Building Digital Experiences with Humans in Mind

Originally written and posted on the Versett blog.

“Something must be wrong with the experience.”

One of our clients was concerned about a peculiar behaviour pattern we noticed in their ecommerce experience: some customers would visit the page and open chat with a question within seconds. It was as if they didn’t even bother trying to solve the problem on their own.

The prevailing perspective on digital experiences is that if a customer needs help, you’ve designed it incorrectly. Your experience should be so simple and effortless, that a customer can find their way to checkout without assistance. How can you expect to grow an Internet-scale business when you’re hampered by humans in the process?

This mindset is wrong for three reasons:

  1. It assumes customers have the expertise required to know what to buy.
  2. It assumes customers only care about the end product.
  3. It assumes customers want self-serve.

Each of these assumptions is rooted in a process that doesn’t consider the uniqueness of shoppers and what their true needs are. Automation decisions put the business’ wants ahead of a customer’s needs. It assumes each customer is the same: they don’t need help, they know what they want, and they don’t want to interact with a person.

1. Some customers need guidance

Imagine you were shopping for a new guitar for your daughter. If you didn’t know where to start, you would probably head to one of the employees for guidance. The employee might spend 30 minutes with you, helping you find the perfect instrument and providing you with some options to choose from. 

Your need for employee assistance doesn’t render the guitar-buying experience broken. 

The implicit assumption is that people know what they want when they enter your store. Retailers have known this isn’t necessarily the case for ages and employ helpful salespeople to help guide customers through a buying experience. On the flip side, most companies struggle to recreate this guided experience on their digital platforms. 

West Elm, a furniture retailer, offers online consultations (video, chat, or email) to help plan your space. This free service allows customers to make informed buying decisions and ensures they are creating a space they want to live in. It would take years to gain the knowledge and experience of an interior designer who can help match the right sofa to the size of the room, the colour of the drapes, etc. This can’t be done with a simple digital selection tool. Expertise is required and it’s hard to acquire. west elm’s reps provide customers with the expertise they need to feel confident making a purchase.

2. Some customers want the experience too.

Imagine walking into a high-end, formal-wear shop looking for an outfit for an upcoming wedding and there are no salespeople. There’s an espresso machine to pour yourself a hot beverage while you browse. Clothes are neatly stacked on the shelves. You can check out on your own. There’s even an iPad that has a suggestion tool to make sure you don’t pair that orange shirt with a pink tie.

But something is still missing.

You’re not just looking for advice. You’re looking for conversation. You’re looking for a human connection. You’re looking for an experience. All are mysteriously absent.

Customers choosing white-glove services are often looking for more than just the product they are buying. If that was all they wanted, they might go elsewhere for cheaper. These customers see value beyond the product. They appreciate the conversation with the staff and the relationship they’ve formed. They enjoy the experience that shopping becomes when it’s more than a transaction. Companies selling these services understand this. Until they go online.

Retailers transitioning to ecommerce tend to lose out on the human-driven value adds because they take a traditional one-size-fits-all approach. They forget what made them successful: the experience is part of their product.

Harry Rosen allows salespeople to generate unique wardrobe selections for their clients and share them through a private web portal. These pages highlight new products the customer might enjoy based on their pre-existing relationship with their rep. Sales reps are able to add personal messages around their recommendations to add a personal touch to the experience.

Advice: Consider ways to recreate the in-store experience online by leveraging in-store staff.

3. Some customers want a human to help.

Imagine you’re in the grocery store with your partner. Your approach is to walk through the aisles, choosing the vegetables you need for the week. You don’t need assistance. Your partner, on the other hand, heads straight to someone stocking the shelves and asks where to find the cardamom. Instead of looking at the aisle signs, they get immediate assistance to find what they are looking for.

You have different desires for the shopping experience.

If you were moving this experience online, you might think your ideal grocery experience is more efficient and thus better. The fallacy here is that not all customers want a streamlined process with no humans. Sometimes, they don’t want to find things themselves; they prefer to just ask. This is not a defect of the experience.

A recent client of ours, a major appliances retailer, added an ecommerce experience that didn’t exist. We learned that customers need a lot of guidance through their purchasing decision. Recognizing the way customers shopped, and the need for human advice in the purchasing experience, we added a chat platform for launch. Since launch, they have been driving significant sales through chat. Sales staff are not only answering questions but completing sales directly through chat. Even though many customers are still transacting through traditional ecommerce, just over 50 per cent of their digital sales are now through chat.

Augment, not Automate

As companies seek to eliminate the need for humans and leverage technology for the sake of efficiency and scalability, they shut out a segment of their audience. The underlying problem with each of these assumptions is a belief that using technology or humans is an either-or decision. Some experiences are better with human guidance, while others are better in a purely digital fashion. The deciding factor? Your customers.

This isn’t a free pass to use support staff to overcome bad UX design and help customers through your digital experience. Human-augmented technology is another channel and needs to be designed effectively. Technology and humans are interdependent, augmenting one another. When used in concert, magic happens.

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