Retail user experience & permission to browse

Retail user experience & permission to browse

I was early for a meeting and found myself on a London street full of homeware showrooms. I’ll admit my intentions were spurious: this was an exercise in killing time and perhaps getting a sense of what passes for ‘hip’ in the world of interiors these days.

Wandering around the shop floor, navigating between the individual mock-up worlds the store had laid out to tempt customers, I spotted a tablet attached to the wall by a swivelling arm. I was intrigued, not least because it was incongruous in a shop otherwise filled with retro fashions.

My curiosity grew because it was uncertain who this tablet – an iPad – was intended for. Was it for customers, and if so what purpose did it serve beyond what I could do in the store itself, or for the private use of the staff?

It was situated close to a staff desk – the place where customers might consult with an assistant over which particular shade of plum they wanted for their sofa covering – but it was also facing outwards, switched on and visible to customers. The screen was quite dim and seemed to be locked on an order page for the company’s web-site, with the virtual keyboard covering half the display. If this was meant for public browsing, the content on the screen offered little enticement to engage prospective customers.

Consider also the physical form of the device. It was encased in clear plastic, but with an obvious and ugly security device emerging from the top. There was also, necessarily, a power cord hanging from one edge, dangling down to a wall socket. I came across a similar device on the floor below too, but this one was dark and powered off, the cable hanging loose and disconnected from its socket.

It’s purpose remains unclear. I’d guess it was intended for customers to browse products available by mail order but not shown on the shop floor. However, the lasting impression it left me with was how out of character it was in an environment designed to showcase the best in interior design.

There’s a unique ugliness to dysfunctional technology and this locked down tablet, tethered to the wall by cables and restraining arms, was the antithesis of the welcome one might wish to create in one’s own home.

The nuance around technology in the retail environment is complex. It spans the way people feel about using their own devices in a showroom to the role of the technology employed by the store itself. Where, for instance, it is acceptable for customers to snap photos of the products and where would this be considered impolite? If the store offers its own devices – like this tablet – for the use of customers, should you ask a member of staff before accessing them? As a retail brand, would you rather customers directed their questions to members of staff, or to a tablet programmed to access your web-site?

It also reveals how a customer’s experience hops between the physical and the digital in unplanned (and unplannable) ways, creating gaps between the various touchpoints which are difficult for designers to anticipate. Yet it is in these gaps – the transitions between customer interactions – that the biggest risks to good experience are found.

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