The art and science of UX design in retail

The age of disruption - the catchall phrase to describe the unrelenting wave of transformation - shows no sign of slowing. It’s a wave that has swept industry after industry and looms large in almost every aspect of retail.

Technology’s impact continues to be immense and far reaching as consumer attitudes and preferences drive the latest trends. In a drive to understand consumers’ evolving needs, user experience (UX) design is emerging as one way to craft the ultimate shopping experience.

The Interaction Design Foundation defines UX design as the process of creating products that provide meaningful and relevant experiences to users. While a graphic designer typically deals with designing packaging or brochures, and a user interface (UI) designer typically creates digital interfaces in websites and apps; a UX designer is concerned with the entire user journey, including aspects of research, visual design, information architecture, usability and prototyping. It’s a journey that begins well before a product, app, or website reaches the end-user or consumer.

The user experience approach is both an art and a science as it aims to cleverly bridge the gap between user needs and measurable business objectives like clicks and sales. The UX philosophy takes into account potential pain points before creating a solution. If there’s more than one way to bake a cake, then UX design aims to pinpoint and plot the most enjoyable path of least resistance.

UX already enjoys prominence in the world of web and app design as a way of blending overall utility with user-friendliness. Google’s UX Research Lead Jenny Gove and UX Design Lead Iram Mirza researched each aspect involved in designing a retail app, from visuals and product information to click-throughs and engagement.

According to Gove and Mirza, to meet the needs and expectations of today’s consumers, retailers must transform their mobile experiences. Research results have made one thing clear: The design and structure of retail apps and websites should focus on addressing consumers’ needs and supporting them throughout their shopping experiences.

“It’s evident from the research that there are multiple points in the process when consumers get frustrated. Sometimes it’s because they’re asked to register without having yet received any value from the site or app; often it’s because they’re presented with poor visual feedback and a lack of useful product details. And then there are the clunky checkout forms and scarcity of payment options,” they state.

Creating an experience people want to revisit

According to US-based mobile application testing and research site, User Testing, the most effective retail sites and apps provide a seamless experience to make shopping easier and faster for consumers. The best online store apps give relevant and timely notifications on sales, special offers and product availability while being uncluttered and simple to navigate. As shoppers increasingly make use of digital platforms for everything from gaming to banking, more retailers are thinking about how to introduce app and web-based notions of UX design into the physical in-store experience.

Tech-savvy shoppers are more accustomed to the world of online shopping than ever before – so much so that if a website’s user experience and interface is poorly designed, slow, clumsy or too technical, shoppers simply leave the site, open a new tab, and search for a better alternative.

According to Doug Stephens, UK-based retail trend forecaster and founder of the website Retail Prophet, the internet has become extremely good at doing what stores traditionally did: merchandise products, convey product information and process purchases. “Retailers now have to create an experience that people want to revisit. As a result, the strategic purpose of the store has changed. Shopping in stores must either be as cheap and convenient as buying from Amazon, or entertaining — offering memorable experiences that can’t be replicated online.”

As tech becomes more integrated with traditionally so-called offline experiences, it’s easy to assume that technology itself is at the centre of successful retail disruption – and the more technology the better. But, according to a recent Design Value Index Report, the reality is much more nuanced.

Responding to emerging customer needs first is the essence of disruption

“Companies like Google, Amazon, Facebook, and Apple have similar technologies and similar amounts of technology. The common pattern was that the majority of customers in those markets had changing needs, wants and behaviours. Successful disruptors are simply quicker to spot and serve emerging customer needs than competitors,” says the report.

Former IBM CEO Thomas Watson Jr. famously declared, “good design is good business.” And the numbers agree. The Design Value Index, which also measures listed companies and their share performance relative to the S&P 500, found that design-driven companies can outperform their competitors by as much as 228%. What’s more, in a study carried out by the Design Management Institute, design-led companies reported 41% higher market share and 50% more loyal customers.

“The Design Value Index shows companies that embrace design understand their customers better than those that don’t. As a result, they grow faster and with higher margins and recover faster during economic downturns,” says the report.

But what exactly defines a design-led company? According to Adobe, it’s one that puts design at the core of its brand. “It weaves design principles into everything it does— from research and strategy to creating content. Leadership and management at these companies think beyond transactions and focus on creating beautiful experiences that build lasting and meaningful relationships with customers,” says Adobe.

Another study from the Retailing and Consumer Sciences programme at the University of Arizona, reports that what bridges the two experiences of online and offline shopping is the way in which the self-navigation process can become almost entirely subconscious. In other words, “we instinctively choose the shopping experience that offers us the smoothest flow of actions with the least possible amount of friction, nuisance and hassle. This is intuition-driven shopping.”

UX design is changing retail shop floors

The phenomenon of being accustomed to good UX design online is manifesting in the ‘real’ world, as retailers like Apple and Nike reimagine key features of the in-store experience to mimic the best of what’s possible on the web, through interactive digital displays and ‘smart kiosks’ that offer technical assistance.

Other iterations of this include ‘Scan, Bag, Go’ automated checkout points at busy grocery retailers in Europe, while ‘Click and Collect’ options here in South Africa have already extended across several leading brands. Shoppers are taking advantage of this free fulfilment, but are also tapping into the ability to inspect an item before taking it home, ask sales associates for assistance with any information or products they were not able to make a decision on while selecting items online.

“As customers become more sophisticated and retailers compete more fiercely for market share, it’s imperative a particular aesthetic must be retained. Though generally associated with the online world, UI and UX are also extremely important in the real world,” says Tom Van Soest, CEO of Visual Retailing.

“When used correctly to design physical spaces, these visual and experiential interactions make shopping convenient and satisfying for the customer. UI and UX are not only about technology, but about understanding consumer behaviour in the offline world,” he adds.

Of course, it isn’t only the product, display, layout, look and tech in the store that is important for the customer experience, but the staff too. Customers are increasingly viewing retail staff as both guide and advisor and have high expectations for knowledgeable interactions with them.

When done well, design thinking and its philosophy can be a framework for innovation as it puts the end-user, or shopper, at the front and centre of the overall experience. Just as shoppers can simply switch websites, so too can they choose a competitor should the in-store experience prove badly designed and frustrating.

A fitting rule of thumb often repeated in the UX field suggests: “If you think good design is expensive, you should consider the cost of bad design.” And as the age of disruption filters into the every-day, this heuristic may prove to be just as true for retailers.

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