Computers and artificial intelligence have come along at an exponential rate over the past few decades, from being regarded as oversized adding machines to the point where they have played integral roles in some legitimately creative endeavours.
Wander through any shopping centre, theme park or restaurant and you’ll see people staring avidly at their mobile devices.But in almost all instances, there’s a good chance that their digital experience has no connection to their immediate surrounds.
So with consumers already living a blended physical/digital life, shouldn’t providers of physical experiences be stepping up to deliver accompanying digital ones?
It’s not the like the idea is new. Free Wi-Fi, augmented reality, location-based coupons, QR-code scanning and virtual tour guides have all been proposed as enhancing the customer’s physical experience. But in most instances, they have failed to connect with users in a meaningful way, or onlydelivered novelty value.So why are physical experience brands having such a hard time capturing their consumer’s digital attention?
According to the experience design director at CHE Proximity, ErnezDhondy, combining physical and digital experiences should be everyone’s objective.
“We all talk about omnichannel experiences, and if you look at the principles that is based upon, it is about blending the user’s context with whatever they are using at that time,” he says.
Dhondy cites several technologies that have failed to deliver, such as augmented reality (“no one really has the time or the interest or the inclination to use those things”), connected in-store CRM (“I think a lot of that has to do with people’s apprehension”) and digital scanning mirrors (“for women, their apprehension about getting into that box was mind-blowing”).
However, he holds out hope Microsoft’s forthcoming HoloLens technology might cross the divide to widespread acceptance.
“The idea of creating an interface out of any sort of physical object you have within a space - that is really interesting and that is where we are going,” Dhondy says.
Dhondy also believes Amazon’s prototype ‘Go’ retail concept may prove instructive. Housed in a physical store, Go uses digital technology to manage everything from recognising shoppers on arrival through to monitoring what they select and then charging them when they leave – all without human intervention.
Dhondy says the possibility of having a born-digital company crack the physical/digital shopping experience should not come as a surprise, as Amazon does not suffer the same problems of channel segmentation of many traditional retailers.
“They are all siloed,” he says. “The way these large organisations, who are best equipped to give us these experiences, are organised is not going to service the customer and not going to make them willing to take a chance on a physical/digital experience.
“The new customer experience teams that have been built in organisations should be working across those siloes. But too often they are just augmenting the marketing experience.”
Combining use case with experience objective
According to DanMonheit, director of strategy at Melbourne-based digital agency Hardhat Digital, the technologies required to underpin a combined digital and physical experience have been in existence for some time. He says the hard part is combining a strong use case with an experience that people actually want to have.
“It’s something that people have been doing themselves for as long as we’ve had smartphones, where people are supplementing normal life experiences with content to add a layer or get more information,”Monheit says. “If brands aren’t turning up to provide the experience then consumer will just find a way to do it themselves.”
But directing human behaviour in the direction a brand might find desirable requires some sensitivity.
“The trick to it is you can’t force it,” Monheit says. “It is only going to happen if your app has a more compelling offer than something else, and it’s not easy. What we need to look for is existing dumb behaviours – what are the things already happening that just objectively don’t make sense – and can we make those existing behaviours quicker, easier, more fun or more social.”
Hardhat has worked on one project with Deakin University to create a virtual reality campus digital tour experience for its student open day, allowing them to experience a virtual tour of the university’s four campuses in less than two minutes.Using Willy Wonka’s glass elevator as inspiration, Hardhat captured 360-degree drone footage from across Deakin’s campuses and stitched it together to create an immersive ‘in flight’ experience. A physical structure was built that was large enough to hold a dozen people, with footage mapped to all sides and the floor.
“The question we asked ourselves was could we use technology and mix digital and analogue experiences to make a campus tour, quicker, easier, more fun, and more social,” Monheit says. “And the idea of being able to tour four geographically dispersed campuses in under two minutes seemed a pretty good way to realise that.
“There are a lot of benefits the university is trying to get out of that, such as being able to provide a memorable and compelling experience. And especially for a university like Deakin, which is progressive and really into pushing the boundaries, it was a big thing to help deliver on that brand promise.”
Amcal’s omni-channel kiosk experience
For Sigma Pharmaceuticals’, its latest foray into enhancing its physical experience digitally has taken a decidedly retro turn, through the deployment of 55-inch touchscreen kiosks in its Amcal -brand pharmacies. Developed in conjunction with Melbourne-based digital agency, IE, the kiosks present a reworked version of Amcal’s online presence.
According to Sigma’s general manager of multichannel, Claire Pallot, the kiosks give consumers access to a wider range of items than might be available in the store, and provide additional product information. Customers can also use the kiosks to book appointments for services such as flu vaccinations or beauty therapies.
“In our industry, immediacy defines relevance, so we want to make sure we are responding and serving customer needs,” Pallot says. “The pharmacists can still do that assisted shop with the shopper, but this gives them much broader range of products to purchase.”
The choice of kiosks rather using the consumer’s own device is a recognition that, for some customer groups mobile device usage is not prevalent.“While the uptake of digital is huge, we are finding in some of our areas it is not as big- they don’t have that confidence,” Pallot says.
The kiosks draw content from Amcal’s regular ecommerce platform, but use a customised interface with simplified search functionality.
“We didn’t want to just replicate the website in store,” Pallot says. “We have reduced the functionality and made sure it is optimised for how people use a kiosk, as opposed to how people use a website.
“We trying not to duplicate what we are doing in the online space but extend what we are doing in store. My issue with the physical digital is that they just duplicate it, and it doesn’t extend the value that you are receiving in store already.”
Deployment of the first 11 kiosks commenced in March this year, focusing on Express pharmacies and smaller footprint stores in regional areas, with 50 stores to receive kiosks by the end of the year.
Building better in-location experiences
But while blended physical and digital experiences are on the whole rare in Australia, for one firm they have been bread and butter for a number of years. Together with its sister offices in Portland and Amsterdam, Melbourne-based design collective Downstream has a long heritage in creating in-location digital experiences for brands including Nike, Telstra, Microsoft and various universities.
General manager for Australia, Nathan Bell, says Downstream’s work has naturally evolved from content into more interactive installations.
“What we were doing was weaving a real sense of stage and set design through a retail experience, and that naturally evolved into a design science around customer journey mapping and creating various personas and depth of field within a retail type of environment,” he says. “We talk about combining physical and digital, but what we are actually doing is trying to create an emotive narrative that lives online and offline.”
The key development for Downstream has been the wide scale adoption of personal mobile devices, as the link between the brand and the consumer, facilitated via beacon and Bluetooth technology. The other critical development has been social networks opening up APIs to other applications for data sharing.
In one project for a large consulting firm, Downstream is seeking to augment and improve the physical experience of visiting their offices through use of the visitor’s mobile device.
“This isn’t about IT, and it’s not about AV and screens on walls,” Bell says. “It is about the ability to impact and influence and service an evolving and demanding user group. And that user group are audiences from a cultural point of view or from a sporting point of view, and also from a workforce point of view.
“It is a very new type of behaviour we are having to design for, but it is a behaviour that is an expectation that has already arrived.”