One of the challenges that organizations face is how to gain a deeper understanding of their customers. As researchers, one way to deliver this understanding is through storytelling. We go to great lengths to convert our insights into digestible snippets. Recent advances in virtual reality (VR) have given us a new set of tools to provide a richer, more immersive story that allows you to visit the environments that your customers experience your products in.
Recently, I was in Mexico City observing a series of ethnography sessions to understand how people interact with products and services. Ethnography is designed to explore people’s needs and experiences in a much richer way than can be achieved through surveys or phone interviews.
[This was taken by me on the street outside one of the ethnography participants’ homes in Mexico City]
As a researcher, I translate these observations into insights so that organizations gain understanding of their customers’ environments – how and where they use the product or service. Of course there are a number of tools that do a good job of this (photos, reports, presentations and video), but we are always looking to incorporate the latest technology if it will deliver better data or a better client experience.
You may or may not have heard of Google’s cardboard headset, a low-cost smartphone-based introduction to the seemingly limitless possibilities of virtual reality.
While we have been playing with this cardboard headset for some time, in December 2015 came a game-changer: the Cardboard Camera app. With this app, you can convert a panoramic video of your environment into a fully immersive 360-degree photo for use in VR. Sound is also included in this experience because it is converted from a video.
[These are the visuals found on the Cardboard Camera app page in the play store]
[A screenshot of how VR looks on the phone’s screen. The image is of a busy street in Mexico City, taken by me]
The process of taking the photo is non-invasive, takes approximately 20 seconds and is fully 3D (unlike a lot of 360-degree photos which, though impressive, are nothing more than a 2D photo overlaid onto a sphere). This app is therefore able to simulate real depth – like you’re actually there.
And that’s the point.
If you had the resources, I’m sure you would love to send your entire product or service teams to meet your customers. This would increase exposure hours and allow a deeper understanding of the challenges they face.
Of course, ignoring skewing effects of finding participants willing to invite an entire team into their homes, budgets would never extend that far. So we must find alternatives, other ways to immerse teams of people in your customer’s world beyond taped footage on a camcorder. The Cardboard Camera app single-handedly opens that door. It is a sign on the front gate saying ‘Welcome to my home, this is who I am’.
[A photo taken by me at an insights exhibition, showing a client ‘visiting’ a participant using one of our Google Cardboard headsets]
The power of a smartphone and a piece of cardboard is inspiring. As the technology advances, we must be able to see its potential. For researchers, we are aware of the usefulness of streaming services in our usability lab sessions; entire teams of designers, developers and business-owners can watch in real time how customers interact with their digital products. With VR, observation can now be extended outside the lab – to ethnography sessions and beyond. New VR cameras, 360-degree streaming services and headsets are cropping up almost weekly, so your teams can now ‘visit’ willing customers and experience their challenges in real time.
[A photo taken by me of a group of people watching VR content together. The technology we have used to date does not facilitate group streaming events, but this is how it might look.]
These technologies can enhance exploratory research in any industry with digital and physical products, services and full customer experience processes. However, VR’s reach can extend even further.
Place yourself in the shoes of those who design retail experiences, buildings, crowd flows, exhibitions or any physical product. Until recently, research and early prototypes have been largely screen-based, or VR tech has been costly and not viable for smaller research budgets. But now, participants can be truly immersed, connected and challenged in this environment and the cost is within reach of most budgets.
[A photo taken by me showing a GfK colleague using hand-control motion to gain more interactivity within VR. It was taken at a demo of the HTC Vive headset, using the ‘Tiltbrush’ software]
For UX researchers, virtual reality is not just a flash in the pan. As the interactive abilities of the technology extend to hand, head, eye and body movements, the potential for building and testing environment prototypes will only increase. VR has some compelling, tangible use cases that will truly enhance the way you experience customer research. My experience in Mexico has opened the door for our clients and we are excited about what’s lurking on the other side.
Please share your thoughts in the comments below or email me at Simon.Jones@gfk.com (Senior Project Designer, User Experience at GfK).
“Build it and they will come” has long been the modus operandi for the retail sector. But two decades of unprecedented change both in terms of technology and the economic environment has shaken the retail sector. This is the age of the Connected Consumer who expects retailers to fulfill their needs before they even ask. Omni-channel is the word that now defines retail as we have moved to a model where retailers need to be constantly present, ready to engage with shoppers in the moment and on the move – as well as on the high street. This is what retailers must do to survive in the Future of Retail.
The retail environment may have changed dramatically but the four key battlegrounds – choice, price, convenience and experience – are every bit in evidence. On each front, retailers must work harder to survive, let alone win. This is a world where prices are standardized, consumers are dazzled and confused by endless choice, and shoppers judge stores by the way they make them feel not just the goods they sell.
All retailers, from pure play online stores to the stalwarts of our high streets and malls and everything in between, now face a myriad of challenges. At its heart is the shopper of the future – today’s constantly Connected Consumers who want it all and expect retailers to come up with the goods.
Understanding what makes these shoppers tick is more than half the challenge. Price savvy, technologically forward and with a mission to fulfill, the shopper of the future expects retailers to keep up with them, not the other way around. The challenge for retailers is to stay one step ahead of consumers’ demands. That means delivering on all fronts, be it product choice, service, customer experience or price.
The retailers that dominate and define this new age of retail will be the ones for whom change and uncertainty represents a fresh opportunity to thrive. Understanding the constantly changing consumer and market landscapes will be key, as will be a willingness to embrace innovations and invest to benefit retailers and customers now and in the years to come. That future of retail is here and now.
Are you ready for the Future of Retail? Find out more about how to navigate the Future of Retail in our report.
Please share your thoughts in the comments below or email me at James.Llewellyn@gfk.com.
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