Special report: E-commerce – the DevOps opportunity

Andy Barrow, CTO, ANS

Having an agile mind-set, embracing fast-moving change and being prepared to fail are vital components for success in the world of e-commerce, according to experts.

So too is understanding shoppers online – their habits, their interests and their needs. “Customer-centric” is the buzzword of the day.

However, genuinely creating that right culture to adapt quickly and truly understanding those customer needs can both be difficult to achieve.

To address the latter, Merseyside-headquartered online retailer Shop Direct has invested heavily in creating an in-house UX lab. It also carries out detailed A/B testing of its sites and platforms – which looks at how people interact and use them to maximise their effectiveness.

Fast-growing IT infrastructure specialist ANS, based at Manchester Science Park, is now working with an increasing number of clients to change their culture through the use of agile techniques and technology.

At the heart of both these approaches is being “prepared to fail”.  Testing and failing is an integral part of the process that delivers online retail results.

Fail fast means adopting a culture of trying something out, getting feedback quickly and then inspecting and adapting at speed. It is not for the faint hearted.

This features is part of a special report on e-commerce. Click here to download it for free.

Paul Hornby, head of e-commerce at Shop Direct, says: “The challenge is that there is a natural level of distance between you and the customer.

“It is a buzz word but we do genuinely try to position ourselves as customer-centric. We’ve invested an awful lot on UX teams and quantitative a qualitative research to try and find out what Miss Very wants, rather than look at what our competitors do.

“One of our challenges is centring our development programme on the true needs of our customer.

“It is easy to almost be a magpie, driven by the latest shiny bits of tech without really validating whether that’s what the customer really cares about.”

The answer to that, he says, is to be “laser-focused”. He adds: “We have customers in a couple of days a week and we set them a variety of challenges that highlight the pros and cons of a new idea that we are going to try out. And we use all of that feedback to inform our A/B testing.”

The perceived wisdom in the sector is that A/B testing is something that will save organisations an awful lot of money in the long term.

Hornby explains: “What we are not trying to validate is the importance of the product that we are trying to sell. What we are trying to highlight is how easy the customer experience is, we are trying to get under the skin of that experience.”

Hornby says that it is important to have senior management who understand the value of being  customer-led.

“In the past it was so easy to have an opinion that was not based on any firm evidence or data.

“This is evidence led data. We are able to bring senior stakeholders into the UX Lab and have them physically watch a customer struggling to do something which is relatively simple.

“Because the customer wouldn’t be able to complete what the stakeholder wants them to do that’s relatively sobering. That really does hammer home the importance of having this type of customer-centric focus.”

He says that the organisation can run up to 100 tests just to identify what isn’t needed on its sites and platforms.  “We obsess on removing friction from the journey. It’s taking things out and seeing what the impact is.”

And he adds: “Our background as a catalogue retailer gives us unique asset when it comes to customer data.

“We’ve also invested awful lot in scientists to try and unlock this unique data asset and find ways of using it to help the customer.

“It’s about understanding enough so we can put the right message in front of her, in what context it is she’s shopping, and try and make that easier for her.”

This features is part of a special report on e-commerce. Click here to download it for free.

Danny Buck, founder of new watch retailer Circulr, which he has set up as a mobile-first business, agrees with the Shop Direct approach.

He says: “We did lot of research, carried through our own testing and invested a lot of cash and found that for my industry there is no need for a category page.”

He cites an online sunglasses brand which puts all its products on its home page and has created a “circular website”. He adds: “From our UX testing we’ve found the more you take away incentivises the conversion rate.”

Phil O’Neil, Manchester office principal at creative technology consultants Thought Works, says:  “You can be so wedded to the idea you want it to be successful but the customer doesn’t get it.”

He adds: “The challenge we feel working with organisations, is getting the voice of the consumer  heard.

“A lot of organisations get into ‘feature-itus’. ‘We need that feature; we have got to have this feature’.”

He also believes another big challenge is using data which “is so big and is getting bigger” and good strong analytics to correctly predict the customer’s future needs.

Lee Marriott, head of marketing at Manchester-headquartered multichannel lifestyle retailer Domu, says that before A/B testing, “We used to plough lots of money into something and then say it’s not working.”

However, he says data research and analysis can be difficult for smaller businesses to invest in and afford.

“In the last five years we’ve heard a lot about big data,” he says. “It’s how does a small or medium sized business use that kind of data and make it relevant if it can’t really afford to invest in UX and data scientists and all that kind of stuff.

“It can be very difficult to justify some of these positions from an SME perspective.”

He says his company’s UX research focuses on “usability” and looks to harness A/B testing to discover customer niches.

Andy Barrow, CTO at ANS, agrees that it can be very difficult to get the right data and it takes time and investment.

He adds: “One of the growth areas for ANS has been helping organisations that want to adopt more agile techniques in respect of e-principles.

“Call it DevOps, fail fast or agile technology,” Barrow says. “It is how we reward that culture of failure, how do we get organisations to embrace change faster at lower risk.”

He adds: “Lots of organisations are throwing the IT rule book of 20 years away. We’ve seen organisations that used to do maybe three or four updates of their applications a year now doing three or four in the morning.

“We are helping them do that through the IT and structuring services we provide, helping organisations to innovate better and faster.”

Barrow says that in fast moving sectors like financial services, where there is a continuous drive to engage more with customers, the model of waiting nine months to turn an idea into a product that has just been tested is no longer feasible.

It is a sector where new agile competitors are arriving on the market with businesses being built round a single app.

He says of this new approach to change, “It’s a very cultural thing, it is not something that you can buy: it is transformational.

“You can’t sell people a culture. We can only sell people a platform and the tools in which to do it along with support services.”

Barrow says one of ANS’ clients is a large-scale cinema operator looking to make the experience it offers more engaging, enticing and personalised and searching for ways of using IT to embrace its customers faster.

He says: “They have completely rewritten their culture, how they have been working for 20 years.”

He adds: “We almost fear change. Change is something we don’t like; when you have change there is risk.

“We are finding that right balance between uptime and speed and how quickly we can innovate. The general trend, whatever you call it, is ‘how can we be faster and more disruptive?’”

O’Neil says he has seen organisations that have been transformed through “the lean principles of agile software delivery”, structuring it across their whole business as they focus on delivering customer experience.

This features is part of a special report on e-commerce. Click here to download it for free.

And Hornby of Shop Direct adds: “We work through an agile development process that embraces experimentation.”

He agrees with Barrow: “It is a cultural thing, it is thinking about how you can organise and empower your people. And it’s about what you can do, rather than what you can’t.”

Domu’s Marriott has seen first-hand how difficult it is to change cultures and mind-sets to be prepared to fail in a previous role with a large catalogue business.

His present organisation works with agencies and as a result says it is quite easy to turn stuff around quickly.

He adds: “It is about building that culture and if trying to fail fast getting people into the mind-set that you’ve actually got the end goal in site.

“If you see constant failure and you are not actually improving anything it can be demotivating for the rest of the team. It is about switching that mind-set.”

This features is part of a special report on e-commerce. Click here to download it for free.