Nimbus Ninety members discuss user experience with one of Britain’s leading retailers.
One hundred years ago, we defined a city on the basis of whether it had cathedral or not. Today – with over 50 stores across Britain’s major cities – the question is more about whether it’s got a John Lewis or not.
After a century and a half of optimum in-store experience, John Lewis has successfully plonked itself at the heart of Britishness. The mammoth size of the company and its staple-status for the middle class is symptomatic of a shift in retail expectations. The 2018 customer wants and expects comfort, speed, convenience – but all wrapped up in a handmade ribbon and some artisan wrapping paper.
It’s the job of John Lewis’ User Experience (UX) team to mastermind this process, and glide the customer through so seamlessly that they don’t even notice.
The end-to-end experience
Seamlessness seems to be the key to getting the customers in and out the other end: friction simply slows things down and makes everyone uncomfortable. The goal is to create an “omnichannel experience", and part of that is having an omniscient figure to oversee the whole thing. Someone needs the holistic view of the entire process.
UX-ers dedicate their time to constructing the entire end-to-end journey. It’s a process with many stages: starting with sitting on a sofa in-store, flicking through upholstery swatches, customising it online, and ending with bouncing on it for the first time at home. Someone needs to guide the customer through each stage, and map each point of contact. That’s done through UX.
Communication is key
But in a company as large as John Lewis, keeping in contact at each stage is no mean feat. Work duplication, paradoxically, is the enemy of “done”: if someone else in another corner of the company is doing the exact same thing, there’s bound to be misalignment. And it results in the biggest threat to user experience: inconsistency.
So much of collaboration is just organising the communication flow. John Lewis’ UX team have an Arthurian way of doing this: through a “digital round table”. Each UX-er films a short video of themselves, explaining what they did that week. When the lead UX designer watches them all through, he becomes a funnel for the communication stream that would otherwise overflow into a messy puddle of brand inconsistency.
You need to understand me
The other side of this end-to-end process is, of course, the customer. John Lewis stores have extremely high standards for their staff: sales assistants must be engaging, confident, present. So much so that training to be on a John Lewis shop floor involves theatre workshops to enhance these traits: it’s what the customers expect.
It’s not enough, however. UX designers have to know their customer down to the synapses in the brain; it makes sense that the most common graduates in the UX industry come from psychology courses. John Lewis customers want someone who understands them and their needs, and responds to them, whether they are a vegan millennial or a middle-aged professional. A “one size fits all” approach just isn’t effective.
Perhaps the real gold-dust-data lies in the opportunity in-store staff have to engage emotionally with their customers. Understanding that 62-year-old Sharon didn’t buy the Levi jeans because they didn’t boost her self-confidence is as vital as noting down that the store is out of size 12s. And when this is fed back laterally across departments, and vertically across levels, true coherence becomes a reality.
Design thinking encourages both interrogation of and empathy with the customer problem; it’s a deeply human discipline. The success of the award-winning John Lewis UX team comes from the importance they place on mapping and understanding customer engagement with the product.
The challenge remains of making the John Lewis experience even cleaner, more luxurious, and more frictionless, than ever before. In an increasingly digital world, John Lewis has set itself another arena to takeover through optimum user experience. It almost certainly won’t fail.
This event took place in John Lewis’ Victoria offices on the evening of 12th November, and was free for attendees. It was part of the Innovation Arcade series.