What's so Interactive about Interactive Shopping?
Speech to the Direct Marketing Association
Sunday 17 March 1996
What exactly is so interactive about interactive media? Well, I can tell you that it isn't much about the technology. Anyone who has seen shopping CD-ROMs or been to a website selling something can tell you that these experiences aren't terribly engaging and, therefore, don't compel customers to purchase anything. But this doesn't reflect a lack of capability in the technology as much as it does of the industry. We haven't spent much time thinking about why people buy things or what the shopping experience is--and how we can translate this into new media. Without this knowledge, there isn't much hope for us to create interactive experiences for shoppers that compete in any small way with catalogs, mailers, advertisers, 800 numbers, malls, and actually setting foot in a store.
What makes experiences interactive? Why is walking into a store or speaking with someone over the phone still nicer than clicking through a CD-ROM? This is what interaction design is about. And, by asking a few questions and spending a little more time in concept, any project, product, or experience, can be made more interactive--and therefore, more compelling and enjoyable. Walking into a Nordstroms store, for example, is so wonderful because they understand how to create a valuable shopping experience. Even thumbing through a Body Shop catalog is nice because they know how to use the print medium to its advantage. What we need to do better is use the interactive media to their advantage and create interactive experiences that share those universal shopping experience criteria. Selling things is so much more than merely making them available and ringing up the sale. Merchandising products and services is a lot more complex--and important. But how many shopping experiences reflect this? Certainly no electronic or online experiences.
Think about shopping 100 years ago. I know this seems like a long time ago, but I bet that shopping for things 100 years ago wasn't too different than shopping today--or shopping 100 years from now. There was no Internet, no 800 numbers, and not even any telemarketers. Nobody talked about the technology then like they do today (like it is an end instead of merely just a means), they talked about people and products. What people needed is pretty much the same. Why they shopped, and to a large extent, how is also not much different. Oh, the technology has changed a lot, but the reasons and the experiences haven't. This is our biggest problem.
Now think about life 100 years from now. None of the technologies hot today will be around anymore. Actually, that will happen in about five years--or less. But, people will still need to buy thngs. They will still wonder if their hair would look better shorter, if that shirt will shrink, if this sweater will accent their eyes, or what to cook for a special dinner. We all need to keep our eye's on people's needs adn, if we do, we'll tap into something much more important than the Internet.
When thnking about how to evolve your business with new media, think about what you are already doing that makes you successful and your products and services valuable. That is, the experiences you provide for your customers. So, here are some questions to ask yourselves about interactive shopping and about what you are already doing. Interactive technologies can help you do all of these, but not without a focus on the experience itself.
Ask yourself, what are the shopping experiences that you enjoy the most? Do they involve others? Were they times in which you made something as well as bought something? Showed something? Did something? Felt something? Was it merely that you got what you wanted quickly, accurately, with minimum hassle? Or, did you learn something along the way, meet someone. Were you allowed to take your time? How would you describe that experience to me? Think about how you would you recreate that experience for someone else?
What kinds of experiences do people pay money for? Which ones do they pay the most for? Ask yourself why? Do they get to do something? Consume something? Be someone? Make something? Say something? Are some experiences more valuable if their effects last longer? Does the experience help them do something they otherwise couldn't? Or merely wouldn't?
When did that experience start? At the moment someone decided to buy something? When they perceived the need? Or, has it been integrated into all facets of life and therefore, running continuously. I believe, the later. It is almost impossible to say when a customer finds out about your products--or you. They may have heard of it long before they needed it--or even perceived the need for it.
For sure, there are lots of different kinds of products and services to sell and each represents a different balance of convenience and depth, time, space, and interaction. What these questions--these criteria--are designed to do is help you navigate those options and find that balance for whatever it is you sell to whomever your audience is.
Creativity and Productivity
There are those shopping experiences in which people produce things, or support the production of things--usually in their jobs, but often in their hobbies. These include: Processing, Analyzing, Brainstorming, Planning, Arranging, Organizing, Transforming, Building, and Preparing whether it is food, shelter, work, play, clothes, communications, or feelings.
What does your product or service allow people to make and how can the shopping and buying of it help them accomplish these goals? Does it do it for them? Does it offer them help, advice, hints, or knowledge? Is what your audience produces for themselves or for someone else?
This is what humans are best at. We are really good at creating things, so anything your experience can do to support that will seem more valuable to your audience, and anything you can do interactively in this regard will accomplish more than anyone expects. For example, can they build, customize, or order their own version of whatever you sell. Can they choose the color, the material, the finish, the size, the shape, and the options? Are these truly valuable choices that make a difference to them or are they frivolous? Can they see the result of their choices? Can they touch it? Try it out? Take it for a spin? Will you remember your customers and their choices the next time they come back?
There are those experiences in which people store things, whether they store jars, papers, boxes, or memories. Even if the product you sell isn't used explicitly for storage, you may be able to help people remember things about it that are important to them. Do you have a registry so that your customers can contact you two years from now to ask the product number, finish type, match the color, or order one exactly like it long after they have forgotten what they bought in the first place? Can they ask to be reminded periodically--in a non-threatening an non-pestering way--about reordering, replacements, our simply their satisfaction? Do you store things for them (like their sizes and preferences) and, if so, can they change these themselves--even delete them? How do they retrieve this information and check it? Are these things that they want you to remember? Is this registry accessible to others so that they can see what kinds of gifts might be appropriate for your customers? All of it, part of it, or any of it?
Notice I haven't said a word about technology. It doesn't matter whether you use HTML, Director, Perl scripts, or servers. These universal questions about experience should guide your use of technology and shouldn't be guided by the technology. It doesn't matter whether you are using electronic media, online media, print, in-store displays or live mannequins. In fact, these questions should make you reconsider the interactivity of all of your shopping experiences--not only the ones enabled by new media. You may find that the best way to reach your customers is with a store front or door-to-door sales calls, rather than a CD-ROM catalog or a website. My bet is that you're going to find uses for all media and these questions should help you guide which part of the experience--your interface with your many customers--is appropriate in each medium.
There are those experiences in which people communicate things whether they are sending or receiving messages, freight, or emotions. Often, great shopping experiences include the serendipitous possibilities of meeting friends and even strangers. Many times, these are helpful experiences, sometimes not. Many people prefer to shop with others and talk about what they are buying or feeling. The may want to talk with salespeople to learn about options or gather opinions.
Others, however, like being more anonymous--even clandestine--about their purchases. They don't want anyone else to know they sneak Snickers bars at 3AM or where they bought that incredible outfit at half-off. Some people need encouragement or justification, while others prefer not to be bothered. Some want it both ways, talking to people when they're buying important things: like a car, a stereo, or a dress for the prom. At other times, these same people may just want to get in and out quickly for things that mean little to them: like groceries, staples, or Post-It notes. Are you allowing your customers to do both of these extremes--and everything in between?
How do your customers meet each other? Can you build a stronger brand by building a community around your products? What if you provided a place for customers to share their tips, hints, successes, troubles, and secrets, as they relate to your products? What if they met others like themselves, helped each other, met in real time and space once in a while, or simply got advice on how to use your product in a way that never occurred to them? Would they think more highly of your product? Of you? Of themselves? You better believe they would.
How do you communicate with your customers? Are your available when they are? Are you available live? Do they call? Send email? Drop a note in a discussion board? FAX you or page you? Is your reply instant, quick, slow, or non-existent? Can they reach you for technical support or service in a way that is easier than waiting on hold for 20 minutes? Can they receive information without having to talk to someone? Any hour of the day? From anywhere in the world?
Do they need help expressing themselves? Finding the manager? Identifying that salesperson who helped them so much? Do you listen to their suggestions? Their advice? Their frustrations? Their successes? Their compliments? Do you care who they are or what they have to say?
Contrary to what it looks like today, the Internet isn't a publishing medium. It is a communications medium. Think of it as the next telephone system. It is a medium for people to communicate, and not one for people to read a lot of text about things they may or may not be interested in. Yes, put your product information up on the Web--just don't stop there.
Some experiences are about teaching, helping, advising, and facilitating. How do you do these things well? For different people? For people you will never meet? How can your products or services? Do you understand your customers? Do they understand you? Do they understand what your products can do for them? How to use them more effectively? How they're made? Do they want to know these things about you? Do you want them to know these things? Would it change how they viewed you or your products? Would they be grateful?
Who are your customers? Do you know much more about them than their credit card number and address? Can you find out more about them? Have you asked them what they do, what their interests are, and how they live their lives? How would this information help you serve them better, and build better products for them? Now, how can you use these technologies to do these easily?
Could they use your help using your products to greater advantage? Sharing them with others? Would this make them use more of your products and services or less? Would they use less of your competitors' products?
Speaking of competitors, do you really know who they are? Are you confining them only to your own medium? Are you defining your market too broadly? Too narrowly? How can you define these better? Now is an interesting time. New technologies offer contradictory opportunities. They may mean both the end of the middleman (and any job with the word agent in it) and the blossoming of new companies and services made up of only middlemen and distributors.
Airlines are turning into travel agents today, and some travel agents are turning into airlines. Changes in distribution systems and the use of contractors can allow Microsoft to be a bank, your local pet shop to be a global entertainment supplier (with the proper product tie-ins of course), and a major metwork to be religated to a simple distributor of programming. It is a strange world right now with unlimited opportunites for those who know their customers.
Your products will always be performing, but how can these media allow your audience to perform as well? Is your audience ready to perform? Are they willing? Do they need help? Encouragement? A net? Do you know much about performance and the creation of great experiences? Do you know what people derive enjoyment from? If not, find those people in the performance arts--the interaction arts to help you.
There are those experiences that involve consuming whether it is eating, drinking, listening, or watching. What differentiates valuable or successful forms of these experiences seems to be in what people take away with them once the experience is over. Perhaps they were entertained, perhaps they were inspired. Maybe they felt less alone, or more fulfilled. They may feel grateful, they may be outraged, they may be satisfied. Interactivity is all about satisfaction and performance. Not only can these experiences make your products easier to buy and sell, but easier to use and understand. Added to this is the possibility for creating wholly new products, services, and experiences around those you currently sell and create. The last few years have seen more than one company transform themselves from one industry to another, reinvent their identities and positions within markets and create new markets where none existed before. While these may have been facilitated by technology, they were primarily changes based on the experiences of people and catering to their interests and needs.
What is it that is personal about your products--that makes it unique for your customers, that responds to them individually? Do they feel that they are special? Does your product--or the experience you are providing them thought it--give your customers a voice? Does it help them use it? Does it respond to them differently than it responds to others? Are their needs ongoing or temporary? Do your files update themselves automatically, based on your customers" actions? Can you check up on them if they prefer?
Does it respond to the time of day or the place? Is it malleable to your customers' different cultures, desires, interests, or needs? Does it respond to the changes of these things? Do you know where your customers live or where they happen to be today? Does it matter? Do you serve them differently when it's light out? When it's evening? Do they want you to?
Does it treat them as if they are smart? Capable? Sentient? Alive? Are they a name? A number? Does it matter if they are even there? Is there a place for them at all?
Some of the key components for creating marketing experiences are that they are creative (that they allow people to make something, communicate with others, share something of themselves, or offer help in the creative process), interactive (they don't require users to be passive and they encourage and reward initiative), and adaptive (they offer unique, personal experiences and treat each audience member differently based on their behavior and interests). Of course, they are also convenient and relevant. They combine and connect all media (whether kiosk, CD-ROM, online services, website, catalog, store, directory, ITV, screen-based phone, or real-space/real-time event) and they change with use (when necessary).
Again, technology is not the key, experience is. You are creating experiences for people and interactive media allow interactive experiences. If you aren't building truly interactive, valuable experiences, then you aren't using the technology correctly and you're risking not only a loss of a potential sale, but the loss of your entire market.
17 March 1996
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