Ara Berberian on Merchandising in the Age of Invisible UI

February 18 was officially 2017’s iteration of World IA Day. The annual event gathered together information architects in 58 worldwide locations to talk about ideas currently shaping the field and ideas surrounding “information strategy and structure.” Ara Berberian, VSA’s Director of Experience Architecture, helped lead the conversation in Chicago. Departing from the usual nuts-and-bolts discussions, his talk explored the issues and opportunities surrounding merchandising in the new era of AI and Virtual Personal Assistants. The topic brings to the forefront a growing, tech-driven marketing realm, so Ara shared with us some broad stroke ideas that savvy marketers should keep in mind in order to get ahead:

Virtual Personal Assistants deserve the hype.
For anyone who attended CES in January, it’s an obvious conclusion: multiple industries are finally integrating AI technologies built by the likes of Amazon, Google and IBM in genuinely profound and useful ways. AI manifested through Virtual Personal Assistants (VPAs) is making a clear impact in home automation products and services. The inherent advantage of hands- and eyes-free technology to support use cases is clear, and voice-based UI, or “invisible user interface,” represents a tectonic shift in customer experiences not seen since the introduction of the smartphone. Many companies and individuals are now actively developing and launching skills for VPAs. Concerning merchandising in particular, Amazon, as the preeminent e-commerce giant, is distinctly suited to sell products and services through its VPA, Amazon Echo (aka Alexa).

Invisible UI still needs to incorporate a lot of design thinking to get the experience right.
Although the current focus of Amazon Echo in the merchandising space largely revolves around promoting seemingly enticing deals, there’s a lot to be desired about the current state experience. Standard, tried-and-true e-commerce merchandising techniques don’t translate well to VPAs. For example, when you ask Alexa what the latest deals are, Alexa begins by describing multiple particulars such as size and shipping information for an item that you likely wouldn’t want in the first place. The system is literally reporting out details about the first item on a list of deals—a list that humans could easily scan for any desirable items.

In this new era of conversational commerce through invisible UI, innovative new techniques must be developed to touch on all critical aspects of the marketing funnel, particularly during the awareness, engagement and discovery phases. This will only be accomplished through true design thinking that would reflect everything from personalization to gamification, as well as increased gathering and usage of behavioral and personal data in meaningful, contextually sensitive ways. Doing this will generate engaging, targeted and trustworthy experiences. Additionally, with VPAs becoming the new intermediaries between people and products, brands are struggling to own the end-to-end customer experience. The tech giants behind VPA development need to better work with brands to help shape experiences.

Radio is a surprisingly powerful merchandising channel in the digital age.
Whodathunkit? Based on studies by Nielsen Catalina Solutions, radio beat digital media ad ROI numbers by a wide margin. This can likely be attributed to the power of audio to engage listeners. Since people are forced to use their imagination when listening to radio, the visualization of what’s being presented in a program or ad arguably becomes more memorable than if you were to watch a commercial or scan an offer on a social media site. There’s little wonder why radio is described as the “Theater of the Mind.” Particularly during the golden age of radio, when it was the only technology based merchandising channel, advertisements for products and services had an even more remarkable impact.

Why is this profound in 2017?  If one were to extrapolate the power of radio to this new era of conversational commerce conducted through invisible UI VPAs, the ability to successfully engage people still holds true.

Alexa will eventually become your bestie.
If you don’t have a Virtual Personal Assistant now, you will soon. The exponential growth in AI technology—along with society’s greater propensity to collect and share data—means that experiences are going to become significantly richer, more personal and more engaging in the coming years. Although we’re still firmly in the “pull” era in which you make various requests of your VPA, it’s not ludicrous to imagine a “push” era in which your VPA will make unprompted suggestions to you if you choose to opt-in. These suggestions will be welcomed because they will generally reflect contextual needs and wants appropriately. In fact, contexts could become the new media buy; brands will pay or compete to provide the most targeted experiences. For example, when you’re preparing a meal and would welcome cooking related product or service suggestions tailored to your preferences. This is an opportunity that consumers, experience designers and merchandisers should collectively embrace and relish instead of fear or scoff.