work already, that have had millions spent on them already, like Microsoft Connect, and we ought to be using standards that have already been created. That’s not to be judgmental of people who think they can develop something better, I just don’t think we can, so we ought to adopt those as standards.”Catriona Campbell, director, Seren