'We've not nailed the customer experience': Asos product boss on the tech shaping its future

Over the next year Asos plans to add another 200 staff to its already 900-strong tech team

More than half (58%) of Asos’ global orders are now placed on mobile, and as the company looks to stay ahead of its 20-something customers, it's taking a "build, measure, learn" approach to new technology.

The most recent manifestation of this comes in the form of a visual search tool which lets shoppers sift through its 85,000 products using just a photo. Despite marching towards a mobile future, the brand’s director of product development, Andy Berks, has said it doesn’t mean the fast fashion house is getting complacent about innovation.

In fact, over the next year it plans to add another 200 staff to its already 900-strong tech team – currently hiring for data scientists, engineers and more - as it looks to trial chatbots, artifical intelligence (AI) and augmented reality (AR).

“We’re always adding things that we think will help customers do what they want to do," Berks told The Drum. "I don’t think we ever believe that we’ve fully nailed giving customers the right experience. There’s always ways we can do things differently.”

In the UK (Asos’ biggest market) 80% of traffic is driven by mobile devices, and 70% of orders are placed via the channel. On average, the retailer says shoppers spend 80 minutes per-month in the Asos app. Berk said the visual search tool – which is powered by AI – was born not out of the need to encourage fresh behaviour in consumers but rather as a “natural extension” to the way its millennial audience already engage with the devices in their hands.

“There are opportunities that mobiles give you that desktops or laptops don’t give. The camera being natively built into the phone is the obviously a big difference a phone affords, and this just takes advantage of that. Customers have always been searching for products: that’s not new this just gives them a different way to do things,” Berks said.

With the 200 extra tech staff will come "a lot more experiments around different experiences in the customer journey," he hinted.

Customer facing experiences

Asos is on a constant journey to increase what Berks described as a "capacity of change." Over the past few years it has been building out the the infrastructure to facilitate that, but Berks said that in the coming years this attention will be turned to the evolution of customer-facing experiences.

What this means specifically in terms of technology is yet to be revealed, but he acknowledged that AI, which is already central to the site's recommendation function as well as the new visual search feature, is "definitely something" that will be powering more shopping experiences. Chatbots too, could be on the agenda with Berks noting that Asos is keeping an eye on the space as it continues to use platforms like Facebook and WhatsApp for customer service.

Asos is also placing greater provenance on the camera with its visual search tool, but when pressed on whether the brand's mobile offering could evolve to include AR features Berks was coy.

"Never say never. If you think about our core 20-something audience, and the filters they use on Snapchat and Instagram – AR is part of their lives, for our customers that is absolutely part of their mobile world," he mused. "For us, we’ll definitely look at ways we can leverage that but there is no specific plan of exactly what that could look like."

However far away this is for Asos, it's a topic that is likely to come up again and again for retailers. Stores have already been using AR to let shoppers visualise products, including Gap which recently developed an app that lets people try on virtual clothes. Even Snapchat itself has claimed that its World Lenses offering could transform how brands convert online shoppers by allowing them to preview what products will look in the real world before purchase.

Lean and agile approach

When it launched as As Seen On Screen in 2000, Asos' simple interface revolutionised the online shopping experience; and as a brand, it’s now fair to say that it has gone from helping shoppers emulate celebrity trends to become a trendsetter in its own right.

Of late, it’s been putting its marketing investment behind content and social media channels to differentiate itself from the likes of Boohoo.com and Missguided in a what is now a crowded market as rivals like Matches Fashion radically up their own content and tech budgets.

To keep pace, Asos hosts regular internal hackathons, partners with fashion tech startups, accelerators and VC firms and uses data and customer test groups to continually improve user experience.

In 2016 the brand partnered with DPD to introduce a service that gave shoppers the option to personalise parcel delivery times, recognising that a pitfall of shopping online is waiting for parcels to arrive or missing them when they do.

The way Asos approaches innovation is not disimilar to the way startups work, and Berks believes a test and learn approach is the way forward for retailers when it comes to technology.

"It comes down to a couple of things, and the first is learning fast. The leaner and more agile you are, the more you can get stuff in front of customers fast, get feedback quickly and learn what really works and drives benefit for them," he asserted.

Retailers, he argued, can then take this feedback to build products at scale or move on.

"The further through the development cycle you do that learning, the harder it is to change anything. This way of working means you can quickly and build the stuff that really works."

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