Dirk Knemeyer

From Brick to Click: e-commerce and experience design

Originally published at Thread Intelligence

The biggest advantage that brick-and-mortar stores have over eCommerce stores is the physical experience. There is just no getting around the power and influence of a physical environment. All five senses are stimulated. There is an opportunity to physically handle and spatially size up potential purchases. There is a level of trust and security in seeing the physical assets that make up the store itself, lending credibility that can lead to making a purchase.

Designing for the senses

Physical environments provide the opportunity to create lush solutions that deeply affect the five human senses. These simply cannot be replicated on the web. Digital interfaces are visual, but are relatively shallow in their size and resolution. Sound on websites, in practice, is more often seen as an annoyance than a component to a pleasant experience. There are sophisticated devices that can deliver selected smells from a web interface, but, even forgetting their scarcity, it is hard to imagine that engineered sprays of a combination of base chemicals can even begin to approximate environmental olfactory reality. Touch and taste cannot be created on the web.

We should begin by dismissing obvious and unpredictable solutions to designing complex sensorial experiences for eCommerce solutions: Sure, it is possible that applications will be developed – similar to those that enable your computer to emit smells – that artificially create opportunities to stimulate taste and touch. But we cannot anticipate that, and – if we are trying to create successful eCommerce businesses – we have other things to focus attention and resources on than an experimental and complicated innovation like that.

Another thing that we can relatively dismiss is the evolution of and integration into virtual reality solutions. This is certainly an area of convergence in the future, a middle ground where the small, flat and hard-to-use interface devices of today are replaced with more holistic interfaces that interact with us in a manner similar to a physical experience. But it is outside the bounds of this dialogue to explore. While virtual reality solutions might be a worthwhile investment for wealthy eCommerce innovators, it is something based more on speculative capital expenditure and technology than new ideas and linear, actualized application to experience design for the web.

So, how can we touch all of the senses on the web, and what is the process to go from where you are today to realizing those solutions?

In innovating, consider the past

The phrase “the more things change, the more they remain the same” is a truism that validates itself again and again. Indeed, to answer the question of experience design and eCommerce, one of the directions we can turn to is traditional sales and marketing tactics.

Earlier in my career I worked with a large glass manufacturer headquartered in the United Kingdom. One of the many challenges we collaborated with them on was a sales kit for architects. Through a strategic process, it had become clear that the critical target for their marketing and sales expenditures needed to be architects, who not only make a majority of the decisions and specifications on glass in new construction projects, but also exert significant influence over others in the process, such as contractors. The project team identified the need to differentiate with this key audience – to do something that truly stood out and added value in a way that, sitting in their offices far from a physical, experiential milieu, they would select the products of our client. The situation is remarkably similar to trying to move people to make purchases through an existing web interface.

Our solution was to design a “sample kit” which brought the physical experience of our products to the architects. Roughly the size of a phone book and created to sit right on a bookshelf, this kit included more than 20 good-sized pieces of the actual glass product in different textures, colors and with different levels of energy property. The kit also included a wooden “frame,” inside which the architects could put multiple pieces of glass to test the appearance and performance of combining different types of glass in the same application. There was also ample technical and performance data with the kits, so the architects could synthesize the physical product with its properties and performance. These kits were proactively distributed to the architects that we wanted to move. They did not need to be ordered or requested. We made them available so that, when the idea came to specify glass, there was no waiting period – the kit was ready to go.

This solution accomplished many different objectives:

* Was cool and different, thus standing out in a positive way

* Was expensive and high-quality enough that virtually no one would throw it away, even if they did not like our products to begin with

* Enabled architects to handle the actual product in their office, creating a tactile experience

* Enabled architects to also view the product in application, again in their office

* Provided all of the necessary technical data as well, so everything that architects would consider when evaluating a certain product was included in the single place

* Naturally up-sold and cross-sold in a non-selling way, just by virtue of having so many different “cool” pieces of glass, the more exotic of which were truly pleasurable to touch

* Put the solution right at their fingertips, a resource integrated into their basic workspace and immediately accessible

* Put our products immediately in their consideration set, because the relative mindshare that we occupied – in the specific context of their most personal of workspaces, their office – was so far and away more and better that we dominated that important microenvironment

From the architect’s perspective, it was both useful and fun: the right data and information, presented in a way that was different and interesting and practical. The experience of actually handling the glass, holding it up to the light, “playing” with the different pieces in the wooden frame; all of these factors combined to provide the people we were designing for – the architects – with a better holistic solution.

Now, if I were providing a similar solution today, I would certainly do it differently. Understanding experience design, I would proactively try to integrate other elements that touched senses beyond the visual and tactile. Nonetheless, this solution provides invaluable lessons for web design for the senses.

In the context of our actual interface, we can only do so much. If we really want to move people, we need to step outside of that interface and solve the problem holistically. That means creating solutions that account for all of the senses and begin to approximate or even approach the positive and powerful elements of an actual in-store experience. With the idea of providing people with real, physical things – whether it be actual products, or something that is very pleasurable, or fun, or something useful that is branded and amplifies the overall brand experience – we must move far past the digital interface. The secret, however, is that it needs to integrate naturally into the environment of the person it is designed for. Our sample kit worked great because architects already have a bookshelf and books, and the kit went right into that shelf. It did not clutter their desks. It did not get stuffed into a drawer. It did not get in the way to the point that it was thrown away. It hit that perfect balance of being the right solution from all of the different measures and perspectives. Architects loved it and specified our products more. Even beyond that, our clients loved it and were more proud and enthusiastic about their company than they were before. The effects were not only positive, they were resonant. The application of these approaches to experience design as a lever for eCommerce success are significant, indeed.

And it does not need to be complicated. If you are selling clothes made from a lush tactile fabric, manufacture a small piece of fabric that integrates onto a mouse or keyboard so people can feel pleasure on the computer while being constantly reminded that your product can keep taking that pleasure farther. If you are selling a beverage, figure out a way to capture the taste on those small “oral care strips” that are popular today and distribute them to people with the pointed direction of using while they are surfing around on the Internet. Before you know it, they just might be ordering product and merchandise from your website. Be creative. Innovate ways to pleasurably and seamlessly integrate the experience of your product into the remote life of people, particularly while or around their use of the web.

Marriage of physical experiences with digital interactions

This is an approach that designers and marketers have already been doing with various degrees of success: encouraging people who have participated in physical experiences to engage with their website, and perhaps even their eCommerce store.

While not directly applied to eCommerce, I had an excellent experience with this just yesterday. Along with some friends, I visited the North American International Auto Show in Detroit. One of the largest and most lavish trade shows in the world, needless to say it was a veritable orgy of designed experience, although disappointingly weighted to the visual. The Jeep booth (although, really, the word “environment” is more appropriate than “booth” for the displays at this show) was very creatively themed to represent a rugged outdoor environment. Green carpet that visually approximated grass, especially from a distance. Rocks, roads, bends and even a waterfall. Understanding their product, market, customers and brand, Jeep designed the booth to create a rugged outdoor experience. They even had a variety of games that nicely balanced branding with enabling people to physically get involved with the elements of driving and Jeep.

The application that really caught our attention was their photography station. In front of the waterfall was a photographer who took a picture of anyone who wanted it. The picture was taken digitally, and afterward the photographer ran a Jeep-branded lanyard and badge through a bar scanner. He told us to wear those around our neck, and at 1 p.m. he would upload our photos to the web. If we followed the instructions on the badge, we would get our pictures at no cost.

This was really clever. Evaluating the design of this experience chronologically, it began with our getting our picture taken. We were having a good time with each other and were really happy to have our picture taken. Jeep wanted to take our picture and give it to us without a dollar cost. This is very positive and favorable. The technology the photographer was using – one relatively small device that was taking and storing pictures, reading the bar code on all of the different badges and facilitating the relatively quick uploading and availability of our photograph – left the impression that Jeep was technologically progressive, always a good trait for an automobile manufacturer. The badges themselves, which I at least would never wear in a more neutral context, we were all happy to wear. The instructions to get the pictures were the very model of simplicity. The pictures were, in fact, available later in the day and the resolution was actually quite high. I was able to download, re-name and send the picture to a friend.

The only gap in the Design involved one of the (simple) steps to retrieve the picture. I was directed to “Click the ‘VIEW PHOTO'” button on the website, and that button was not differentiated and took some time to find. Other than that, though, this micro-experience provided by Jeep in the context of their larger environmental experience had a very positive impact on me. It is the first thing that I will talk about from the auto show, despite having zero interest in Jeep’s products. It has taken me to their website and placed their web address firmly in my consciousness. It has “captured” my information in their online database, where they can target other communications to me, which, if properly designed, could conceivably move Jeep into my eventual consideration set and someday make a purchase. And they have really upgraded my perception of the Jeep brand. They designed that experience with people in mind, adding to our enjoyment of the event and creating warmth. That will translate in any conversation that I might have about car companies.

While the entire thing is valuable from an experience design perspective, from the standpoint of moving people from traditional purchasing in stores to eCommerce purchasing, it also offers some valuable insights. If we can create strong physical experiences and actively integrate those who have the experience into our eCommerce stores, we can leverage the physical to encourage action in the virtual. Beyond the Jeep example, we would need to be more strategic and specific in creating context between the physical and the purchase of products. This would require a focus different than that of Jeep, which does not seem to have any motive or intent to further an eCommerce model. For that you need to incorporate traditional sales and marketing approaches, things like promotions, discounting, cross- and up-selling, among others. Specific application will vary based on individual situations.

The best experience is not necessarily what is right in front of you

The overarching lesson when considering experience design in the context of eCommerce is that we need to abandon the flatland of our screen. Sure, we can create visually spectacular solutions, incorporate sound, or even experiment with new technologies aimed at scent. But those are hollow, incomplete solutions that will not enable a paradigmatic change from brick to click. Instead, we need to use other media and opportunity to invade the physical plane, to be present not just on the screen but in a more powerful and rich way. That requires creative problem solving and will greatly benefit from past solutions that, even if they weren’t created with “experience design” in mind, successfully enabled companies like my glass client to create integrated experiences within personal environments. We’re already pretty good as an industry at cross-promoting the physical to the digital. The secret is to innovate the physical and do so from the intentional perspective of experience design.

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