Think about how you shopped 10+ years ago. You saw an ad on TV or in the newspaper, and after some online research, you'd go to the store and complete your shopping process, typically ending in the purchase. You might compare prices across retailers, including Amazon, but ultimately, most shopping was done on desktop websites or in stores. Now think about how you shop today. Perhaps you see an ad, but now you reach for your phone and start the shopping process in a very different context (e.g. standing in a checkout line, waiting in the carpool line, or watching TV on the couch). You still visit a store on occasion (or maybe even regularly), but you often pull out your phone first to compare prices, add products to lists, or see if something is in stock at your preferred location. All of this means mobile apps are no longer a bolt-on or a nice-to-have for retailers. They are now a critical part of every retailer's digital strategy because mobile has changed the face of retail, and continues to drive new consumer behaviors and expectations.
Today's consumers use a wide variety of devices depending on which context they are working in, and these contexts have different implications. Sitting on a couch with a tablet on your lap is a very different mindset than standing in line at the grocery store with a phone in your hand. Yet, consumers don't care about the technological differences between their smartphones and their desktop computers. They care only that they can access information in a familiar and intuitive way across contexts (i.e. devices). So what does it mean to have a seamless experience exactly?
You can see examples of seamless experiences in the recent updates that Apple has made to its operating systems and foundational apps on both macOS and iOS platforms. The seamless handoff of iMessages, Keynote, and Mail are great examples of how consumers might start a task on their phones, and want to transition to desktop and back again, depending on which context that are working in. We can apply the same concept to retail behaviors. When a customer sees an ad for a clothing sale on Hulu while sitting on the couch watching her current favorite sitcom, it peaks her interest. She casually wants to learn more about the sale, so she grabs her phone which is always with her. "Oh, that sale at Acme Co. looks interesting. I really need a new dress!" She immediately looks for and opens the Acme Co. app to check the sale. She browses and favorites a few things, and goes to bed. What happens the next day, when she's taking an Internet break at work, and is reminded she was shopping last night? How well does Acme Co.'s desktop website transition her from the smartphone app shopping experience into a desktop web shopping experience?
The seamlessness of that transition can make the difference between a completed purchase and an abandoned cart. Having an app in the store is only half the battle. In order to fully engage their customers, retailers should embrace a holistic view of their digital properties and make those transitions as smooth as possible. This means developing not only the mobile app, which is only the tip of the iceberg, but also the websites and back-end systems required to support a seamless customer experience.
Virtual Reality to Engage Customers
Some retailers are taking engagement to the next level and empowering their customers through virtual reality. While the technology is still in the early stages of product adoption, companies like Lowe's and TOMS are utilizing the technology to connect and empower customers with their respective messages.
Lowe’s Innovation Lab in Seattle, WA is no stranger to VR. They introduced the Holoroom in 2014 in an effort to show customers how a remodel might look as opposed to customers having to imagine it. The Holoroom How To is the next step to empowering customers to realize the DIYer in themselves. Lowe's is providing a physical room in which to demonstrate in a virtual world how to execute DIY jobs like tiling a bathroom. Not only does this give the customer a sense of “I can do this”, but also the kind of fulfillment that drives customer engagement in a retailer like Lowe's where their wide variety of products can be overwhelming to the newbie DIYer. By empowering its customers to have confidence in their ability to use Lowe’s products, why wouldn’t they return?
TOMS is empowering customers by connecting them with the altruistic purpose behind their business, which includes a "One for One" business model. Since 2015, TOMS has been using VR to take customers directly to the children they are helping, specifically to Peru. For every pair of shoes a customer buys, TOMS donates a pair of shoes to a child in need. This aspect of TOMS's business model not only helps others, but connects with customers in a way that also drives sales. Through VR, customers experience the world that these children live in, and how a pair of shoes can change their lives. Creating this type of empathy with customers is core to the success of TOMS's business model, and while VR isn't required, it is a great way to engage and empower TOMS customers.
All of this is great in theory, but how do we execute on these approaches? At Cardinal, we have a tried and true process for researching, prototyping, and validating requirements our business partners develop and our assumptions about what makes an empowering mobile application. It’s very easy to create a laundry list of features to get your company "back to competitive", and it's pretty simple to build a functional mobile app with a beautiful look and feel. The problem is we are still delivering a fairly hollow experience. We must build something that's useful and usable to customers, and the core of that effort results from customer research and validation of our assumptions.
This process, as in most software development processes, starts with a basic set of requirements. The business has ideas for features that they’d like to see implemented, but in many cases, those feature sets have not been fully validated. Thus, we view requirements as assumptions which translate into risk for the project. In order to unravel that big ball of risk (i.e. assumptions), we put together a full product development team that includes client stakeholders, designers, UX architects, developers, and business analysts to validate those assumptions in order to move from doubt to certainty. The team accomplishes this through the combination of a discovery cycle and a validation cycle. During the discovery cycle, we frame the assumptions, make sense of the problems we’re solving, brainstorm solutions, and determine which areas to focus our efforts. We then take what we learn in the discovery cycle, and apply it by building prototypes and designing solutions. Once we have a prototype, we can measure and validate how well we’ve solved a problem. These 2 cycles happen over just 2 weeks, and they continue throughout the build lifecycle of a product. Through continuous discovery and validation, we iteratively develop a well thought-out and cohesive solution that resonates with customers, particularly those in the retail space. For more information about our UX and mobile development methodologies, please contact us.