Walking A Mile In The Shopper’s Shoes: IR Digital Design Conference

Last week I attended Internet Retailer’s Digital Design Conference in Los Angeles. The conference strikes me as the digital equivalent of GlobalShop – a lot of focus on how consumers shop, what makes them want to buy, a lot of psychology, except focused on the digital realm instead of the physical world of the store. On one level, a lot of the psychology is undoubtedly the same. The hard part with digital is there are a lot more guessing games, and with mobile in particular, it’s a lot of guessing games about what consumers are really trying to accomplish (they may not be using mobile to shop in the same way they use a desktop site).

Either way, if you guess wrong, it’s hard to really tell – it’s not like a store where you can see what’s not working. You only see what’s wrong in digital when sales and traffic tank. And even then, even after you trace the issue back to a certain page or link or graphic, you may not understand why the issue exists.

So I found two themes that were emphasized quite a bit at IRDD, and I think these two themes are valuable whether you are looking at digital – or looking at the shopping experience holistically.

Theme 1: How They Want To Buy, Not How You Want To Sell

When we first founded RSR, we talked a lot about how retailing had changed, so that it was not about how retailers wanted to sell. It was about matching to how consumers want to buy. We meant it in the context of consumers taking control of the shopping experience and retailers needed to respond, but it works at the micro level too. When talking about promotions or featured images or product recommendations, if you are focused on meeting your customers’ needs, you’re not going to be thinking about these things in terms of what you want to promote. You need to think about them in terms of what customers want to buy, and how they want to buy them.

One simple example: Scott Kincaid of Usability Sciences showed video of a man shopping a product detail page at a sporting goods retailer. The man was looking at handguns. Right under the product description – prime real estate on a product detail page – was a “popular products” section. In that section: a women’s swimsuit, children’s flip flops, a boy’s batting helmet, and a fly fishing rod. They might’ve been popular products on the website as a whole, but they had absolutely nothing to do with the category the man was shopping (there were no recommendations for other handguns he might like), and certainly no related products like holsters or ammunition or clips. In terms of relevance to how the shopper wanted to buy, that prime real estate was not only wasted space, it demonstrated to the shopper that the retailer wasn’t interested in helping him make his purchase.

Theme 2: Walk A Mile In Their Shoes

You might argue that Theme 2 is just restating Theme 1, but it’s not. But it is related. You can be committed to Theme 1 without ever actually walking a mile in your customers’ shoes. But I think it’s nearly impossible to be good at thinking about how your customers want to buy if you’ve never actually tried to buy anything from your own digital properties. And that’s where walking a mile becomes important.

I am gratified to hear more and more people talk about customer journeys and paths to purchase. It’s important not just within any one channel – like what a desktop shopping experience must be like – but also across channels. And for digital, especially mobile, that is becoming more and more critical, as what happens off the screen – the context of the shopper – is at least as important as what’s happening on the screen.

If you don’t have a lot of budget (and honestly, that would be surprising, as some of these testing avenues are ridiculously cheap), then you can still use corporate employees as guinea pigs. Almost in the vein of Mechanical Turk, you could award points or gift cards to store associates for testing out shopping processes and giving you feedback. All you have to do is define a set of objectives (“buy a vanilla jar candle from our site on your mobile phone”) and watch them do it.

I know one head of digital who ambushes customers in his stores and gives them gift cards for doing the same thing. Things that you think are obvious will rapidly be exposed as a fantasy. During one session at IRDD, we watched a consumer look at absolutely every other piece of content on a page, trying to find the “Locate in Store” button, except for right at the button at the center of the page. I mean, it was right there.

But guess what? It doesn’t matter if it’s obvious to you. It only matters if your customers can find it, and know how to use it. If you care about your customers, you’ll easily be able to let go of your ego and realize you have to think carefully about every page and every piece of content on the page and make sure they are all doing their job. If you’re not sure, at least try to walk a mile in your customers’ shoes. And even better, recruit some customers and watch them walk their mile.

Guaranteed, you will learn a lot.