I felt a guilty wave of schadenfreude come over me when I read reports on twitter that the much-hyped Argos Digital Concept Store in Old Street had shut its doors after the press launch, due to unknown technical failures.
Now, I don’t know what the truth was behind the closure, but the shop was definitely shut, and is now at best partially open. The very expensive (millions, I hear) Accenture delivered technology designed to replace that so-last-year fibre-media lies dormant inside while a cloth covered table outside holds a stack of those derided catalogues. Some commentators have suggested that they tried to do too much in one go. Opening up five new digital concept stores at the same time certainly sounds extremely ambitious.
I know how challenging in store-technology can be to deliver, having just recently lead the technology side of a ‘Next Generation Store’ for Thomson the travel agents. The endeavour had been a year in the making, and I’m not going to pretend there wasn’t a hint of drama as the opening day loomed. There always is. As I learnt, the specific combination of software, hardware and touch-screens is not an easy marriage (I thought mobile development was difficult!). So many points of failure, so many fingers to point. But we did it. Store opened on time, with touch-screens buzzing with content. We’re still tweaking here and there, but it all worked, continues to work and remains true to our original strategy and concept.
One of the client’s business analysts came up to me on the opening day and announced that he was amazed that the final interactive experience ‘looks exactly like the designs’. As is so often the case, he was expecting the development process to dilute and diverge from the original concept – as functionality dreamed up on powerpoint and photoshop hits the reality of hardware and software limitations. In this case, it hadn’t.
Achieving such a close match between designs and deployed experience was no easy feat. I put the success of the Thomson Next Generation Store interactive elements down to one main thing – the way that strategy, design and technology were considered not in sequence, but ‘in the round’.
Key aspects of this iterative and collaborative approach include;
1. Having a view on the appropriate technology to employ before you even get into wireframes or detailed user journeys – then ensuring that you get a technical authority to review user experience and design development at key stages – all critical if you don’t want surprises or disappointment down the line.
2. Getting the whole team to buy into an achievable vision is another useful by-product of this collaborative approach and it means that nobody feels that they are having solutions or approaches forced on them.
3. Employing technologists that understand user experience and designers that understand technology is also very useful. Creative ideas that are unachievable or too complicated just lead to client disappointment and/or delivery delays.
4. Being able to put developers and designers in the same room, and allowing them to saunter over and ask for design input into development or development input into design seems like a small thing, but without it the ability to problem solve and keep to brief is vastly reduced.
All of this sounds so simple, but it is rarely done in real life. Big digital agencies tend to silo their teams, and smaller agencies often have to outsource their development or have offshore development teams. In those circumstances, however good the project management or the original scope, you just don’t get the beneficial effects of close collaboration and iterative design and development.