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In Between the Numbers: Less than a Third, and Less than Half.

April 29, 2011
at 11:58 am PST

Less than a Third, and Less than Half.

I was reminiscing with a friend recently about NRF shows past, and the graveyard of consumer-facing retail technology ideas.

Yikes. Lots of ghosts. Even a few zombie ideas that refuse to die (cart tablets, anyone?). The big question is why – with the exception of self-service – have so few new “breakthrough” ideas found acceptance?

Here’s a hypothesis: Caught in an ever-fast cycle of innovation, the sales and engineering departments – understandably – always seek more. More headroom. More functionality. More interoperability.

We dream of the possible. We dream of platforms, of vendor lock-in, of recurring streams of high-margin revenue, of bosses pinning ribbons to our medaled chests. Ignore the cost implications for a moment.  (As grave as they may be, given the expense of rolling something out to all stores.)

Here’s what we too often forget: Shoppers dream of ease and simplicity.  

A 2009 McKinsey study on consumers’ use of electronics devices sheds some light on the matter.  Less than one-third of all consumers use the advanced features of any CE device – and less than one-half even know that the features exist.  

Allow those factoids to simmer for a moment. Think of the hours of brilliant engineering innovation that most consumers simply ignore -- that for most is too complicated, too complex. Brilliant engineering innovation that brings joy to the engineer, but immediate dismissive frustration from the consumer who simply wants to watch a movie.

Simplicity is the byword of the McKinsey paper. Simplicity in functionality.  Simplicity in usability. A quick glance, and you know how to use it and what to do.  A quick glance, and you know why it matters. The learning curve: a straight line north.

But it’s not just simplicity. Just as important is the usability – perhaps defined for retail as simplicity in context. Who’ll use it? When? Why? To what benefit? Consider the mother-of-two-in-a-hurry at the modern mega-grocery/mass retailer.  Consider, for a moment, the value of a cart tablet to her.  See wailing children pounding on the screen. Weep.

The very smart and always wise Bob Anderson, former CTO at Best Buy, points us to the “popcorn” button on the microwave as a perfect guide for consumer-facing technology.  No questions.  Immediate understanding of value.  One push and sixty seconds equals hot buttery-salted goodness.

Food for thought.

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3 Comments.


  1. The popcorn button is one of the most underused features on a microwave, most bags of popcorn tell you not to use that feature.

       0 likes

    • Jon Stine

      Dean, thanks for the note. I need to start reading the directions on my popcorn! Was going to cite the big red button of the Flip camera — which, apart from recent corporate decisions, is still a great example of simplicity in action.

         0 likes

  2. Jon, I absolutely agree with your point concerning usability. Keep it simple and valuable. Some of the latest loyalty programs where customers are requiers to sign on to websites and print or remeber offers made simply do not cut it for me.

    I am continually trying to stop over engineering solutions. I see our job as defining elegant usable solutions that just happen to need a bit of technology.

       0 likes