For many years, retailers approached all things digital from the top down, designing big, bloated, feature-rich experiences for large screens, then shrinking them down to the pocket-sized mobile world.
But around 2012, big-thinking retailers started to think small.
The surge in smartphone web browsing spawned the “mobile-first” mindset — flipping the design model on its head, building up from the wee screen rather than down from the big.
Early movers such as Starbucks, Starwood Hotels and United Airlines set the inversion in motion, putting lean, clean mobile experiences at the front of the development queue. Predictably enough, the followers followed and have never looked back.
In the ensuing years, mobile came to dominate the design model. Per the Salesforce State of Marketing study, the percentage of corporate marketers with dedicated mobile teams soared from 34 percent to 58 percent from 2014 to 2015. In the 2016 update, 78 percent of marketers say mobile is core to their business.
Further fueling the momentum is a realization that mobile-first isn’t just more practical, it’s a path to better outcomes. Designers and engineers who, in the top-down model, had license to pile on bells and whistles were suddenly compelled to find frictionless simplicity. What felt like a big compromise really wasn’t. Simplicity is what consumers craved all along. The fact that working this way increased cost savings for retailers was just gravy.
Context first: built to last
As helpful as mobile first has been, context first is the next step that is more explosive in its transformational potential and more likely to endure as a way that digital masters will think and work for decades to come.
In a way, context first is a shift back to big thinking, albeit in a different manifestation.
While still grounded in designing for the smaller screen, and leveraging all the valuable lessons the mobile-first era brought into view, context first aims our creativity at designing around the massive pool of contextual customer insight that a mobile device can deliver relative to any other.
There is a simple but profound mandate here. Stop thinking of a mobile device as the smallest species of screen. But realize instead that, now and for years to come, the smartphone is far and away the single most massive source of insight into human motivations, migrations, behavior, content consumption, and response to the user’s surroundings and interactions with other entities (human or commercial) that mankind has ever conceived.
As a term, context first is disarmingly simple. But make no mistake about how transformative this orientation will be as it becomes the norm, and optimizes all the advancements that will be embedded in the future generations of phones and apps. Context is a loaded shorthand spanning all these forms of human and commercial insight, and the way they intertwine as we move through discovery, contemplations and ultimately retail transactions.
To say we’ve just scratched the surface is understatement writ large.
Context first in context
While digital masters are well down the path already, we’re frequently asked to explain the tenets of context first, so here goes.
Where mobile first assumed most interactions would start and end on a smartphone, context first embraces emerging consumer expectations around how an omnichannel environment should feel:
* A desire to be known and recognized across touchpoints
* To hop across channels according to their needs in the moment
* For the journey to be unbroken and frictionless as they step in and out
Thinking about this fluid journey from exploration to purchase decisions and long-tail interactions, the impact of the smartphone cannot be understated.
The smartphone is no longer just an always-on interface. It’s the quintessential identifier. It’s the flare gun letting us know when and where customer needs take shape. And, most importantly, it’s the nexus point where multiple critical inputs converge: from location to physical action, time of day to environmental factors, perhaps even relationship to brand, communication with peers, consumption of content, and softer factors like an individual’s threshold for boredom.
Looking ahead, and contemplating the transformational potential of this vivid mosaic of interconnected information, we can synthesize contextual signatures with fingerprint specificity, anticipate customer needs in ways we couldn’t previously imagine, and figure out what help looks like, adding enjoyment and value through choreography of the expanding array of tools at our disposal.
Blending the power of contextual understanding with everything from real-time sales staff alerts to smart product displays, curation services, last-mile capabilities, offer engines, social media and content filters, we can become our customers’ partners in navigating their lives. Knowing when to push and when to let them pull, based on where they are in the journey from discovery to transaction.
A key ingredient: agile personas
The whole point of context first is getting to real-time understanding of what’s going on in consumers’ heads and lives, and thereby serving their needs more effectively. Context first challenges retailers to better understand customer needs not in the absolute, but relative to shifts in context.
This requires context-sensitive research methods, meeting and observing consumers in realistic settings.
It also requires the blending of the anecdotal data this kind of research throws off, with the creative processing and deployment of big data analytics that can connect individual contextual data with transactional behavior. Ladder that up to testable hypotheses across broader populations, and ultimately automate the creation of new value through contextual insight.
User personas are by now a ubiquitous and powerful tool in all design frontiers. But in a context-first orientation, we’ll be able to apply them in far more fluid and dynamic ways that make them even more real and useful than traditional approaches.
Personas get personal
The intersection of personas and context first is best understood by example.
Our research across multiple retail domains has uncovered four core shopper personas that pop up all over town.
* Treasure hunters prefer to shop in a physical store and enjoy the effort of navigating a shifting planogram and trying new offerings.
* Super planners put in a lot of time optimizing their shopping experience, whether they are shopping in store or online, and often have some form of checklist or criteria they use for control.
* Constant jugglers have many demands on their time, are unlikely to fuss, and just want their shopping to be low stress, which means they often shop from their mobile devices while engaged in other activities.
* Hardest to serve are the frictionless flyers who shop out of necessity and want an optimized (and brief) experience, and prefer voice, mobile and subscription ordering to shopping in a physical store.
It’s tempting to think of these as static groups, but our work in context first has shown us that consumers shift personas as their needs are met. A consumer who enters the store as a superplanner, for example, then has an experience where she can navigate easily and complete her planned tasks, then shifts to become a treasure hunter when presented with the luxury of a little extra time she hadn’t expected.
Context first experience design
Beyond changing the way we think about shopper personas, the power of context first extends into the way we approach experience design at key touchpoints:
* How might you best identify the key contexts of your consumer?
* What are the key contextual signatures (time, place, surroundings, behaviors, social interactions, etc.) that represent maximum opportunity for your brand to add value to their lives and tip the odds of transacting? And what emerging sources of consumer contextual data (weather, traffic, beacons) might you need or want to be developing strategies for?
* Which personas represent the greatest value to your brand and vice versa, and how do these personas morph across changing context?
* Which means of influence will work most effectively relative to context and persona, reflecting behavioral economics and cognitive psychology?
* What tools should you deploy — now and moving forward — in your retail environment to create frictionless and delightful experiences in the on-premise context? A wide array of technologies and tools, including tablets, kiosks, digital signage, mobile marketing, dressing room interfaces, and mobile payment, offer the opportunity to craft individualized experiences for your customers that can make your brand experiences stand out.
* How do we design for the future of mobile devices, rather than just the present? Yes, the debate about whether an autonomous vehicle is really a tethered car or a mobile phone with wheels is very real. How can this next level of mobile device transform the way we approach and apply context first design?
Digital masters are already adopting this approach and acting on it. They’re well into the hunt for the next Holy Grail — the digital recipes needed to define and deliver the value that these disparate sources of contextual data represent, and shaping innovations capable of turning those recipes into revenue.
The next generation of leading apparel retailers that migrate from mobile first to context first will fall in behind, and never look back. It will be stoked by leaps in mobile devices and the apps within, but more importantly, by our ability to turn contextual understanding into value creation, for ourselves and the consumers we serve. n
Tony Fross is a Vice President and the North America Digital Strategy Practice Lead at Capgemini Consulting, the global strategy and transformation consulting organization of the Capgemini Group. Mark Payne is President, Head of Innovation of Fahrenheit 212, an innovation strategy and design firm recently acquired by Capgemini and now part of Capgemini Consulting. Don Swalinski is a Vice President and Commerce and Content Practice Lead in Capgemini’s Business Transformation Services Practice.