This article first appeared in Contagious Magazineon 31/07/2015
One of the founding principles of technology is Zuboff’s law: “Everything that can be automated will be automated”
One of the most beloved principles of technology is Clarke’s law: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”
We are seeing both these principles hold truer by the day-the more advanced technology becomes, the more invisible it becomes.
Ever smarter algorithms are building more dynamic, contextual understanding of where we are, what we’re doing and what we might do next. Today, Google Now knows where I am and where I need to be. It knows the weather and the traffic conditions. How long before, without asking, it hails me an Uber right when I need it?
Much has been written on how interface brands (Uber, Air BNB, Zipcar) are the winners in the digital age. The most successful interfaces, however, will ultimately become the least intrusive-metrics like dwell time and visibility will become obsolete as experiences become seamless, effortless and automated to invisibility. As Matthew Panzarino puts it:
“You’ve probably heard the argument that for an app to be truly successful it needs to earn a place on your home screen…. we could see another whole class of apps that not only don’t need to fight for a home screen slot, they don’t need to be opened at all to add value. And that’s interesting.”
These invisible technology experiences will in part by fuelled by data and in part by new kinds of interface.
Retail brands will be challenged as a rash of “buy now” buttons invades our favourite search and social platforms. When I can browse, discover and transact direct from Google or Pinterest, retailers run the risk of becoming simply back end fulfillment and data engines.
FMCG brands will be challenged as e-commerce platforms seek to minimize friction via automated replenishment and subscription services. When I can reorder all my grocery staples via smart buttons situated around my home and linked to my Amazon Dash account, what opportunities are there for new brands to interrupt the path to purchase?
Brands across every category will be challenged by new and intimate interfaces. When I can unlock an account with my thumbprint, make a payment with a selfie, or receive notifications at a “glance”, how do we make these micro interactions tangible, branded and rewarding?
Consider the controversy over Domino’s Titanium Grand Prix. The Emoji Ordering initiave is rooted in the world of invisible technology, removing the need to visit a site, speak to an operator or indeed speak at all. It has the potential to have a transformative effect on the client’s business. Yet it is a controversial winner because it looks so very different to the kind of brand experience we are accustomed to.
So how do we build brands in the age of invisible interactions?
The answer, it seems to me, is a two pronged approach.
The first is to future proof our brands to thrive in a world of connected and predictive data, a world that has shifted from e-commerce to everywhere commerce. This means investing in mining and integrating the diverse data sets (social data, search data, site data, location data) every brand today has at their disposal to better understand users’ needs in real time.
It means interrogating our brands’ e-commerce platforms to ensure we are ready to sell not just on site but off site and in the stream. It means interrogating the path to purchase to remove friction and building hooks and habits at every stage of the journey-subscription models perhaps, or smart packaging that automatically triggers replenishment. Subscription models need no longer be the preserve of big brands or corporations-the Cups coffee app platform offers pre-paid and subscription packages for New York’s independent coffee shops.
The second is to ensure that our brands reward interaction at every touchpoint. That every interaction, however fleeting, is a delightful and valuable one.
This means opening up new dimensions in how we think about branding. Thinking not just about tone of voice or look and feel, but about the body language of a brand in the digital space. How do our brands feel, swipe and gesture? What are the ergonomics of our brand? In the world of invisible technology, micro-interactions are king. (It is interesting to note that even Siri, Apple’s much maligned personal assistant is slowly developing a personality).
It means thinking about online retail as a brand experience. As buy now buttons remove the need to visit retailer’s sites, we must build a desire to visit those sites, thinking of them less at digital catalogues and more as concept stores where every interaction is carefully considered and infused with brand promise. Net a porter, as ever, are ahead of the curve, supplementing their core site with not only a shoppable magazine but a new shopping app infused with social context-the Net-Set app.
It means lavishing ever greater care and attention to how users encounter our brands in the physical space. Packaging and delivery experiences will become critical touchpoints in our arsenal. No category will be immune-subscription based tampon company Lola marries personalisation (design your own assortment) to beautiful, minimal product design (and a beautiful, minimal online interface).
Most importantly, it means giving our brands a clear purpose and reason for being in the digital space. Purpose is an over-used (and abused) word when it comes to branding, often confused with CSR initiatives. In practice, it’s simple: What does this brand do (not say) to add value to its users. Brand positioning is no longer enough. In the world of invisible technology, brands need an active brand purpose-a purpose that comes to life through digital products and services that deliver genuine value for the user. In a world of invisible interactions, only the truly valuable will command time and attention.
In summary, we must minimise effort on one hand while maximising reward on the other. Designing our systems and databases to seamlessly integrate with the world of invisible technology and our brand experiences to stand out. Crafting experiences where every micro-interaction is not only delightful, but offers real and tangible value.