Products with personality – the Liquid Big Data customer experience

Digital technology is driving new forms of customer engagement that are rapidly eliminating the functional silos between online and offline retail channels. As a result many high street retailers are already experiencing falling footfall in their physical stores as customers increasingly switch to online competitors for better convenience, choice and prices.

However, these bricks and mortar (B&M) businesses could use Liquid Big Data (cloud-based analytics shared between partners, suppliers and, potentially, competitors for their mutual benefit) to integrate the physical and digital customer experience into a unique, responsive personal customer journey online competitors can’t imitate.

So what might the Liquid Big Data customer experience be like for a global retailer selling ready-to-assemble home furniture, appliances and accessories for example?  Here are some ideas…

An eidetic world

Traditionally high street retailers focus on their brand as a source of differentiation to attract customers to their physical stores. Yet conversely, digital empowers customers to focus on their specific wants or needs regardless of provide. That’s why their online competitors invest so heavily in user experience design to continually optimise how customers use their channels to browse and buy the products they sell – choice and accessibility as a form of differentiation. To combat this challenge, B&M businesses are increasingly using digital technology (such as touch screens, beacons and virtual reality) to differentiate the in-store experience as something equally empowering or seamless as being online.

However, by choosing to replicate the online experience, in-store risks ignoring a source of competitive advantage unique to B&M: a customer’s physical experience with a product and the wider environment.

Using Liquid Big Data, the retail customer experience does not have a beginning or end nor is it location specific – it’s contextual.  Powered by a smartphone app provided by collaborating retailers and suppliers, wearable technology (such as a watch or glasses) could capture the people, places and objects an individual customer likes, loathes or loves throughout their entire lives. Even if such encounters are fleeting, these moments are captured with photographic, eidetic clarity in the individual’s private cloud. The customer can then choose which of these experiences to share with the retailer via the app to create a unique, personalised shopping experience in-store every time they visit.

This could be the raised heartbeat of seeing Rome architecture for the first time – could our example global retailer offer this customer discounts on its in-store Baroque furniture offerings? Another customer loves the feel of velvet – could an in-store sales team member suggest some appropriate soft furnishings? One customer really liked his girlfriend’s coffee table she had at university three years ago – could today’s store visit be an opportunity to find something similar for their new home?

Liquid Big Data enables a high street retailer to use the eidetic physical world as a way to effectively personalise its in-store customer experience using digital technology – enhancing its existing brand as a form of differentiation that can’t be imitated by its online competitors.

Products with personality

Harnessing the power of the eidetic world may not be sufficient long term to differentiate the in-store customer experience versus online. Although it offers a targeted customer experience it doesn’t necessarily make a customer’s relationship any closer or more intimate with the specific products a B&M business sells – a key driver at the heart of the competing online experience.

Yet the customer experience of an online retailer is ultimately a passive, limited engagement typically contingent upon the specific browsing or buying history the customer has with their channel or brand or other self-selecting activity such as social media engagement.

In response, a high street retailer with its partners, suppliers or competitors could use Liquid Big Data to take personalisation to a deeper level – use cloud based artificial intelligence (AI) to create direct relationships between individual customers and the products they sell.

The idea is to personify a product using AI with a user experience similar to smartphone personal assistants or virtual customer service agents. A customer can have a text or voice conversation with the product to explore its suitability for purchase (including reviews or endorsements) and select any desired tailoring or customisation. A customer may also enable the product AI to access his or her eidetic memories or social media profile to help shape and personalise their relationship. The AI can either be used on request or continually available to provide product updates or after sales support. In addition, products may also talk to each other in the cloud as a form of machine learning to identify potential new product designs or opportunities for complements that better meet their individual customers’ needs.

Such insights are then gathered by the retailer and participating stakeholders to inform the customer experience in-store (and beyond), support product development and address any supply chain issues.

For example, our global retailer has found that people across the world keep asking the same question about the performance of a specific brand fridge freezer it sells. Could there be a quality issue with this particular product that needs investigating? Customers in a specific region like the way the product is sold in-store by staff based on their after sales conversation with the AI – how can this be replicated in other regions where demand is falling? The collective cloud AI has also designed a new cooling, energy-efficient feature for the next model – a potential hot seller that could be delivered in collaboration with the supplier?

The potential headline benefits of a high street retailer using the Liquid Big Data customer experience include:

  • Enables new forms of personalisation and innovation deeper than anything previously available in the market by integrating real life and digital customer experience
  • Challenges the seemingly unbreakable competitive advantage of  online retailer competitors and other digital disruptors (such as platforms and social media channels)
  • Links in-store digital technology directly, explicitly with specific customer needs daily – materially lowers the risk of this investment and increase its ROI

If you would like more information about how cloud-enabled big data and analytics can benefit your organisation please contact the Sopra Steria Digital Practice.

Why gaining real insight into user needs is the key to great service design and delivery

If government is to deliver better services with less money, it needs to meet the public on their terms, offering services which users recognise as being for them, and accessible to them. Civil servants must put user needs at the heart of digital (and non-digital) service design and delivery. They have to be outward looking and pursue a match between what the user needs and what government can provide.

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Figure 1: 61% of civil servants either strongly agreed or agreed with the statement that they had a good understanding of their typical service users or customers. Just 13% disagreed or strongly disagreed with the statement. Source: Sopra Steria and DODS Civil Service survey, 2015

In our Digital Trends Survey, undertaken earlier this year, we asked civil servants to assess how ready they are to deliver user-focused digital services. The good news is that government has come a long way since the days when ‘take it or leave it’ service delivery was commonplace. A majority of civil servants (66%) said they had a good understanding of their typical service users.

However understanding is not the same as insight

Insight is about developing a ‘deep truth’ about the user based on their behaviour, experiences, beliefs and needs, and then being able to bring about behavioural change. The survey results on user insight were mixed. While over half of civil servants said that they gathered information about service users, just 39% use custom data to help design services.

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Figure 2: 39% of civil servants either strongly agreed or agreed with the statement that they use custom behaviour data to help design our services. Source: Sopra Steria and DODS Civil Service survey, 2015

A lack of insight will be particularly significant when delivering services for users without the ability, skills, motivation or trust to go online. We found that a significant minority of civil servants (36%) said that their customers or service users lacked the ability to use online services.

Putting ourselves into the shoes of the user – a quick guide

We recognise that the civil service is at the beginning of a journey and there is a challenge in unearthing user insights. Our User Experience (UX) consultants, using a kit bag of methods and tools, are able to slip into the customer’s shoes and understand the individual user experience in context. Here are some simple rules that they apply every day, which can get you started on the road to achieving real user insights:

  1. Kick off with UX research: the requirements of the end user are made explicit from the start. Throughout the project the team challenges business requirement with user needs. In the process the likelihood of being able to generate a win-win solution is enhanced (and trade-offs are made explicit)
  2. Target key users: an understanding of user demographics – gender, age, socio-economic group and lifestyle factors – must inform project design. Resources need allocating to desk research, user surveys, ethnography, focus groups
  3. Understand the context: there is no short-cut to meeting users and watching how they interact with a system or service on their turf. For example, we can consider the design needs of a community worker using a mobile application in their office, working with teachers in a school or with young parents in a Children’s Centre
  4. Accessible design is good design: users might not have a choice in interacting with a government service. So the relentless focus on user needs must address accessibility. This starts with an improvement in the quality of written content and extends to addressing issues of access, skills, motivation, trust and disability. Accessibility must never be an afterthought
  5. Capture and communicate what you learn: journeys mapping is a vital tool in revealing user behaviour and the end-to-end experience of accessing services. It will reveal important intersections and hand-offs between organisations and services. It allows the UX team to visualize a compelling story that creates empathy and understanding

Our experience shows that simple observation and engagement will challenge assumptions. It provides the rich insight needed to create something that both delights and engages the user. And the process never ends – iterative testing and updating of service designs based on feedback is best practice.

Your thoughts

Are you working on a digital transformation programme in government? Or working on a project that depends on putting user needs at the heart of policy-making or service delivery? Tell us what you think in the discussion thread below.

More about the Digital Trends Survey

In previous posts we’ve highlighted other issues raised in the survey including the setting of robust and relevant measures of success and digital skills. The full survey report ‘2015 Digital Trends Survey‘ is also available. And we’ll repeat the digital trends survey at regular intervals to track the progress of the civil service as it seeks to meet the ambitious commitments made in the Civil Service Reform Plan.

Measuring the success of digital transformation

The Civil Servants’ view

There is no lack of guidance for civil servants. For example there is the HM Treasury guidance on production and approval of business cases, the Magenta Book guidance on evaluation and the Cabinet Office spending controls on digital and IT. Recognising that the requirements of a digital project can change rapidly, as user needs are understood, HM Treasury and the Government Digital Service released supplementary guidance on Agile project approval processes.

But what happens in the real world when legacy government appraisal methods meet the reality of delivering digital projects with an agile mindset?

How confident are civil servants that they can define what success looks like?

In our Digital Trends Survey undertaken earlier this year, we set out to understand how civil servants view the progress of digital transformation within the civil service. Many responses highlighted the benefits associated with digital transformation, including efficiencies through channel shift and enhanced user satisfaction. But nearly half of the respondents had failed to gather the customer information that is so vital for monitoring and evaluation. Others pointed to deficiencies in the identification of Key Performance Indicators, as it was difficult to lock down system requirements at the start and manage delivery against a pre-determined timetable.

Many civil servants – including three at the very top of the service – reported that there was no measure of success for the progress of digital transformation

No measure of success… take a minute to let that sink in.

Can Agile and government project assurance work together?

Yes. Our experience is that good governance in agile can empower teams to follow programme management methodologies as they were intended to be used. Examples include regular project boards comprising client senior managers and stakeholders as well as project managers to review progress and provide solutions to any issues and ensure resources are available. This is recognised in the guidance on Agile highlighted above, which suggests that civil servants need to rely more on observation and engagement within the team and with stakeholders, rather than paper-based reporting and document review.

But in many cases even the best guidance and a strong central mandate will not be sufficient to catalyse the adoption of robust business cases and agile implementation methods. Digital leaders have a key role in promoting the advantages of a business case that contains empirical evidence and clear targets for improvement. They must emphasise that failure to consider monitoring and evaluation early enough can severely limit those options and the reliability of any evidence of impact. And incentives have to be put in place, with guidance on the level of detail required at each stage depending on the scale or complexity of the project. For example the HM Treasury ‘Five Case Model’ provides several excellent templates, but more training is need to understand the methods.

Moving from process improvement to measuring outcomes

Methods for gauging success in agile delivery in government are still rare. However better impact monitoring is critical. Large-scale implementation of digital solutions, and the business re-organisation that accompanies it, requires up-front investment. The benefits of digitization will take time and be felt outside the organisations that bear the costs of delivery (including in health and social care and across the criminal justice system).

Impact monitoring and business case methodologies will have to be developed that provide a comprehensive calculation of the various costs, benefits (including cashable savings) and beneficiaries. Or that illustrate more general benefits for society or individuals, even if these benefits cannot immediately be expressed in quantitative terms. Otherwise, implementation of projects will falter on the resistance of institutions to contribute to the costs of delivery or give up existing benefits (e.g. revenue streams from the provision of public sector information).

We’ll repeat the digital trends survey next year to understand if civil servants are coming to terms with the need to measure digital outcomes. And in future blogs I’ll be highlighting the type of cost savings, efficiency gains and quality improvements that can be achieved through digital and technology projects and how they can be measured.

In the meantime I’d be interested in your views on how to successfully define success and monitor the progress of digital projects, so why not leave a comment below or contact me by email.

More About the Digital Trends Survey

We commissioned Dods – a leading parliamentary communications organisation – to survey civil servants in Central Government and capture their views around the Digital Transformation agenda, the impact it’s had on them and the services provided to citizens. We had a fantastic response rate of 2,374 across all grades and Government departments. You can read more about the survey on our website. And you can read more about the digital skills gap that civil servants highlighted in our survey, and the implications for the civil service, in my last blog.

Bridging the digital skills gap in Government

Expectations of Government services are rising. Citizens want and expect digital services that are responsive to their needs. As a result civil servants need to be aware of the opportunities available through this digital world. This means fundamentally rethinking policy making and delivery, becoming more networked, transparent and focussed on user needs. Delivering this rethink needs new skills that can blend the digital world with traditional Civil Service policy making and implementation.

2015 Digital Trends Survey – some key findings

Earlier this year we asked Dods Research to capture the views of civil servants around their ability to effectively deliver digital transformation. The survey results testify to some progress in skills development, highlighting the commitment of civil servants to increasing their knowledge, but also flags that a lack of digital capability is a major barrier to successful digital transformation.

37% of respondents believe they lack adequate skills training for their roles

Over two-thirds of those surveyed thought that the skills support they received was not adequate, a slightly higher proportion than those who said they had received appropriate training.

digital skills table1
Figure 1 (Source: Sopra Steria and DODS Civil Service survey, 2015)

Figure 1: We asked civil servants to rate their agreement with the statement that they received adequate digital skills training to do their job.  Civil servants were split on whether they had received adequate training with over 1 in 10 strongly disagreeing

The challenge for government is to build flexible skills and capabilities across the civil service. At a basic level this means every civil servant understanding how digital tools can improve the way they work through, for example, the use of social media to engage with users. It extends to the use of data for policy modelling, evaluation, data analytics and data mining to target improvements and monitor impact. And because services will continue to be commissioned from outside government, the civil service also needs staff with good commissioning / contracting skills and project management capabilities within the digital delivery space.

The most common methods of skill acquisition were informal, including best practice sharing, self-directed study and learning on the job

digital skills table2
Figure 2 (Source: Sopra Steria and DODS Civil Service survey, 2015)

Figure 2: Digital skills tend to be acquired through learning that occurs outside the formal learning system

This shouldn’t come as a complete surprise, as civil servants are entitled to at least five days a year investment in learning and development. This is met through a wide range of forms of learning, from e-learning, traditional training and other development activities. And the Government Digital Service (GDS) is offering more detailed and practical learning and development programmes for civil servants in specialist digital roles and in other roles that are expected to work closely with digital teams.

44% of respondents said that a lack of digital training for staff was impeding the move towards digital public services (only just behind a lack of resources)

digital skills table3
Figure 3 (Source: Sopra Steria and DODS Civil Service survey, 2015)|

Figure 3: Lack of digital skills is the second biggest obstacle to digital public services, only just behind a lack of resources, and twenty per cent ahead of any other factor

Departments have drawn on resources from the GDS and their ‘digital bench’ of digital specialists and specialist digital recruitment services. While many departments – such as HMRC, Home Office and Ministry of Justice – have established internal teams, others will continue to depend on GDS or face persistent challenges in recruiting enough skilled permanent staff.

The more pressing risk is that a skills deficit will affect implementation, with government missing opportunities to integrate systems and operations and wasting resources. The civil service must attract, develop and retain people who contribute with their skill sets to the achievement of strategic digital government objectives. It will also need to work with the private sector to supply teams of people focussed on addressing specific needs and outcomes (and not just bodyshopping!). And both the civil service and private sector will need to regularly evaluate the impact of emerging technologies, trends and projects on staff, to assess skill gaps and ensure the development of new types of organisational learning.

Why not share your view in the comments below about your experience with digital skills in Government?

More about the Digital Trends Survey

We’ll repeat the digital trends survey at regular intervals to track the progress of the civil service as it seeks to meet the ambitious commitments made in the Civil Service Reform Plan. And in future posts I will be highlighting other issues raised in the survey including understanding of users (including digital exclusion) and the setting of robust and relevant measures of success. So watch this space!

Read the full survey report ‘2015 Digital Trends Survey‘.

New kids on the blockchain

At Sopra Steria we often talk about a world ‘beyond digital’. This is so that we can help our clients to prepare themselves and their organisations for the challenges they are likely to face looking out three to five years into the future.

I shared some of the topics we have identified for a world beyond digital with an audience of digital and eCommerce professionals at a Thought Leaders of the North West event a couple of weeks ago. Our themes seemed to resonate with those in the room prompting plenty of discussion and debate.

One theme attracting a lot of interest was the ongoing challenge we face in the world of Information Security, where we see protection from attack being built into new products and services from the ground up rather than as an afterthought.

We also see an emerging era of unprecedented corporate responsiveness and agility as industry giants look to iterate their business models ‘on-the-fly’ in response to unforeseen threats and attacks in the way Sony Pictures did recently in immediately releasing ‘The Interview’ to digital channels and abandoning its plans for a full theatrical release.

Disintermediation is another concept having an immediate impact on the way we live, work and do business. Services such as Uber and AirB’n’B are already beginning to transform different aspects of the travel industry through their creative use of the crowd, the cloud and the semantic web.

In financial services we see the ‘blockchain’ threatening to disintermediate the traditional banking industry as Bitcoin continues to gain profile and transacting in such crypto-currencies nudges its way ever closer to the mainstream.

“whilst barriers to entry are very low, barriers to mass acceptance remain incredibly high”

It was in this field, at a second technology event I attended recently that I witnessed a tense debate between an established retail bank and an up-and-coming Bitcoin podcaster.

The bank, when talking about FinTech start-ups looking to establish themselves in the emerging global Bitcoin economy, outside of a traditionally regulated banking industry, suggested that “whilst barriers to entry are very low, barriers to mass acceptance remain incredibly high”, which is the kind of thing they used to say in the music industry in the 1990s.

Nevertheless, the power of the ‘blockchain’, the virtual ledger where the crowd validates transactions without the assistance of traditional banking infrastructure and regulation, may actually be found beyond Bitcoin trading, as new and emerging use cases emerge for this technology bring it further into many people’s lives.

One such service which could be leveraged by the blockchain may be that of personal data broking, where citizens take control of the value of their own personal data and begin to firmly negotiate with local and global organisations alike based on the value of their own data as derived from their own connections, online activity and their extended social graph.

Sopra Steria is working with some of the world’s most exciting start-ups in exploring these concepts, as these ‘new kids on the blockchain’ begin to collaborate with us and our clients as, together, we continue to play a vital role in the transformation of business for a world ‘beyond digital’.

We’d love to hear how you think ‘blockchain’ technology will transform our lives. Leave a reply below, contact me by email, tim.difford@soprasteria.com or on Twitter, @timdifford

Photo: used and modified under Creative Commons license thanks to BTCKeychain