Why human experience should be at the heart of retail tech

Reading the recent Top 50 People in E-Commerce report from Inside Retail, a few things really impressed me.

It was fantastic to read about how innovative Australian e-commerce retailers are, and how resilient they have been over a very challenging 12 months. Beyond that, I was also impressed by the range of organisations for which the Top 50 worked. We saw winners from major companies, niche players, and emerging start-ups. One final thing stood out to me though, and that was just how much human focus there was within the list and the answers the winners gave.

Reading a list about top e-commerce people and strategies, I expected to see a lot of technological solutions. Of course they were there, with mentions of new mobile apps, 3D technology, and improvements to website experiences. But while these innovations are undoubtedly important, they were often overshadowed by a clear focus on the human experience these technologies, and even non-technological strategies, could provide.

We saw No.1 ranked Tennealle O’Shannessy talk about using tech to make customers feel more confident through engaging and personalised shopping experiences. Likewise, No. 2 Julie Mathers spoke of the importance of community ambassadors, while No. 4 Rob Goodwin has always had a clear focus on supporting customers and employees with disabilities. In an industry often focused on the tech itself, it was refreshing to see such human focus among the top leaders in the space.

Seeing this was timely, as I had just taken on an expanded role as co-director of the Customer Experience and Insight (CXI) research group within Swinburne University of Technology. The group has always been focused on human (i.e., customer) experience, but we’ve recently been increasing our focus on how human experience translates to technology. As examples, I recently shared for Inside Retail my personal experience trying to buy my first NFT, and the CX challenges I faced. Prior to that, Beatrice Romano and I shared research from our group around how AR can both benefit and detract from CX.

So the alignment of technology and human experience in the Top 50 was reaffirming, and also suggested it would be timely to reassess why human experience is so important in an increasingly tech-focused world and retail industry. There is a wealth of research that shows the importance, and benefit, of considering how humans interact with and experience technology, so I’ll summarise a few related points here.

Technology acceptance

One of the most classic models and theories for how humans interact with technology is the Technology Acceptance Model (TAM), which draws its origins from Fred Davis in 19891. The idea is relatively simple and intuitive, but also powerful, which has made it a popular framework among researchers. In its most general form, TAM proposes that whether consumers’ accept, and therefore use, a technology depends on a combination of two factors: its perceived ease of use, and its perceived usefulness. A technology must have both qualities to lead to benefits for consumers. A technology that has many benefits but is overly complex to use won’t be accepted, neither will one that is easy to use but has no benefits. The TAM has been applied and expanded in a variety of ways. One of the most popular adjustments has been adding social influences and contextual factors2. Despite its age, the core tenets of the TAM are still widely applied today, even if they are occasionally renamed.

Perception is a key part of the TAM and its extensions. Retailers and tech designers should remember, it’s how consumers perceive your technology’s usefulness and ease of use that matters, and individual consumers will differ in their perceptions. Different consumers will perceive these qualities in different ways and to varying degrees. What is easy for me to use may be difficult for others, and vice-versa. Likewise, I might perceive a technology to be potentially useful while others don’t – as is the case with NFTs. 

Technology readiness

Consumers don’t just differ in how they perceive the usefulness and ease of use of specific technologies. We also differ in our ‘technology readiness’. The Technology Readiness Index (TRI)3 is a measure designed to explore how consumers approach technology in general. There are four components to the TRI: optimism, innovativeness, discomfort, and insecurity. These four components combine to identify different consumer segments and how they approach (or avoid) technology overall. For example, some consumers are ‘Explorers’ due to being optimistic about tech and being relatively innovative themselves. Others are optimistic about tech but lack the innovativeness to dive in; the TRI labels them ‘Hesitators’. There are also Sceptics and even Avoiders, who take less favourable views of tech. 

We use the TRI often in our work on tech experience at CXI, and have found it is useful for explaining and even predicting consumers’ attitudes towards specific technologies, like AR, as well as broader concepts, like willingness to share data with retailers. The key message for retailers is that while technological advancements push forward, and will probably advance even faster in the future, many consumers are not ready for these innovations, and some even actively try to avoid them. It is crucial for retailers to consider this when embedding technology within service encounters. Ask yourself, are your consumers actually ready for this new technology, or will it turn some consumers away? Are you causing consumers who would rather avoid technology to have a worse experience as a result? Could you provide these consumers a more appropriate non-technological solution?

Technology experience

This discussion all comes back to one point: We can’t just focus on technologies themselves and their stated features. We need to understand the human experience that these technologies elicit. The analogy to the broader CX movement is clear. CX focuses on the holistic combination of cognitive (thoughts), affective (feelings), sensory (sight, sound etc.) and behavioural experiences a consumer has throughout interactions with a brand/ company. The experience a consumer has interacting with a specific technology could be evaluated the same way. Let’s call it Technology Experience (TX) because marketing and retail absolutely, definitely need more acronyms.

This TX – or human experience of tech if you prefer – is what we’re increasingly focusing on, both at CXI and across the industry as a whole, as the Top 50 People in E-Commerce report highlights. Thinking at this TX level helps move beyond simply what a technology does, or the features it has, and forces us to consider how the technology will affect the humans who engage with it. It’s about how using that tech could remove a barrier consumers might have otherwise faced in a purchase journey. Or how empowering a staff member with tech could not just make their job easier but also allow them to redefine the value they can provide to customers.

I’ve written about the SAMR (substitution, augmentation, modification, redefinition) for Inside Retail before but it is worth briefly repeating here as a conclusion to these points. The basic idea is that technology holds no value if it is merely a substitute for a non-technological solution. At the very least, it should improve, or augment, part of the experience. Although the real value of emerging technologies comes from their ability to modify or even redefine the kinds of experiences humans have with them, and with each other. This is a valuable lens to consider TX through. Merely substituting tech for other solutions is unlikely to create a valuable TX and will detract from the experience for many consumers. Instead, we should be using technology to empower and improve human experiences. In doing so, we unlock the true power of technology.

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