“The difference between the forgettable and the enduring is artistry.” Advertising giant Bill Bernbach’s words still hold true decades after he transformed the agency creative process in the 1960s by being the first to bring together the copywriter and the art director into one force.
Since then, copy and design have been inextricably bound, each catalyzing the other to produce the spark that communicates a message that exudes desire. But today a third partner must be at that table. With the imperative to add a digital dimension to marketing and sales, the “creative technologist” emerges not only as a third member of this creative team, but as its driver, the sine qua non of a new creative revolution. That's because the creative technologist adds in the X-factor that is indispensable today--a user experience that’s positive, habit-forming, even addictive.
As e-commerce has long passed the stage of simply being a buying process, so the digital user experience demands more seamless integration of pioneering, functional ideas. Today and into the foreseeable future, the online store is about transforming the experience into something that didn’t previously exist. Enter the creative technology expert, whose role becomes central to making this happen.
Indeed, this is one reason why we’ve seen a fragmenting of agencies, with design work that would normally have been awarded to “creative” agencies now going to tech agencies. There’s a vast chasm between the skills of designers and technologists. You can’t take a back-end ecommerce design challenge to someone trained as an art director any more than you could ask a musician, however skilled, to solve a complex calculation in suspension bridge design. Unless, of course, that musician is also a trained engineer.
Overlaying the graphic designer’s function, the creative technologist transforms design into an operational digital-user experience, which is in equal parts innovative, intuitive, and artistic in its own right. And it is within these experiences that brands can emerge as leaders in their digital space and deepen the consumer’s bond with the brand. Amazon’s One-Click ordering feature is a perfect example of a seamless user-experience enhancement that resulted in an increase in sales and usage and loyalty—all in all, an idea that stands as a perfect counterpart to a customer’s best-in-class, in-store experience.
Customers tend to engage with brands that understand how they shop and then deliver a process that enhances their shopping experience. We’d therefore argue that the evolution of the creative team to include a “creative” technology expert is essential to taking digital user experience to the next level of customer engagement. To do this, all aspects of the ecom process should be approached both functionally and creatively, with a heavy emphasis on the brand and what it stands for. And the very best brands do not stand in the way of their customers; rather, they simplify everything to achieve a unified, positive point-of-sale event, resulting in a lasting brand connection.
Let me lift the curtain to explain how the technology dictates the experience. Today’s ecommerce technology resides with the platform makers—companies like Hybris, ATG, Magento, and Demandware. These platforms are built by technologists and are used by technologists. Designers who understand the digital user experience are at the mercy of either the platform or the technologist. As a result, technology tends to prescribe how creative people can design the user experience. It’s not an ideal process. In fact, it should be the other way around.
An example of this is the accelerator that typically exists on a major platform. These accelerators are prepackaged solutions, templates to assist getting an ecommerce solution up and running in a fraction of the time. They save development costs, but potentially sacrifice quality in the user experience.
The digital end-user experience needs to be the focal point of delivery both in form and function. Digital strategy should therefore drive creative and design. Up front, designers should collaborate with the technologist to know what’s possible given the constraints of the underlying platform or the technology assets being utilized in the development process. Sometimes constraints exist with the customer’s existing systems, and all of these need to be taken into consideration. But none of it should be allowed to influence the digital experience. Doing so may (and usually does) have a negative impact on the end-user experience, which is unacceptable in any ecommerce effort.
Here’s an example of how, if the approach we’re advocating here isn’t followed, the digital experience can clash across channels. Recently we were asked to review an ecommerce site for a large, high-end Mexican retailer. As with every project, we started with a review of the site, both from a technology perspective and from the vantage point of the digital user experience. Doing business in Mexico over the last decade had given us some familiarity with the brand. But we’d never actually visited the retailer’s brick-and-mortar stores.
The site itself was clean, well-organized, and appeared to be stable. It had multiple storefronts—two that were designed to look similar and one with a completely different look and feel, albeit also clean and well ordered. A further review of the site revealed that this different part had been built on a competing platform; we figured it probably represented the remnants of a previous ecommerce site.
Research focused on the high-end retail consumer helped us better understand buying behaviors. Key data helped us form a digital hypothesis and ultimately a strategy. For example, a key user experience data point within this demographic was that 59% of luxury brand buyers do their research on mobile devices but prefer to make their purchases through desktop browsers.
As we perused the site, we found it to be a typical retail site, presenting the product catalog in categories by gender, brand, or size. Even though we were not familiar with the brick-and-mortar stores, it was hard to understand why this retailer was having trouble converting sales. We then purchased an item to better understand the purchase process. Immediately we found an issue that was inconsistent with an online buyer’s wishes and expectations: In order to buy even one item, we had to create an account with the retailer. This is something most consumers do not like being required to do.
We also reviewed the site experience thoroughly on both a tablet device and a smartphone. It was a responsive design, which saves time in development but doesn’t allow control of the page. This is an example of how technology can be put ahead of the best possible user experience.
Finally, we went to the brick-and-mortar store itself. Today the retail experience is omnichannel, and it must to be consistent throughout all buying channels, both digital and traditional. So all channels must be thoroughly researched and experienced by designers and technologists to gain a complete understanding of the best possible user experience.
As we walked in the door of this retailer, it was immediately obvious why their ecommerce channel was struggling. And interestingly enough, this reason had nothing to do with technology. Yes, the store was clean and visually appealing. But beyond that, it afforded its customers the uplifted feeling that only a physical space with wonderful architectural features can convey. Think of the experiential feel of walking into a Ventian palazzo or the Beaux-Arts wonder that’s Grand Central Station in New York.
This was a unique experience, not just a retail store experience. The employees stood at the ready to help if needed. Product displays were captivating, demonstrating a high level of attention and artistry. The travel department had a fabulous frescoed ceiling, making you feel as if you were on vacation. In short, the store had a story to tell, and we were part of it. Through its physical presence, it conveyed its brand and its point of view—one that we wanted to experience. The store aroused an emotion, a good feeling about being there.
So after visiting the store, our perspective on the Web site completely changed. We could see why customers weren’t engaged in the site; it simply didn’t offer the same visceral, enlivening experience as the store did. The site did not arouse emotion in the same way; it was simply a product catalog.
The Web site needed a design concept that was consistent with the in-store experience. And creating this feeling was more important than any technological feature we could deploy. The in-store emotion and personalization we had experienced was unfortunately not replicated within the pages of the site. But now we saw a way forward, which began with a comprehensive review of the brand as it manifested through all channels. Now we could create a digital strategy that would focus both our designers and our technologists on recreating a consistent brand story through the online portal, using technology to enhance this story and not get in its way.
Digital user experience is a complex issue. At times there is no way to consistently match an in-store experience with its online equivalent. For example, you can’t try on a pair of shoes you find online. But when Zappos began offering free returns, it was removing a barrier and in some way replicating the brick-and-mortar shopping experience. In doing so, the company eliminated a constraint and enhanced the user experience. Removing this barrier also allowed the company to focus on a better way for customers to buy shoes—by offering a selection no brick-and-mortar store ever could. As a result, happy customers are loyal to a brand that makes it easy to do business with it.
This is the job of today’s evolved digital creative teams—to build ecommerce sites that make the buying experience easy and a brand connection obvious. A successful ecommerce site delivers a user experience that feels effortless, from a brand that “gets” the customer. This successful integration is the very best evidence of the lucrative value of an intertwined partnership and collaboration among copywriters, designers, and creative technologists.