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The Robots are Coming!

by Matt Kortering, Universal Mind / August 5, 2013

Note: This blog entry is available in English only.

Considering how drastically technology has advanced in the past few years, it’s baffling to think about the retail experience and how it’s seemingly stuck in place. And in some cases, maybe even in rewind! I might be going out on a limb here, but I think I’ve figured it out… I think it’s a fear of robots.

Fear of robots translates to a fear of loosing the personal touch. Take your local running specialty store, for example, there’s a giant wall of shoes- unmarked- ranging in size, color, brand, purpose, etc. I, myself, have been a runner for years, and that wall still intimidates me. I can know exactly why I’m there, but it will still take a while to find the right shoe. Then ensues the shopping process-  track down the salesperson I shooed off while I was browsing, wait to see if my size is in stock, try them on, ask the salesperson a bunch of questions about the shoe, walk back and forth for a while to make sure, and finally, purchase.

This process hasn’t improved since jogging became a cool thing.

Now, consider I choose instead, to find a new pair of shoes online. Within minutes, I’ve found a pair of shoes I like and have ordered my size. They’ll be delivered to my door within 24 hours so that I can try them on. And if they don’t fit, not to worry, the package will include a return address sticker and they’ll ship right back the very next day. No overwhelming wall of shoes. No wondering about my size being available. However, now I’m overwhelmed with the task of making the right decision without the help of an expert. I’m not an expert and I don’t want to be an expert. I just want informed recommendations on which shoes to try from someone I know is real and preferably passionate about running as well.

There must be a better way.

Imagine a mystical place where technology and the physical space could meet as one. This, surely, would be utopia. I believe in a world where no user is ignored and everyone has equal voice! I believe that users should be the drivers and decide how they want to shop. I believe in a world where digital and physical spaces live in unity – without robots.

That sounded a little too political. Ok, I got carried away. Sorry.

Back to reality. Consider walking into the same retailer. Your smartphone has an app that works seamlessly with the store. (We’ve talked a bit about this in our past posts on contextual design and gesture based content sharing.) Upon entering, you’re prompted to tell the store why you’re there: new shoes, new jacket, something else entirely, or just browsing. You tap “new shoes” and the store finds your shoe size, purchase history, and mileage from the log within the app. You’re asked to meet in a specific area, where the salesperson you worked with last will meet you with a few options (including the new version of your last shoe) based on his or her knowledge. You try them on, test them out, make a decision, and purchase from your phone. No robots.,. just a streamlined experience.

The hesitation to integrate technology into retail can often be due to the broad (and often incorrect) assumptions people make. In my experience, people are opposed to more technology in physical spaces because they fear being overwhelmed by an unfamiliar environment.

To create the best user experience for a shopper, stores need to recognize the wide array of shoppers and their individual needs, expectations, and paths. Moving an entire population into a purely digital environment doesn’t work. Empathizing with users across the board is the baseline for developing a positive user experience.

Truly understanding users allows us to create solutions that don’t meet the user where they are, but actually where they want to be. The difference between recognizing and developing for where a user is and taking into consideration where the user actually wants to be is the difference between an expected experience and a mind-blowing one.

Its actually quite simple: get to know your users. Ask questions that don’t evaluate what they think about you now, but what they’d like to see differently. Customer satisfaction is not a measure of holistic user experience – it’s a rating of one experience within a framework of often, leading questions constructed to capture how they can sell you more stuff in the future. A positive rating may not reflect all that the shopper’s experience could have been.

Individuals are given the ability to set up their email home pages and social media platforms uniquely. Shopping sites are no different, and according to John Deighton of the Harvard Business Review, consumers between 24 and 35 years old conduct about 25% of their shopping online, a number he expects to grow. As this age group becomes more influential in local economies, online expectations are going to become vital for physical retailers to meet. What stores need to understand, however, is that this expectation is not holistic and leaders in retail will recognize and empathize with the variety of shoppers, and appreciate not only how they are shopping, but also how they want to shop.

True digital integration isn’t about more robots; it’s about knowing when to use them. Bring them on.

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