Just last weekend I found myself clicking around an Australian website in search of shipping information. I'd seen the rates earlier in my shopping session, but got increasingly cold feet when I couldn't located them a second time. So I ditched the site and bought a similar product on Amazon.
Like most online shoppers, I expect to find information quickly and easily. And as an information architect, it's Cassandra Moore's job to anticipate our every whim. Cassandra works for the digital engagement agency Piehead, where she helps design websites that won't trip up online consumers. Part of her job also involves advising brands on how to create seamless cross-channel shopping experiences that allow people to access and share information no matter where they are or what kind of device they're using.
I recently caught up with Cassandra to have her explain the role product-level content plays in cross-channel shopping and social commerce.
Content Ping: You've talked a lot in the past about cross-channel shopping. Can you explain what exactly you mean by this and why it's important for brands to do well?
Cassandra Moore: Consumers today are shopping on tablets, laptops, and smartphones, in brick and mortar stores, via call centers, and even interactive TV. Although it may be possible to complete a purchase on any one of these channels, many purchases are researched via one channel and purchased via another. Alternatively a product may be purchased online and picked up in a physical store or from the mailbox. Or a shopper in a physical store may compare prices, research brands, and read other customers' reviews on a smartphone.
When consumers begin a potential purchase in one channel and cross over to another channel to complete the purchase, they expect a smooth transition. Consumers know that businesses collect a lot of information about them, and they want the information to be used to enhance their experience with the brand. They expect businesses to "know" them and remember previous interactions with them. They don't want to restart a process, repeat information, or navigate an unfamiliar environment. From a business perspective, the call center and the e-commerce division may be separate business units, but to the customer they are all part of the same brand.
Today's connected consumer has their social network and the larger Internet with them anywhere and everywhere. If a brand or store does not provide the convenience they expect, another brand is just a tap and a swipe away. If brands don't provide enough relevant information, the consumer's social network is happy to provide opinions--that may or may not support the brand. Brands must deliver an engaging, relevant, and consistent experience across all channels to attract and retain this new breed of consumer.
In order for brands to reach these consumers, they must create content that is exceptional and worth sharing.
Content Ping: Can you give us an example of how a smooth cross-channel shopping experience would play out?
Cassandra Moore: Sure. I had a great cross-channel experience just last week. I was preparing for a camping trip and needed a tent. I researched tents online at work (don't tell my boss!), found a tent I liked, and tweeted about it to get input from my hardcore camper friends. On my way home, I realized that Target probably had the tent, so I pulled out my phone and opened my Target app. A quick search indicated it was sold both online and in my local Target store. But the app didn't just tell me it was in the store--it also told me which aisle held the tent! The only improvement on the experience would have been getting a coupon on my phone as I walked into the store and a store sensor recognized my app.
Content Ping: So what role does content play in this total user experience?
Cassandra Moore: Content plays a crucial role in the cross-channel shopping experience, and very frequently, that content is shared. People are looking for options, descriptions, and of course, deals, regardless of whether they're online, reading a paper circular, or in a store. In the mid-2000s, content was a destination--we sought out the information we wanted about products. But there was, and often still is, too much information; consumers must separate the relevant from the irrelevant. With the proliferation of social media, content now comes to us via the networks we have created. The people and organizations we have selected as members of our networks vet content for relevancy.
It goes without saying that the content at the product level needs to be imminently shareable. The more innovative the presentation, the more likely it is to be shared.
More and more, context is also playing a critical role. People begin their online sessions by visiting their news streams whether they are on the couch with a tablet or in the store with a smartphone. The content they see first is the content the people and organizations in their network have shared. In order for brands to reach these consumers, they must create content that is exceptional and worth sharing. Consumers, all of us, are looking for experiences that will enhance who we are, that will enable us to be a part of something bigger than ourselves. If a brand experience resonates with a consumer and provides something they can align themselves with, they have something to share with others. The brand gains a new distribution network as well as the implicit endorsement of the person sharing the content.
Content Ping: And what does this mean for content at the product level, such as product descriptions, rich media content, and product specs?
Cassandra Moore: It goes without saying that the content at the product level needs to be imminently sharable. Providing small bits of text, images, and links that can be easily shared are crucial to tapping into the networks that consumers have created. The more innovative the presentation, the more likely it is to be shared. Every online product description should have Facebook, Twitter, etc., widgets to enable easy sharing whether it's viewed on a tablet, laptop, or smartphone.
Another crucial aspect of any cross-channel experience is consistency. Products typically have the same name across channels, but consistency often falls down in the way products are organized. My tent, for example, might be in the Outdoor Equipment category online but in the Sporting Goods section of the physical store. Seemingly small inconsistencies like this can derail a customer's search for a product. Our brains are very good at recognizing what we've seen before and we can experience tunnel vision when we're looking for a particular label or other visual cue.
Product descriptions should be the same on mobile and traditional versions of a website or an app ... A mobile user should not have to click a "go to the full website" link to find crucial product information.
Similarly, product descriptions should be the same on mobile and traditional versions of a website or an app. We should not assume that people using mobile devices want less information than those using laptops. At least a quarter of mobile users do not use the Internet on a computer and that number is likely to become much greater in the next few years. On a mobile device the layout of the information may be different to accommodate a smaller screen but the information provided should not be truncated. A mobile user should not have to click a "go to the full website" link to find crucial product information.
Of course, content should always be as concise as possible and always relevant to the purchase decision. Since we know that many consumers are comparison shopping in the physical stores, a mobile app or site that makes this task easy will be one that is revisited.
Content Ping: Could you explain information architecture's role in the e-commerce side of helping people make purchasing decisions?
Cassandra Moore: You can think of information architecture as the blueprint or structure that will house the content. The information architect's role is to create labeling schemes, navigation schemes, and taxonomies (i.e., categorization schemes) to enable people to quickly and easily find things. Labeling should be highly descriptive so the user can predict what will be in a category, an aisle, or a menu. The navigation scheme should be intuitive so users "just know" what will happen when they tap a link, click a button, or round a corner in a store. The taxonomy should conform to the user's mental model of what goes with what and how items are related. For example, a grocer might include canned tomatoes in the vegetables category even though tomatoes are technically a fruit. A good taxonomy reflects how people naturally group things, so every item is easily located.
We are seeing a shift in power from businesses toward consumers. Businesses are no longer the sole creators of their brand; the brand is now being co-created with consumers who are sharing their experiences and thereby defining the results of online searches and directing online conversations.
Of course, information architecture alone does not create a great shopping experience. At Piehead, information architects work closely with experience designers who determine information layout and interaction for each type of device, and visual designers who create the aesthetics and brand experience. Our analytics team manages search engine optimization and site metrics to measure performance. Our social media team creates a strategy for reaching consumers via their social networks, and on the back end, our developers choose the appropriate content management system (CMS) and ensure that the content is delivered from the CMS to each device and displayed as it was intended.
Content Ping: Where do you see e-commerce heading?
Cassandra Moore: I think it will just become "commerce" as opposed to e-commerce, m-commerce, F-commerce (Facebook), and physical stores. The line between the physical and digital worlds will continue to blur. The use of mobile devices is already growing at an astounding rate. With that growth have come QR-type codes, NFC payment options, and other mechanisms that connect the physical to the digital realm. The consumer will continue to become more connected, probably with devices we can't yet imagine.
Commerce will definitely become more social. Social media already provides access to exclusive content as well as discounts, promotions, and special offers. We are also seeing a shift in power from businesses toward consumers. Businesses are no longer the sole creators of their brand; the brand is now being co-created with consumers who are sharing their experiences and thereby defining the results of online searches and directing online conversations.
The brands that thrive in this new world of the connected consumer will have a deep and caring relationship with their customers. They will connect personally, emotionally and intellectually with the customer, likely through interest graphs rather than social graphs. As we discussed earlier, people are looking for brands that will enhance their personal brand. Those brands that add value to their networks will be assimilated and those that do not will be ignored.
Cassandra Moore is the Director of User Experience Strategy at Piehead, a digital engagement agency. Cassandra helps shape Piehead's approach to user engagement, ensuring that the customer’s digital experience resonates with human attention, intuition, and emotion. She holds a doctorate in cognitive neuroscience from Columbia University and has almost two decades of experience at the interface among human cognition, user experience, and business analysis.