April 29, 2011, 12:22 PM

Rich and Speedy

Retail apps must look stunning to the customer and be crafty in how they operate behind the scenes.

Lead Photo

When it comes time to design a mobile app, retailers typically draw in members of their m-commerce, marketing, information technology and merchandising departments. Office Depot Inc. added another member to its team: the customer.

Customers played a big role last fall when the office supplies chain and online retailer began developing mobile apps for the iPhone and handsets that use the Android operating system. After it came up with some first draft versions of its app, Office Depot contracted with a consumer testing agency to get customer feedback at the ground floor before it went any further with its initial takes on design. Consumers made their preferences clear.

"They wanted simple screen interfaces and information that is not confusing. They also wanted speed, which is critical to improving the mobile experience, to get from one product to another product fast, to see ratings and reviews pages rendering very quickly," says Barry Litwin, vice president of e-commerce at Office Depot. "For the home page, simplicity was important—it needed to be based on the product categories customers wanted first. In testing we had categories stacked differently in the interface and they ranked them by what they wanted first. We had a lot of research into what customers wanted to see in an app."

A rich experience

Consumers expect a lot from apps. Media, gaming and other industries first out of the gate with apps have set the bar high for retailers and brands now designing the tiny programs that they hope customers will place on their mobile desktops—and retain because the mobile experience is enjoyable and productive.

The design process requires merchants to fashion an overarching concept that will lure customers to the app and bring them back again and again, and to create a rich design that appeals to smartphone users' desire for potent visuals and clean organization. The process also requires that merchants prioritize the features the app will offer—too many will slow it down and kill its appeal. And top-notch apps make use of a smartphone's capabilities, such as its camera and GPS functionality, to do things a mobile (or web) site can't.

When Office Depot's e-commerce, mobile development, and usability and design teams began the design process, they had a clear concept: an app that mirrors the way consumers shop Office Depot online and in bricks-and-mortar stores.

"We really believe that the consistency of the shopping experience across multiple channels is the right approach for us. We've heard that from our customers," Litwin says. "We felt creating a customer experience different from our e-commerce site and stores would create confusion among customers."

Multichannel retailer and consumer brand manufacturer Patagonia Inc. started with a similar perspective. The merchant stresses its branding efforts across channels, from catalogs to stores to its e-commerce site. So when its online and creative teams and its m-commerce technology provider Sprella LLC began conceptualizing a mobile app, consistency was key.

"We started with the same rule of thumb for our catalog and our web site: a balance between the Patagonia branding experience and the e-commerce experience. But the branding experience comes first; e-commerce is definitely second," says Ben Stefanski, director of online sales at Patagonia. "We needed the app to have video, rich media and our pictures to show the customer what our brand is all about, and then it was very important to leverage the functionality of the device and app so that commerce is easy."

Flexibility between teams

Unlike Office Depot, which built its app in-house, Patagonia used a technology provider, Sprella. Stefanski says that when working with a vendor it is crucial that both sides be flexible when conceptualizing and designing an app. It was flexibility that allowed Patagonia to create a rich app that successfully emphasizes the brand while enabling consumers to buy, Stefanski says.

"There was a lot of flexibility on both sides to come up with the most usable and most brand-representative app possible," he explains. "Flexibility allows for something that is not cookie cutter and is instead using new technologies in the new mobile space to come up with something that is really unique and special."

An example of this flexibility was making it possible for consumers using the app to include photos with their product reviews. This was not standard in the Sprella platform, but was a feature of the Bazaarvoice technology that Patagonia uses on its e-commerce site. So Patagonia got Sprella and Bazaarvoice to work together to include this feature, not common among mobile apps today, in the Patagonia app.

"This is exploiting the benefits of mobile technology," Stefanski says. "Our products get used and things happen in the moment. Maybe a customer is in the middle of a storm and a product is performing well. They pull out their phone and take a picture of themselves getting hammered by a storm and post a review right then and there. The mobile space allows us to capture something that can't be captured by people sitting at their desks on PCs."

Visually stimulating

To get the most out of mobile apps, retailers have to think visually because smartphone users have grown to expect exceptional presentation from mobile apps. Smartphones and apps enable developers to more easily use more visuals, and larger visuals, than typically can be employed on an m-commerce site. That's because images and other design elements can be cached on a smartphone; thus, no need to contact the web server again for those elements. Each web server request slows down response times.

Imagery is at the pinnacle of design priorities at Patagonia, which prides itself on spectacular shots of mountain climbers and trailblazers in the great outdoors.

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