Friction and the future of shopping: brand-specific apps

This is the first of many posts about how new technologies could thrive when customer experience is the first priority.

There are no shortage of ideas about the future of shopping and retail. The industry is spending an immense amount of energy deciding which technologies will power what comes next, from beacons to apps to self checkout to virtual reality. The media then writes article upon article about how these new technologies and implementations will "revolutionize shopping as we know it" and "upend retail and ecommerce unlike ever before."

This might all be true at some point, but most of the current solutions have one main issue: they introduce a substantial amount of friction to experiences that should be increasingly frictionless. This is a classic solution in search of a problem. Customer experience should be the number one priority, rather than trying to dazzle the world with tech that just makes everything more complicated.

Brand-specific apps

As a consumer's attention span is increasingly fickle, brands are trying to build stronger relationships with their audience. Brands frequently cite mobile apps, which occupy a user's precious homescreen real estate, as solution to this uncertainty.

The problem, however, is that brands often lack a litmus test for creating the app, and then evaluating who the target customers are. Broad overtures to have every type of customer, from an infrequent one to the most loyal one, lead to an unfocused approach. Often, the result is poor consumer adoption for two reasons: 1) The app is not useful; and/or 2) downloading the app is a painful experience.

Functionality that makes a difference

Poor consumer adoption is a result of unclear and unnecessary use cases. Brands try to cram every possible edge case into an app, which muddies the experience. Other times, the use cases might be right but the experience to complete the given actions is cumbersome.

An app's usefulness depends on its feature set. Often, a consumer app is rolled out alongside an in-store app for the sales associates. The apps have very different use cases and need to be developed as such. Putting the wrong features in the wrong app is a big problem. Both apps need to be developed with the customer experience in mind.

Here are some tasks consumers can use apps for:

  • Learning about new products and sales
  • Reserving products before a store visit
  • Initiating exchanges
  • Engaging with customer service and FAQs
  • Setting their sizing preferences
  • Completing checkout with Apple Pay

For the customer, an app is best suited to spur discovery.

Here are some tasks brands/sales associates can use apps for:

  • Checking stock quickly so salespeople don't have to leave the floor
  • Completing checkout with a credit card
  • Using past purchase history to suggest new items
  • Processing exchanges and returns
  • Viewing a customer's sizing preferences
  • Seeing what price point a customer gravitates towards

For the salesperson, an app is best suited to breed efficiency.

If a use case for the sales associate app is put in the consumer app, the whole experience will suffer because of the added friction and confusion. Determining which actions each app should own needs to happen in the planning phases of the two apps.

Getting the app on user's phone

Even if the app is good, getting a user to download the app is one of the biggest points of friction. This is a hard problem to solve. Downloading an app takes up data and time, requires the user to enter their password and then create an account. Each step here is pure friction.

Even if the store has easily accessible wifi that is quick and not password protected, even if the app's file size isn't ridiculous, and even if the user has Touch ID enabled for App Store purchases (which negates the need to type in a password), the friction is endless. Unfortunately, most of these friction points are outside of the control of a brand since they are set by platform owners like Apple and Google.

But the brand does control when it asks a user to encounter this friction. Currently, many brands ask customers to download their app in the store and start using it immediately. This is ill-informed because it forces a large dose of friction on a user when they're just trying to shop. This is a bad experience.

Instead, don't force the app on the customer during her first visit. Just collect the necessary info (either a phone number or email) and let her download the app on her own time and wifi connection. The approach in-store needs to be as lean as possible, and the customer will quickly feel anything that adds friction to the experience. The chances of a good and efficient app experience in-store—all when she just wanted to shop—are slim. Instead, make a compelling case for the consumer to get the app later.

Once the user has the app, the signup process needs to be as minimal as possible. Apps should not force a user to make an account right away, set a password, or add a credit card—all big points of friction. Just let the user experience the app's value, which is likely around discovery, since she will be skeptical early on. The quicker she will revisit the app. A good experience is the first step to building towards a ritual, where she checks the app often and becomes a better customer.