Digital natives? Meh! (or “Prensky revisited”)

Call me old fashioned, but: I really don’t think business needs to worry about so called “digital natives”.

Who are they? Well, I suppose we had better go back to the person who invented the term, Marc Prensky, who used it when talking about students enrolling at university in 2001. These people would have been born in around 1983, so they will be around 30 now. 

These people (so the Prensky theory goes) are radically different from previous generations, his so-called “digital immigrants”:

  • They are used to receiving information really fast
  • They like to parallel process and multi-task
  • They prefer their graphics before their text rather than the opposite
  •  They prefer random access (like hypertext)
  • They function best when networked
  • They thrive on instant gratification and frequent rewards
  • They prefer games to “serious” work

All of this is because they have been surrounded by digital technology such as “computers, video games, digital music players, video cams, cell phones” for most of their lives. And because of this there is a “discontinuity” between these people and the people who grew up before them.

It’s probably unfair to criticise Prensky at this distance in time. But the trouble is people are still talking about his digital natives and saying that they are somehow different from the rest of us. I’d disagree. For a start most of the technologies that Prensky mentions had been around for quite a while in 2001 and would have been very familiar to many “digital immigrants” as well as  his “digital natives”.

Many people in the 1970s had been exposed to computers. They would have been playing video games from an early age (Space Invaders anyone?). They would have used portable (if not digital) music players on the way to school and video cams at the weekend.

Other technologies came too late for Prensky’s “digital natives”. Cell phones? These didn’t achieve 10% penetration in the USA until about 1993 so most “digital natives” didn’t grow up with them. Same for the internet : when our “digital natives” were around 12 years old in 1995, internet penetration in the USA had only just hit 10%.

OK, perhaps Prensky was a bit too quick off the mark back in 2001. Those digital natives weren’t really around then. But they might exist by now. And, if you have read this far, that might be what you are worried about.

Perhaps people who grow up with digital technology that they

  • interact with
  • regularly
  • at home

really are different. Perhaps, as some people have claimed, their brains are wired differently because of their early experiences. That might be. But I don’t think the differences are those that Prensky described.

They like to parallel process and multi-task: they are used to doing homework while watching TV or listening to music. That’s really new? I don’t think so. It’s been standard teenage and student behaviour ever since I was a kid. (It’s also inefficient as most psychologists will tell you which is why it is illegal to use your mobile when you are driving a car.)

They prefer their graphics before their text rather than the opposite. This isn’t particularly important from a business perspective, but again I am not convinced this is new. You just have to look at learn-to-read books from the 1950s (and earlier) to see that graphics and text often go together in a learning context (not “before” or “after”).

They function best when networked. It is increasingly true that networked information is always available. This is changing people, but not necessarily for the better. For example, people who come to rely on SatNav devices tend to lose map-reading skills; they follow navigation instructions rather than using common sense. And it isn’t just (some) digital natives who display an over-reliance on information from third parties. This is, unfortunately, behaviour than anyone can learn, not just digital natives.

They thrive on instant gratification and frequent reward. Most people do. Only the most disciplined can resist the opportunity of getting something now at the expense of having less in the future. Ask the credit card companies.

They prefer games to “serious” work. Only an academic would think this an unusual human condition.

This leaves one thing that could actually be connected with technology. They prefer random access to information. If this is true, there may well be implications for education in terms of course structure and the structure of learning aids.

But is it something that business needs to respond to (beyond including hypertext links in websites)?

In some cases, it is. Music and other media products (generally excluding things with a “story” element) need to allow random exploration.

But what else does? Not cornflakes (random information features would be boring). Not cars (random information features would be dangerous). Not retail (random menus would be highly frustrating).

In fact randomness of information access is not a particularly useful feature for most products, although of course the option to explore information in a non-linear fashion is. There is little new about that, however: even printed books have indexes.

None of this is to say that society isn’t changing. It is. But there hasn’t been a discontinuous change that makes digital natives (whenever they were born) different from digital immigrants. One thing less to worry about? Perhaps. But that still means you need to understand the behaviour of today’s “digital consumers”. And some aspects of it might just surprise you.

To find out how your business needs to respond to changing consumer behaviour why not email me at jeremy@mosoco.co.uk.

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Apps, RWD, or mobi. sites?

There is a lot of talk about the best way to reach mobile consumers at the moment: some people champion responsive web design, others bet on mobile optimised websites being the ultimate winners, while still others say apps are the only way forward.

It is an important question with 15% of on-line commerce now funnelled through mobile devices (and more in certain markets like China).

But what is right for one business may not be right for another. There are a lot of (often competing) issues to consider and this post is my attempt at simplifying them.

First a few definitions:

  • Responsive web design (RWD) involves the website sniffing out what sort of device is visiting it and adapting the layout accordingly. There is one web address and one set of content but it is delivered differently depending on what is thought best for the device of the visitor.
  • In contrast a mobile optimised website (MOS) will deliver an experience that has been optimised for the mobile user. Layout will be very different from the standard site (as is the case with RWD); content may differ, or at least be prioritised and ordered differently; and there may well be different functionality to make the site simpler or to add things that mobile consumers may want. The web address will be different too – perhaps starting with “m.”.
  • Mobile apps are still more different. Apps don’t live on the internet and don’t (or shouldn’t) need the internet to run. Instead they reside on a mobile phone – which means that at some point they must have been downloaded to it.

So what are the advantages of each? Rather than go through each approach individually I thought I’d highlight the main benefits and weaknesses and show how each approach scores.

Cost

Cost is always an important consideration, and generally speaking it is cheaper to develop a mobile website than to develop an app where at least two versions (for Apple and Android) will be needed.

User behaviour

Mobile apps win out when it comes to current user behaviour. MDG Advertising have created a very nice infographic showing how users are more engaged on apps than on mobile websites. However, for certain types of tasks including shopping, people seem to prefer mobile websites – so the issue is not clear cut.

Using the phone’s functionality

Apps score highly when it comes to using phone functionality like the camera. It is harder for a MOS to do this. And a site using RWD is very unlikely to have that sort of functionality built in because it would be irrelevant for non-mobile users.

So if you want to encourage people to submit a video then an app may be your best bet. If you want to provide people with content sensitive to the location a mobile optimised website (or an app) will do the trick. But otherwise using RWD may be the most cost-effective solution.

Updating content

Apps aren’t part of the internet so they need to be updated actively. In contrast mobile websites will display the most up-to-date version whenever they are visited. That’s not necessarily a big deal as apps can be set to update themselves on a regular basis – as news apps like the BBC’s do. However for content that is constantly in need of updating (such as stock levels in a shop) then an app can represent an over-complex solution.

Simple content creation

Responsive websites simply take one set of content and display it in the most appropriate way. Mobile optimised sites and Apps, by their very nature, are (or should be) displaying content that has been specially rewritten for them. Two sets of content can mean twice the work creating it. And two sets of content can deliver an inconsistent brand experience across different devices unless care is taken.

Findability

Mobile websites are potentially very findable. If your website shows up well in search engines the mobile version will be easy to find. The opportunities to use search marketing to promote products in the Apple App Store and Google’s Play store simply aren’t as sophisticated. So it is very easy for your app to remain hidden among the hundreds of thousands of other apps: apps can be hard to find – and harder to stumble across. Unless they feature at the top of an app store like Google’s Play then they may never be found, even if you are a big brand.

And of course when you have found an app you then need to download it – which is another barrier to using it.

M-commerce payments

Apple and Google are very happy to take a large chunk of any revenue you might make from selling your app through their app stores. But you won’t lose any revenue if you are selling through a website. However, set against that is the fact that Apple apps on average have a 30% higher conversion rate than mobile websites, so perhaps the Apple app store is earning its money!

Approval

While it is arguably good for consumers that Apple has stringent requirements that must be met before it will allow an app to be available via its app store, this can cause headaches for businesses eager to get their mobile app out there. Mobile websites have no such problems.

Faster operations

Mobile optimised websites can (and should) be built with smaller file sizes to take account of the need for people to have a slick experience when using devices with lower computing power or in places where data rates are low due to “crowded” bandwidth (e.g. in central London). Speed of download is really important for e-commerce where every second of delay means lost revenues.

On-line retail sites using RWD may be painfully slow in areas of low bandwidth and are likely to be far less effective than mobile optimised sites.

In contrast apps don’t need any connection to the web to be used – at least until a transaction is required. And as they can be extremely fast at rendering content they can be an excellent option of e-commerce.

Visibility

Popular apps will sit visibly on people’s phones without the user having to find them online. For instance Amazon and eBay apps are readily visible on my phone but if I want to go to their websites I need to go online and then look in my favourites folder.

Security

Some people argue that apps have better security. And in some ways they do – but as UK consumers are generally happy with the security of websites that’s hardly a factor, except perhaps for highly critical functions such as banking.

Conclusions

So which should a business choose: mobile optimised website, responsive web design, or mobile app? The right decision will depend on your budget, the nature of your content and what you are trying to achieve.

Apps are great for delivering complex experiences to users who are regularly in wi-fi areas and who have devices with sufficient processing power. At the moment this may be the best solution for many larger media owners. Mobile optimised apps are probably the best way forward for on-line retailers, delivering slick experiences, the potential for geo-targetting of information and promotions, and providing and easy way into transactions. And using responsive web design is a simple and relatively cheap solution that makes content management easy and can deliver consistently across several devices where there is no need for an optimised experience.

Twenty tips for a great mobile customer experience

With mobile access now accounting for over 15% of web use (and rising) it is increasingly important to ensure that your customers get a satisfying mobile web experience.

That means thinking about the context of use, and planning content and functionality appropriately; for instance to reduce “showrooming” it may be important to ensure that vouchers and special offers are particularly salient on a mobile device.

It means taking account of the nature of the device; for instance the fact that it can easily be moved from portrait to landscape and that it may have telephone and geo-location functionality.

But it also means thinking about design-related customer experience issues, and how these differ from the experience your customers will get when using a fixed PC. That’s what I am covering in this post. So, in no particular order, here are my list of the top twenty ways to improve the customer experience when developing your mobile website.

  1. Think carefully about what you want to do with the home page. It should allow people to get an overview of the whole site. Take care with the fold on the home page (and indeed all pages if possible): designing a home page so that a section finishes neatly at the bottom of a common mobile screen size won’t help people to discover content beneath the fold.
  2. Make sure smartphone users are not prevented from seeing the “classic” version of your site (i.e. the version for fixed PC) . There should be an easy-to-find link to it on your mobile optimised site.
  3. Don’t disable the phone’s “back” button. Instead supplement it with a “soft” back button on every page, as some people will be more likely to trust this.
  4. Where your customers are encouraged to input data, ensure that the data persists if they go backwards in the site or if their connectivity is interrupted in any way (i.e. make sure that they don’t have to input it again if something unexpected happens). This is basic website usability but especially important with mobile devices where data input can be difficult.
  5. Provide navigation that is appropriate for a small mobile device. This doesn’t mean thinking about the navigation options a mobile user will need most (although that’s important). It means thinking about where best to place the navigation and what sort of functionality it should have. Some people recommend putting it at the foot of the page; others providing a cut down or collapsible navigation; and yet others using the home page for navigation and a link back to the home page as the only navigation on all other pages.
  6. Provide a site search box at the top of the home page.
  7. Wherever possible collapse content (e.g. just show the first line or a headline and let people tap on it to expand it) so that people can choose to see more of it but also have an opportunity of seeing plenty of other content options as well.
  8. If you are having to use redirects or links to other versions of the site then make sure they work and deliver the content that your customers will be expecting.
  9. In general mobile sites should be considerably smaller, slicker and faster to load than fixed PC sites. Reduce file sizes even if it means reducing image quality. Reduce the amount of text in the mobile site; people are even less likely to read long screeds of words than they are with the fixed internet. Avoid automatic page refreshes and be very sparing with carousel features. One nice strategy is to write and design the mobile content first and then expand it for tablets and fixed PCs.
  10. Make it easy to see content. Avoid anything that gets in the way of content, especially pop ups and interstitials.
  11. Calls to action should be big and easy to see. Allow sufficient non-clickable space between two or more different calls to action. Make as much of an item clickable as possible. For instance don’t rely on a text link if there is an image that can be made clickable as well.
  12. Make sure your fonts are readable. Avoid reversed-out text and ensure default font sizes are a reasonable size for reading. Ensure plenty of contrast between text and background – remember that people may be reading your text outside in bright sunlight.
  13. Single column layouts work well; use them unless there are particular reasons for having a multiple column layout.
  14. Reduce text input requirements as far as possible. For instance with dates it may be preferable to have drop down menus with radio buttons rather than forcing people to type in a date.
  15. Allow password content to show briefly when the user inputs it so they can confirm they are typing it in correctly. Of course this won’t always be appropriate (e.g. for banking apps) but much of the time this is a good compromise between security and usability.
  16. Consider using quiz questions rather than Captcha text which can be very hard to get right on a small screen.
  17. Avoid horizontal scrolling, especially with text.
  18. Offer captions with video: don’t assume people will be in a position to play audio – or even to hear audio.
  19. Make sure that video plays. If your site has Flash video then you need to offer an alternative format in your mobile site that all devices can play – or adapt your content so the opportunity to play video no longer exists.
  20. Take care with form design. Mandatory fields should be very obvious (little asterisks probably won’t be sufficient) and ideally optional fields (except for optional address fields) should be deleted. Ensure text input boxes are as large as they can be by placing text box labels above the text box rather than to the left.

Of course there is a lot more to designing good mobile sites than the 20 guidelines I have set out above. The people at Smashing Magazine (who know far more about design than I do)  have a huge amount of advice. And User Testing have some very detailed advice about the really important area of form design. But the guidelines above should at least enable non-designers to have an opinion about whether their company’s mobile site is serving their customers well.

Showrooming: part 2

I came across an interesting paper from Ericsson today  part of which (page 9) reported research into what people in cities around the world like about on-line and off-line shopping.

So, following on about my previous blog on showrooming, I thought it might be useful to analyse this information with the challenge of showrooming in mind.

According to the Ericsson research, the things people dislike about online shopping are:

  1. Not being able to see or touch things (73%)
  2. Worry about credit card security (35%)
  3. Waiting to get purchases (30%)
  4. Lack of customer service (16%)
  5. Too much choice (11%)

In contrast the things that people like about high street shopping are:

  1. The ability to touch and see things (76%)
  2. Ability to take purchases home directly (59%)
  3. Its fun to browse (44%)
  4. Personal service (42%)
  5. Something to do with friends (28%)

Little of this is surprising. But it does indicate some opportunities for retailers who want to address the problems of showrooming.

Touching things

Points 1 and 6 are pretty obvious but in some environments could retailers do more to enable seeing and touching. For instance, a TV retailer could allow shoppers to use a remote control rather than having a long row of TVs all showing the same thing. And clothes retailers could ensure that changing rooms are well lit, clean, with adequate space and hanging facilities, to make the process of trying clothes on more enjoyable.

Credit card security

Point 2 did slightly surprise me but there is perhaps an opportunity for retailers to emphasise the safety and risk-free nature of paying in a shop through signage. This will be especially important for retailers using contactless payment systems where there is an existing perception of danger through paying for other peoples purchase, of double payment, and of paying for unwanted items.

Taking things home

Again points 3 and 7 are very unsurprising and the opportunities seem few here. Could clothes retailers encourage shoppers to “wear it now” by carefully packing the previously worn clothing – or offering to recycle it? Could TV retailers provide a better “carry to the car” service? Could PC retailers offer a “set up” service to enhance the immediacy of the purchase?

Service

Points 4 and 9 are perhaps more interesting. Personal service is often desired (although there are big cultural differences around the world in this respect). It can often be difficult to get information and advice in a shop. For certain types of product advice could potentially be delivered via a kiosk or telephone, meaning that one client service operative could cover several different retail locations. That’s unlikely to work for fashion of course where advice (aka flattery) needs to be more face to face.

Choice

Point 5 proves the old retail adage: “don’t give me choice; make it easy for me to choose”. Some retailers could definitely improve here: for instance, TV’s tend to be grouped by size (which is pretty easy to judge) and perhaps it would be more effective to group them by one or two of the most important features (e.g. smart TVs, 3D TVs). Alternatively simply providing feature charts might be useful.

Leisure

Points 8 and 10 emphasise the fun part of high street shopping, something that on-line finds hard to deliver. This is a big opportunity for retailers; department stores, garden centres and bookshops frequently contain coffee shops. What else can be done? For the bored partner trailing round the shops perhaps TVs, tablets (suitably secured) or magazines could be offered. Would more seating in shops provide a more relaxing and enjoyable experience? Would bigger changing rooms allow people to get private feedback about potential purchases?

This blog has been about how high street retailers can take better advantage of the things that shoppers like about the high street and dislike about on-line as a way of discouraging showrooming. My next piece will be about how high street retailers can defend themselves against the advantages that on-line shopping has.

Showrooming: part 1

Increasingly, consumers have smartphones and data packages that give them low cost access to the web outside their homes. As a result of this “showrooming” is on the increase.

Showrooming involves looking at items in a shop and then searching for the cheapest place to buy it on-line. This is seen as a major headache for many retailers who are simply acting as a showroom for shoppers who then buy elsewhere.

According to Pew research, over half of all shoppers use a mobile phone to research purchases while in a store and almost 30% of them either bought on-line or bought in a different store, a loss of 15% to retailers.

The good news is that these figures show that not everyone is a “showroomer”. In fact shoppers can be divided into:

  1. “maximisers” (who tend to be showroomers); these shoppers will focus on getting exactly what they want (price, features)
  2. “satisficers” (who tend not to be showroomers);  as the name suggests, these shoppers are happy with “good enough”.

And most people it seems are satisficers.

Also,  showrooming isn’t useful behaviour for quite a few categories. The lower the price, the less likely showrooming will happen; so greetings card shops and confectioners are pretty safe from this phenomenon. TV and computer retailers are much more affected. And fashion retailers, depending in part on the brand, are probably somewhere in the middle.

But nonetheless, if showrooming is taking away 15% of sales from high street shops, then it is a problem for many hard pressed retailers. Indeed some people have blamed the demise of Jessops and Comet on exactly this phenomenon.

And this behaviour is likely to increase as smartphone penetration increases and as more consumers learn maximiser behaviour.

Brands need to support retailers

Will the solution come from brands? Brands need high street stores so that consumers can see their products. Some brands like Samsung and Sony have set up their own retail outlets. But that won’t be possible for everyone.

In an ideal world, brands would help retailers to maintain high street sales, for instance by offering them items that are not available to on-line retailers. That might be part of the solution, but it won’t solve the problem on its own.

Shops need to find their own solutions

The solution lies in the hands of the retailers themselves. Charging customers for “just looking” or trying clothes on doesn’t seem sensible, although it has been tried. But there are plenty of other tactics that can be used.

The simplest tactic is to drive increased shop visits. In theory increasing shop visitors by around 17% should largely wipe out the effect of 15% showrooming. This might be done through localised marketing, including geo-targeted mobile advertising to the very people who are potential showroomers – smart phone owners.

Alternatively offering rewards for visiting a shop through schemes like Shopkick can pay dividends as well.

Once the consumer is in a store then a number of other tactics available. Price matching is perhaps the most obvious. In the USA Best Buy claims to be killing showrooming by offering price matching against local retailers and major on-line retailers such as Amazon.But that probably won’t be possible for smaller retailers.

Another important approach, which any retailer could embrace, is to make maximising behaviour more difficult or less attractive. Tactics here include:

  • Selling on service, rather than price; many people would say that this is what John Lewis do; despite their “never knowingly undersold” tagline many shoppers choose John Lewis because of service such as no-quibble returns, rather than because of price.
  • Emphasising things in-store that are hard to compare on line – brand values such as quality, complex sets of features; doing this can increase uncertainty that going on-line will result in the best deal.
  • Emphasising with overt in-store messaging the positive aspects of high street shopping: “the best choice”, “the best quality”, “the best service” etc.
  • Providing in-store give-aways to increase the shopper’s sense of obligation to the store (this won’t work with all shoppers of course).
  • Reducing the  “risk” of shopping in-store that maximisers perceive by providing customer endorsements about service quality and, if possible, price.

There are plenty of other tactics too:

  • Shops can implement in-store wi-fi that can connect shoppers to the shop’s own website before they are able to visit any other sites. And of course the retailer’s website can then display special offers or be used to up-sell and cross sell products.
  • Customer loyalty schemes may also have a place; while these can easily be neutralised by on-line customer loyalty schemes, it may be possible to provide loyalty schemes that have immediate benefits such instant rewards in-store.
  • High Street retailers can band together to provide reciprocal vouchers so that a shopper who purchase in shop A is given a voucher for shop B and vice versa.
  • There is a saying “Don’t give me choice; make it easy for me to choose”: on-line choice can be bewildering and stores can help people to choose through service and information.

Finally remember that for many people shopping is an important leisure activity. High Street retailers can enhance the shopping experience through added services, free gift wrapping, in-store events, a glamorous environment etc. They can even use data about the shoppers in store to “personalise” visits, either by encouraging customers to register and log into a store’s website, or even (as Burberry has been trialling with their “Smart Personalisation” scheme) by putting RFID tags in goods which can then provide a personalised in-store or after-store experience.

All in all, retailers don’t need to give up on showroomers. Instead they can use technology to drive more customers into their stores and convert them more effectively.