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Digitizing the retail space


Developments in portable technologies of all kinds have created an increasingly connected world. Aside from the obvious ubiquity of mobile phones (there are nearly six billion of them in use today), everyday objects from pedometers to thermostats are being infused with digital technologies, and networked to one another. Designers of these products anticipate creating connected experiences that transition from device to device seamlessly; my running shoes communicate stats on my morning run to my tablet or mobile phone, which in turn automatically updates my Facebook page. The conversation around this phenomenon of connectedness (referred to by some critics as the "Internet of Things") has really just begun to leak into the mainstream, but we can be sure that it will become one of the most important and pressing issues facing marketers in today and in the near future. There's an important piece of the conversation missing, however: the potential connectedness of places. We use products and have device-based digital experiences in a context: the spaces in which we live, work and play. We have to expand the conversation about this new connectedness to include the places we inhabit, not just the objects they contain.

So what does "connectedness of space" mean in the context of contemporary branding practice, and more specifically omni-channel retailing? The answer is pretty simple: continuity. Omni-channel experiences, when executed properly, are about delivering seamless experiences. Traditional user experience designers, because they are digital native speakers, like to think about how experiences can and should be continuous across devices, but this thinking is limited because branded experiences happen in the context of a physical environment. Creating that environment, and the digital experiences that inhabit it, should be seen as two parts of the same exercise. Successful brands speak in a clear and consistent language wherever consumers find them.

Practically speaking, there are two key things brands and marketers can do immediately to begin integrating their digital and physical efforts:

1) Make sure that media design doesn't come after physical design (and vice versa). Frequently, marketers look at a brand's physical presence and its digital presence as two separate things. There are plenty of reasons why this is practical from a business perspective, but none from a consumer perspective. Truly seamless experiences don't have, well, seams- right? Teams should be assembled that represent all the areas of expertise needed to execute a holistic design, and those teams should be guided by a vision that sees the digital and physical aspects of the experience as part of a continuous whole.

2) Let's stop talking about "digital platforms" and start talking about consumer experiences. The language of "platforms" is keeping us focused on the device, not the experience. Yes, a design for a mobile device is different from a design for a PC at home, and these are both different from a design for digital devices at retail. But all of them should enable whole experiences that include a user (and his or her cultural context), a digital device or devices, the brand story and a spatial context. To design truly seamless and continuous experiences we have to consider all the variables, not just the hardware platform and its individual UX quirks. We're wearing blinders when we design experiences beginning with the device.

The use of interactive digital media at an environmental scale will increase dramatically in retail environments in the near future. The wonderful thing about this trend is that it is in fact a long-term one, and it is actually a resurgence of a very old way of thinking about what media does (cave paintings are environmental-scale media), multiplied in the context of the new information paradigm. The successful strategies will be the ones that avoid novelty. Brands should see the convergence of digital and physical experiences in a historical context, and approach this convergence as an opportunity to make emotive, lasting and whole consumer experiences.

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