The technological evolution of recent years has advanced to a point where we can finally see how these innovations are changing the way people interact with and experience interiors. As designers, the implications this will have on our own design decisions—whether about navigating space, managing big data, or creating a seamless user experience—are very exciting and the opportunities are limitless.
Interaction with environments through technology has been evolving the past few years to the point that we’re now seeing how these innovations are already changing the way we interact with space, and thus how design is impacted. Design challenges have become more complex with these updates, but the following constants remain strong drivers for the success of retail projects: relevance, customer experience, interconnected brands across multiple platforms, and differentiation in the marketplace.
Navigating our environment
A big milestone in the recent timeline of technology and spatial advances was Google Maps and soon thereafter Street View. By now, most of us have “googled” locations and have been brought to the virtual doorstep of these places through our screens and handheld devices. Last year, Google brought us further inside these facades with Business Photos. Special panoramic cameras were brought inside stores and famous entertainment and cultural attractions around the world so that one can now visually shop the displays and environments by clicking inside of these stores.
A few new tools have now greatly expanded the options for how we interact through technology in the built environment. Finnish company IndoorAtlas has developed location technology that uses GPS, physical structures, and Earth’s own magnetic field to create highly accurate maps that can help users navigate spaces. While this highly innovative technology is fairly new, it will likely be adopted quickly by large-scale malls, big-box retailers, and even smaller shops in the coming year. With the app loaded onto a smartphone or tablet, one will be able to navigate the store plan and find both the items one wants to find and items that the retailer wants the customer to see. To expand on this, the retailers can tie in their omni-channel infrastructure and offer an enhanced retail experience while gathering potent data of consumer shopping habits.
The indoor navigation startup aisle411 has recently engaged the more than 7,000 Walgreens stores in the United States. Customers can download this app directly to their smartphones to access maps of every Walgreens store, locate products by aisle and section, while utilizing personal shopping lists and even price-scan barcodes.
Data from technology such as this will allow retailers to understand which products are in demand and can inform future store layouts. This will also enable merchandise and store design decisions based on accurate customer feedback through tracking of customers’ performance metrics.
A seamless user experience
A Deloitte analysis of the evolution of retail, “Store 3.0: Planning Tomorrow’s Store Today,” had noted last year that, “the role of the physical space is shifting from a transactional model to an experiential one, in which customers have a personalized experience with the brand.”
Our Gensler Los Angeles office has recently started exploring the possibilities of experiential space by collaborating with Oblong, a technology company headquartered in downtown Los Angeles. Oblong is an inspiring think tank founded by MIT graduates and staffed by numerous MIT Media Lab alumni, and is most associated with a spatial operating environment (SOE) called g-speak, the technology first seen in the movie Minority Report as Steven Spielberg’s vision of how we would interact with information and visual environments in the future. During a recent visit to Oblong, our team had the opportunity to engage with several interactive displays and environments that exhibited this technology. While I loved Minority Report and the scenes with this environment in particular, it is a mind-expanding experience trying this in person. The technology fills the void between touch surfaces that we use every day, large-scale digital displays, and gesture-like devices such as a Wiimote or a Kinect. It also allows one to actually interact with objects anywhere in your view using motion. The takeaway from interacting with g-speak is how much it changes one’s view that—by using this elaborate technology—a person actually feels more natural in their interactions than expected.
As a designer, I can see far ranging implications for this technology that transcend devices and surfaces. Imagine moving and changing elements of a store environment by moving your hands and simply gesturing. You could select the items that interest you based on your social media and user feedback profiles to create your own shopping experience when you enter the space.
The future is now: What it means for retail design
What does this mean for the spaces we design and the processes in which we now work? As you interact with these technologies, you begin to imagine an entirely new way of working and it feels very natural and instinctual versus overly technological. Much like the way we have all grown accustomed to touch-screen responsiveness and the speed at which our devices and applications perform, these platforms started to change one’s perception of how we can work and interact with space and information. These useful tools not only yield high productivity and enhance results, but they allow for new interactions and responses that we would not typically be inclined to make.
We are starting to see retail environments act as extensions to not only one’s smartphone and online lifestyle, but as a curated and deeply personal experience. [For example, see the Gensler-designed HyundaiCard Air Lounge, page 30.] As Walmart CEO Joel Anderson was quoted in a July 4, 2012 New York Times article, “We are living in the age of the customer, and you can either fight these trends that are happening... or you can embrace them.” The ability to manipulate the spaces one occupies and make them about the inhabitant will be increasingly more important and easier to accomplish.
As Pinterest has done for collecting images of places and things one would like to experience and have someday, the future of successfully designed retail spaces will be about embracing the desired personalization so customers experience something new every time and keep coming back to see what happens next. The Deloitte retail trends study indicates that, “The free flow of real-time information will reshape the way sales associates and customers interact. Whether the retailer has a relationship-centered or transactional-centered customer service model, this change will impact nearly every aspect of how a store operates.”
All of these technological advances deepen the possibilities of what designers and operators can employ when developing compelling retail environments. The simple discussion of how a store looks is becoming something of the past. The attitude of today’s consumer focuses on what the brand, retail, and transactional experience means personally to them. Storeowners and operators are realizing how the store performance, experiential design solutions, and operation on multiple channels simultaneously is key to their success now and in the future. Our role as designers is to orchestrate and interact among these drivers. If we can understand the trajectory of how these technologies affect and enhance the spaces we design, we can continue to offer valuable, measurable solutions for our clients.