April 29, 2011, 12:22 PM

Rich and Speedy

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"The thought process behind the large use of images in the app is consistent with our catalog cover and the home page of our web site: We never show a Patagonia product to buy, we show the most incredible image we can find," Stefanski says. "Obviously there needs to be product images so customers can see what they are buying, but we need to show imagery of what people can do in our products."

In the long run, Patagonia's focus on powerful branding makes for better, and lifelong, customers, he says.

"We value people who over the long term buy into the Patagonia environmental message, the product quality message; they will end up shopping and buying from us for a long time," Stefanski says. "Customers will find what they like. It's just more important that our customers buy into the Patagonia message as opposed to us making a quick sale."

Stefanski says design accounted for up to half the cost of the app, which he would not disclose.

"If you are willing to be more standardized in the design, it's a lot less expensive," Stefanski says. "Technical resources are the other half of the cost; integrating back-end systems, getting the feeds from other vendors, like we do with Bazaarvoice."

Everything in its place

In addition to being visually rich, a retail mobile app needs to be well organized because a customer on the go needs to be able to quickly make her way through hundreds or thousands of products to find the one she is looking for. Highly ordered navigation is key.

Office Depot, whose web site offers 250,000 SKUs, knew it had to find a way to organize that vast product catalog in a manner that would speed a customer to checkout. So it went to customers with different mock-ups of the app and asked them how they would like the home page and other pages pieced together. Office managers refilling their supply cabinets were especially important to keep in mind.

"In designing this thing we wanted to create a fast access point into the app and really feature the categories we know our customers rely on us for, especially for repeat, replenishment sales," Litwin says. "It was important that the products we featured on the home page represented the core areas our customers come to us for. From there, a gateway to search. Giving them keyword search and then allowing them to narrow by category. Putting all the categories on the home page would have been messy and distracting."

This approach of minimizing clicks makes sense because of the inherently fast pace of mobile commerce, experts say.

"You have to get from one point to the next point in as few clicks as possible. If you have to do more than one click, you have to have a discussion about the justification for the additional clicks," says Derek Bronston, senior director of technology and development at The Conspiracy, a web, mobile and social design firm. "That's a huge rule that especially applies to mobile because you are trying to capture someone's attention in the subway or at a bus stop or during a pause for five minutes here and there."

In addition to keeping things simple, retailers should also consider how they can exploit the functionality of the smartphone. For example, as a multichannel retailer, Patagonia considered it a priority to make use of the iPhone's GPS technology that identifies where the smartphone—and its owner—is at any time.

"A lot of customers use the app to find one of our stores or dealers," Stefanski says. "Once they get into a store they will want to find more information and look up reviews and watch videos in our app. We wanted to use location-based technology so customers can find a store and then use the app to find all that information they can't get in a store."

Patagonia also incorporated its Twitter feed in the app, functionality that came with its Sprella platform. Stefanski says because of the vast number of consumers who tweet on their phones, it made sense to include tweets in its app.

At Office Depot, Litwin and his colleagues saw the smartphone's camera as the perfect vehicle to deliver a standout feature in its app: bar code scanning. A consumer touches a bar code button next to the site search box atop every page in the app and the camera is activated with onscreen instructions. The consumer then holds the camera over a bar code while shopping in a store and the app automatically shows the product details page for that product.

"We saw a bar code scanning feature as table stakes in the mobile app market today," Litwin says, adding that it does more than just make site search easier. "Bringing up additional information at the shelf in-store allows a customer to make the consideration sale a lot easier."

Litwin declines to reveal the price tag for the app, but says "you're going to pay in the low six figures for a good mobile commerce app when you include design, staff time, code development, integration with back-end systems and testing."

Too rich?

Add up all the visuals and the well-organized navigation components and the smartphone functionality, and it makes for a very rich app. But richness can come at a price: a slow experience. This is where the technologists come in. And the Office Depot and Patagonia technology teams employed some crafty, behind-the-scenes maneuvers.

To ensure its mobile app operates speedily, Office Depot created a web services environment for mobile technology. Web services connect servers and systems over a network using Internet protocols and are frequently used when different organizations need to exchange data. The technology team linked the mobile web services to the e-commerce web services to integrate back-end e-commerce systems to the mobile app.

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