Designing a shopping experience

I'm in the midst of designing the experience of uncovering the value proposition I'm offering to college dropouts. In this post, I'll share my thought process in designing their shopping experiences that applies to both brick and click environments.

When potential customers already know exactly what they are looking for, the shopping experience needs to be simple and straightforward. Their desired selection needs to be easy to find. The customers are in a frame of mind to filter out distractions from their focused pursuit. They will value the ease of getting in and getting out. They will resent the intrusion of add-on or up-selling pitches.

Whenever we assume that potential customers already know exactly what they are looking for, we are usually wrong. We've oversimplified the design challenge to make it easy on ourselves, but far from user friendly. We're passing up opportunities to:
  • serve the potential customers' own constituencies who may question their purchase, challenge the price, or doubt the credibility of the value proposition
  • help them make up their minds, resolve personal dilemmas or improve the quality of their decision when they hesitate to reach a conclusion
  • consult their attempts to solve a bigger problem and select the right tool for that job, rather than simply sell tools for any job
  • explore and refine their own benefit logics which define what they filter out, what catches their attention and how they appreciate what they do notice

When potential customers don't even know what to look for, they are easily put-off or put-out by designs to serve knowledgeable customers. Without getting stigmatized for being a neophyte, these customers need a different experience to explore. More than a menu of alternatives, they need to start with structure to help them look at:
  • what do they think they actually need in their particular context
  • what is changing in their world that defines, increases or modifies this need
  • what facets of this need are questionable or challenged by others
  • what does this need say about the customer or give off an impression to others
  • what does this need depend on, connect to or get caught up in
  • what does this need lead to, cause or impact if left unmet
  • what fallout, ripple effects or spin-offs could come from satisfying this need

When we imagine potential customers are showing up with ill-formed questions in mind, we can design an experience of both getting answers and better questions to ask. We expect the offering to present them with several unknowns, blind spots and mysteries. We can help them feel safe not already being "in the know" and well-informed, unlike manipulative sales tactics which exploit ignorance.

When we envision the learning process of potential customers, we can frame the value proposition as a series of partial understandings. This allows them to self-select which facets they learn on their own, how much depth they explore and at what pace the acquire their particular understandings. This allows the design to anticipate misunderstandings and often overlooked facets of a complete understanding. Together, the experience will feel more like a "guide on the side" than one of those preachy "sage on stage".

All these considerations make for a better shopping experience for a larger number of potential customers.

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