Innovative technologies are changing the nature of retail, both online and offline. The interfaces of the future will hide in plain sight. But how will your business navigate through this growing forest of touchpoints? Succeeding in an omnichannel future requires a design thinking outlook.

Understand your customers and their needs

What do all products and services have in common? Looking across every industry and every possible application, they all share a single fundamental link: the user. After all, without their users, products and services would have no reason to exist. And by extension, that means it makes sense to design and build them with those users in mind.

Put your users and their needs at the center of your business.

Putting users and their needs at the center of your business is the guiding principle behind design thinking. Instead of designing a product first and trying to find ways it will make users’ lives better, you start by looking at what users really need and work toward that goal. You look at the whole user experience from their perspective. And the more complex the project gets, the closer you must look.

Now, that may seem quite straightforward, but by no means is it an easy feat to accomplish. The rapid growth of the digital world has unleashed a tidal wave of innovative technologies on the retail landscape. Artificial intelligence, natural language processing, big data and the Internet of Things have combined into exciting new solutions, from smart digital assistants to visual search platforms. This has not only created new touchpoints and opportunities, but new consumer expectations as well.

In an omnichannel world, your business is no longer judged by isolated interactions. Instead, consumers expect you to deliver delightful end-to-end experiences. That means optimizing every touchpoint that’s relevant to your target audience. Not just mobile versus desktop or in-store versus online, but everything from smart speakers to smartwatches to IoT-enabled appliances to the kitchen sink itself. And the only way you’ll be able to optimize those touchpoints is by understanding what that audience really needs.

Create physical and digital omnichannel experiences

The interplay between physical and digital experiences is especially important for retailers. In the era of digital transformation, it’s tempting to view online user experiences as the most important drivers of future revenue. But even digital-first juggernauts like Amazon have started rolling out next-gen touchpoints in the physical space. These ‘click-and-mortar’ hybrid stores blend online and offline into a seamless experience for shoppers, giving them the best of both worlds. And that seamlessness is key.

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Digital and physical are two sides of the same coin.

In essence, retailers need to realize that digital and physical are two sides of the same coin. Consumers move in both domains and they expect businesses to acknowledge this. Let’s say you’re a supermarket with a strong physical presence throughout the Netherlands and an excellent e-commerce platform to boot. Now, most of your products will be available at the national level, but there are always regional variations. For instance, you might sell craft beer in the South that isn’t shipped to the North or offer artisanal pastries in the North that aren’t sold in the South. If you advertise these products online without checking where individual visitors are located, you may end up accidentally misleading them. And when they visit the store and realize that their desired product is nowhere to be found, it will reflect negatively on your brand. Conversely, if local consumers can’t find specific regional products on your website, they will be sorely tempted to shop elsewhere.

Understanding what shopping means to shoppers

Retailers are under constant pressure to innovate, to keep up with the landscape and the revolutionary technologies that emerge around them. And with good reason: in the Netherlands, the decline and ultimate demise of the V&D chain of department stores clearly shows the risks of losing touch with innovation and your customer base in general.

That said, this doesn’t mean that technology is the end goal. For businesses, every decade brings new challenges to address and new technologies to implement. They’re constantly responding to the world. Consumers, on the other hand, actually live in that world. Their primary need hasn’t changed. At the end of the day, shoppers are simply looking for the most convenient way to shop. Now, technology does intersect with their lives along a variety of different angles on a daily basis – and that technology has changed. But to them, it’s only a means to an end.

The brilliance here [...] is the ability to consume content wherever you go. That’s what makes the users happy.

Like consumer expectations, user journeys are becoming liquid as well. Not because seamless journeys are technologically superior, but because they are better tools for getting the users what they want. Take Netflix and Spotify, for instance. You might start watching a movie on your smart TV or listening to an album on your laptop. Then, if you have to head out for any reason, you can seamlessly transition to your smartphone and continue your experience there. The brilliance here isn’t the app itself; it’s the ability to consume content wherever you go. That’s what makes the users happy.

On the road to user-centric omnichannel experiences

Spotify and Netflix seek to understand what their users want. Then, they use technology to deliver it. The underlying logic works just as well for omnichannel retail, and the same basic rules apply:

1. Dive deep into user needs

Finding out what your potential customers need is only half the battle. You also need to figure out why and when they need it. Of course, the answers may vary between different user groups. For a grocery chain, some consumers might want expedited pick-up or home delivery, while others might be looking for inspiration as to what they should cook for dinner. While both groups are essentially looking for the most convenient way to purchase their groceries, the ultimate solution can be wildly different.

2. Be mindful of user values

User values can change considerably over time. Twenty years ago, consumers were less concerned about their privacy than they are today. Similarly, modern consumers are more mindful of fair trade and environmental concerns. These values strongly influence their perception of your brand. Getting to know these user values and adapting your business to match them is essential to your success.

3. Experiment with new tools

Technology is a tool – and you won’t be able to wield it effectively without practice. Embracing the needs of your users as a starting point and keeping their values in mind will illuminate the touchpoints you need to focus on. But in order to craft compelling interactions, you’ll still need to know which technologies are best suited for each opportunity. That insight can only be gained by experimenting with them. If you want to build the retail experience of the future, it helps to know your way around the materials.

Keep an eye out for design thinking success

It’s easy enough to define a successful omnichannel experience on paper. When physical and digital touchpoints blur together sufficiently that your customers can achieve their goals anywhere and at any time, you’ll be well on your way. And if you can make those interactions feel personal, meaningful and natural as well, that’s a textbook definition of success right there.

Make your interactions feel personal, meaningful and natural.

But what does that actually look like out in the real world? Design thinking isn’t about having the best idea on paper – it’s about helping real users achieve real results. It’s practical. Which means it helps to get a feeling for what design thinking can achieve and what success really looks like out in the wild:

  • There’s a good reason that Netflix has become such an overused example when it comes to seamless omnichannel experiences: the company is seriously committed to design thinking. Understanding what makes their users happy is their core drive. They consistently use A/B testing to understand what users want, from major UI features all the way down to the images they use for individual films. And if one image can increase views up to 30 percent, imagine what those insights are doing for their ROI.
  • Both online and offline, Amazon is at the forefront of next-gen omnichannel commerce. While Alexa and the Echo are working to blend digital and physical from an online starting point, Amazon Go is using an offline starting point to achieve the same. The checkout-free grocery stores bring advanced technology and ease-of-use into traditionally cumbersome user journeys, delighting the users in the process.
  • Nike is also stepping up their omnichannel game. Their new app recognizes shoppers as soon as they enter stores, allows them to pay without waiting in line and even lets them reserve products in a store locker where they can retrieve the items and try them on at their convenience.
  • Starbucks is experimenting with mobile ordering and payment solutions to better serve the on-the-go customer demographic. They have recognized that these user journeys are the focal point for digital transformation – and other QSR (Quick Service Restaurant) brands are doing the same.

Of course, these are only a few examples. But the results hold true across the board. Research by the Design Management Institute shows that design-driven organizations consistently have a competitive advantage. According to the Design Value Index, businesses that embrace human-centered design have outperformed the S&P 500 by 219 percent over the past 10 years. That’s more than a healthy margin – it’s a landslide, and it reveals just how powerful design thinking can be.

Two sides of the same user journey

Tomorrow’s retail consumers are a fascinating puzzle. They want products and services to be available 24/7, but they also crave unique brand experiences that cannot be found anywhere else. They want personalized user journeys that seem optimized specifically for them, but they also want to make their own choices along the way. They want retailers to become digital natives, but without sacrificing the local convenience and expertise that physical stores bring to the table.

Design thinking will help you make sense of these desires, allowing you to weave them into coherent end-to-end customer journeys that delight consumers on a personal level. What’s more, it isn’t just one solution – it’s a framework of methodologies, all of which can be adapted to address the challenges specific to your business. Whether you need to define potential friction points in your value proposition or want to get to the bottom of what your user base expects from you, the more research you put into it, the more you will discover and the better your insights will be.

Image: On- and offline user journey - Design thinking by Accenture

In a sense, design thinking is a bottomless toolbox, brimming with user-centric applications that will teach you what you need to know to develop true omnichannel experiences. Selecting the right tools and learning how to use them efficiently is essential as it allows you to approach the physical and the digital as two sides of the same user journey. Online and offline are really a single, unified realm of opportunity, after all.  Experiences that account for that will truly delight the consumers of the future.