Changing the Face of Retail is an article I’ve been thinking about most of the past couple weeks. I think my goal with the article is to one talk about how technology built into the retail environment can be used to build better experience’s for customers and 2 to talk about how this kind of evolutionary extension of the retail environment is better for customers AND retailers.
I walked into the Microsoft Retail Store or at least one of them, (see one at Mission Vejo or Scottsdale) and its really impressive how the store is built with this wide open and inviting layout, if you didn’t pay close attention one might think it’s more about interior design then about selling computers and software. One of the most striking features is the video wall that wraps around the entire store. But once I walked around looking at everything, what strikes me the most about this store is actually in the far corner or the software section where this small ‘podium’ with a touch screen built in sits. Granted up front I have a strong emotional tie to this ‘kiosk’ but I can’t really talk about it, with that said I wanted to talk about the idea that this ‘kiosk’ represents from a retail standpoint regarding targeted customer experience and UX in general.
So I played with this ‘kiosk’ and what I found interesting besides the ‘metro’ design aesthetic was that as I browsed software titles on this ‘Software’ Kiosk I realized that each time I entered a new ‘category’ of software the video wall nearby changed with the top 5 titles in that category. And then what I really think (in the case of the MS store) what is the most impactful is that they manufacture most of the titles in this kiosk on the spot when I ask for them. Theoretically the store could have a limitless list of titles, no inventory and just manufacture anything I want on the spot. How is that for brick and mortar?
My point in this story is how technology integrated into our environment can be such a huge game changer. When me, a person interested in software, in a retail space has this elegant multi-touch podium with a grand view of all the software in the universe that can lead me easily through all the titles, finding what I need and manufacturing it on the spot is the norm then other business’s in the same line of work or even Amazon.com will really need to bring up the game or fall behind. This is the kind of technology that really changes the face of retail.
So I work for Wirestone an Interactive Design Agency (so I have a vested interest in the technology). We do work like this touch kiosk in the retail space and specialize in ‘Targeted Customer Experience’s.’ So how would I help a retail store build a ‘game’ changing user experience like this (minus the replicator in back)? How can we make a ‘Retail’ experience that much more emotionally engaging, interesting, fun etc? Can we make something cooler that what we saw in the ms store? I really wanted to have something as engaging so I went and spoke with our R and D team in Seattle and we came up with a vision of a retail space like the following user story that we thought we could implement in our UX lab in Seattle.
Let’s say we have John Doe that is interested in Camera’s. He goes into our theoretical retail space looking to buy a camera. He sees one that looks interesting? As he stands in front of it for a few seconds and the price tag visually transforms. The price is adorned and highlighted and across the bottom some text slides in that says ‘touch here to compare’. John touches the digital price tag and the wall behind the product comes alive as that camera slides in to center in front of John with some of the key features listed below. John then takes a few steps down the aisle and realizes that the product detail on the wall follows him; he then touches another tag of a similar camera and that one slides in next to the first on the wall and John can see the key differences highlighted. John quickly is enthralled with this ‘experience’ and the short is he spends lots of money…
With this in mind I started out to build a prototype. One of the Integrators on our team besides having great design and UX skills, happens to write custom serial drivers for fun… I talked with him about it and he pointed me in the right direction including sensors, controller boards and drivers and sample app etc. (See Ryan’s post here: http://www.futile.com/2010/02/wpf-sonar-application-using-arduino-and-ping-sensor/ ) That aside I wanted to be able to talk about this kind of technology at MIX around integrating technology into the retail environment so I had to get busy. What I ended up with was a custom Silverlight control built out to include custom events and interfaces so it could be consumed by a WPF windows object controlled by a custom ‘windows’ manager in WPF for having lots of these little usb powered touch screens all wired together. Plus adding some more ‘custom’ code, some serial port programming over USB, a few config issues, sensors and a simple design later I had my working app for MIX.
Now dragging this around mix was kind of shock to see how interested people were and how extremely geeky it was to have all the cables and the sensors and the like mucking about but it turned out to be a great conversation starter. The next step in developing this kind of technology was around the Business Intelligence aspect of this. In our typical retail touch kiosk work it is always interesting to see how things are used. We normally do lots of user studies with the target demographic getting everyone from IA to devs and creative involved with working with the data collected around making the UX not just work but better. In the case of our touch tag prototype a lot of things came to mind. I ended up talking to a friend at Preemptive Solutions (Gabriel Torok) that did this cool BI tool for Silverlight and we met at MIX to talk about how integrated BI analytics would enhance our work around the touch tag prototype.
Many times knowing how users interact with a system and with the environment helps a business better enhance what and how users experiences a retail space to better help the custom solve the issue that they might not even know they have. With the touch tag system we are looking at retail heat maps, working with touch and interaction data as it related to products and POS data. Questions like what products to people pick up? Vs what do the buy? Vs what do the put back vs. what area of the store is most interesting? What areas of the store are ignored? How can I make better use of my retail space?
Being able to engage customers faster with more interesting experiences that get them engaged with the product they are most interested in and in how that product is the best for them through touch, through visuals and all the senses helps the customer connect with the product emotionally faster. In user studies we have found that this kind of holistic approach to the retail environment really ups the game not only for the end users or customer and the retailer but also for everyone else that has to compete. This is how you change the face of retail.
Next on my list of to-dos is making the average retail employee a super star with augmented reality. You might even think I’m kidding but I’m not. I meet with another friend a few days ago that runs a small but high end UX shop in Canada and that is our next project. I’d love to hear what everyone else is doing to make targeted customer experiences that much better.
Oh and here are a couple of pictures of the UI and hardware for the prototype: