The year 2007 was by all accounts a pretty uneventful year. Rihanna was in the charts with Umbrella and Harry Potter fans were avidly devouring the final installment of The Deathly Hallows. But for digital design, there was a small hand-held device announced that was about to change everything. The iPhone not only reinvented what a phone could be but kicked mobile web experiences into a new gear with its large, user-friendly touch-screen that made navigating mobile websites and apps easy. Overnight there was a paradigm shift in the (only just established) rules of web design.
Since then, the line between mobile and desktop has blurred to encompass everything from phones and tablets to laptop screens and 4k displays. As designers we met this challenge with responsive or adaptive templates, desperately ensuring that regardless of screen size and resolution the fundamental customer experience would remain the same. For years this growing myriad of glass rectangles were our primary windows to the internet and our only way of connecting with brands and businesses online.
But over the last few years new “smart” digital devices have reinvented what 'being online' means. Fitness wearables, watches, light bulbs, speakers, virtual reality, voice, and conversational interfaces have torn up the rule book for designing digital experiences. Though powerful, these devices pose an almost impossible challenge when it comes to designing consistent customer journeys; some have small screens, no screens, some with speakers, others with microphones. How are you supposed to search for a new apartment in virtual reality, sign-up to an insurance policy as a chat, or book a cinema ticket only using your voice?
This new set of smart devices has posed a serious challenge for brands and agencies alike. Which is why businesses are experimenting in silo areas - creating Alexa skills or mixed reality experiences as marketing novelties or internal hack-experiments – rather than joining the dots across the user journey.
The next big thing
At Th_nk we’re working with our clients to show that these emerging technologies don’t have to be restrictive, but can in fact be incredible opportunities to reshape how customers engage with brands and their digital services. We believe the “next big thing” isn’t going to happen by the introduction of a single new device like the iPhone, but will happen when all of the small things start working together to create an ecosystem of opportunities.
In our familiar world of websites and screens, buying a product like a new pair of running shoes is a relatively straightforward task, and one that ecommerce websites have honed and perfected over the years - browse, select, checkout, done. However, these experiences are often limited by the device being used at that moment, and often a shopping experience that has to happen in one sitting. However, the customer experience of the future will be able to predict customer needs, exist three-dimensionally over multiple devices at once, and be unrestricted by time or location.
To put this into context, your fitness wearable will determine that you need a new pair of running shoes before you do by analysing and interpreting the gait of your run and your Alexa will inform you of this during your morning news briefing. Intelligent recommendations will then be presented to you via your nearest smart screen - all personalised and pre-filtered to your size, budget and style. You can get a closer look by seeing your selection on a bigger screen or use real-time AR to see the shoes on your feet. You will pay with your voice ID and be informed they’ve been dispatched by your virtual assistant speaking to you on your car stereo while driving to work.
The customer journey of the future, as shown above, could organically flow allowing the optimal experience unrestricted by a device and able to utilise the best that is on offer.
Embracing the experience
The internet of things shouldn’t be about making one device handle your whole digital service, but realising where it could play a small part in a much bigger experience. So you don’t have to browse for your new property in VR, but it could be used for immersive virtual reality tours. And you don’t have to do a full insurance quote all as a chat, but a virtual agent could be there to help you every step of the way. And booking a cinema ticket with just your voice would be hard, unless Alexa came to you with a film suggestion based on the genre you like, at your favourite cinema, around the time you usually go, and in the seats you prefer.
Regardless of business or digital service, there will be something within the vast network of smart devices that could enhance the customer experience, even if it’s only playing a small part, in a much larger journey.
The flooding of the market with more and more smart devices doesn’t have to be seen as more complication but simply as more opportunity to craft new and surprising user experiences within the customer journey. We’re no longer tethered to rectangular screens but have a sandbox of new devices that can enhance, change or modify what a digital experience could be. For this reason, it’s important that we start thinking big and experimenting across the whole user journey – it’s the only way we’ll create the customer journey of the future – where websites as windows to the internet will seem like a thing of the past.
Tom Moran, lead experience designer, TH_NK