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Posts Tagged ‘Visual’

Consumers evoke from the visual appearance of a product their impressions of its beauty or aesthetics. They may also interpret physical features embedded in the product form (e.g., handles, switches, curvature) as cues for a proper use of the product. But there is an additional hidden layer of the design that may influence the judgement of consumers, that is the intention of the product designer(s). The intention could be an idea or a motive behind the design, as to what a designer wanted to achieve. However, intentions, only implicit in product appearance, may not be clear or easy to infer.

The intention of a designer may correspond to the artistic creativity of the product’s visual design (i.e., aesthetic appeal), its purpose and mode of use, and furthermore, extending symbolic meanings (e.g., social values, self-image of the target users). For a consumer, judgement could be a question of what one infers and understands from the product’s appearance, and how close one understands it to be the intention of the designer. For example, a consumer can make inferences from cues in the product form  (e.g., an espresso machine) about its appropriate function (e.g., how to insert a coffee capsule in order to make a drink) — but a consumer may ask herself, is that the way the designer intended the product to be used?  These inferences are interrelated and complementary in determining the ‘correct’ purpose, function or meaning of a product. There are original and innovative products for which the answers are more difficult to produce than for others based only on a product’s appearance.

  • Note: Colours and signs on the surface of a product may be informative in regard to function as well as symbolic associations of a product.

The researchers da Silva, Crilly and Hekkert (2015) investigated if and how consumers’ knowledge of the designers’ intentions can influence their appreciation of the respective products. Yet, in acknowledgement that consumers are likely to derive varied inferences on intention (some of them mistaken) from visual images of products, the researchers present verbal statements on intentions in addition to images. Moreover, their studies show that there is important significance to the contribution of the verbal statements, explicitly informing consumers-respondents of designers’ intentions, in influencing (improving) consumers’ appreciation of products (1).

To  begin with, consumers usually have different conceptions and understanding of design than professionals in the field. Thereby, most consumers are not familiar with terminology in the domain of design (e.g., typicality/novelty, complexity, unity, harmony) and may use their own vocabulary to describe attributes of appearance; if the same terms are used, they may not have the same meaning or interpretation among designers and common consumers (2). Nevertheless, consumers have innate tastes for design (e.g., based on principles of Gestalt), and with time they may develop better comprehension, appraisal skills, and refined preferences for design of artefacts (as well as buildings, paintings, photographs etc.). The preferences of individuals may progress as they develop greater design acumen and accumulate more experience in reacting to designed objects while preferences may also be affected by one’s personality traits. Design acumen, in particular, pertains to the aptitude or approach of people to visual design, which may be characterised by quicker sensory connections, greater sophistication of preferences, and stronger propensity for processing visual versus verbal information (3). The gaps prevailing between consumers and designers in domain knowledge and experience may cause diversions when making inferences directly about a product as well as when ‘reading’ the designer’s intention from the product’s appearance.

The starting point of da Silva, Crilly and Hekkert posits that “the designer’s intention can intuitively be regarded as the essence of a product and that knowledge of this intention can therefore affect how that product is appreciated” (p. 22). The ‘essence’ describes how a product is supposed to behave or perform as foreseen by the designer; thinking about it by consumers can give them pleasure as much as perceiving the product’s features.

Appreciation in Study 1 is measured as a composite of five scale items — liking, beauty, attractiveness, pleasingness, and niceness; it is a form of ‘valence judgement’ but with a strong “flavour” of aesthetics, a seeming remainder of its origin as a scale of aesthetic appreciation adapted by the researchers to represent general product appreciation.

  • Note: The degree to which the researchers succeeded in expanding the meaning of ‘appreciation’ may have some bearing on the findings where respondents make judgements beyond aesthetics (e.g., the scale lacks an item on ‘usefulness’).

At first it is established that knowledge of explicit intentions of designers, relating to 15 products in Study 1, influenced the appreciation of the designed products for good or bad (i.e., in absolute values) vis-à-vis the appreciation based on pictures alone. Subsequently, the researchers found support for overall increase in appreciation (i.e., positive effect) following the exposure to explicit statements of the designers’ intentions.

A deeper examination of the results revealed, however, that for three products there was a more substantial improvement; for ten products a moderate or minor increase was found due to intention knowledge; and two products suffered a decrement in appreciation. Furthermore, the less a product was appreciated based only on its image, the more it could gain in appreciation after consumers were informed of the designer’s intention. Products do not receive higher post-appreciation merely because they were appreciated better in the first place. More conspicuously, for products that were more difficult to interpret and judge based on their visual image, knowledge of the designer’s intention could help consumers-respondents realise and appreciate much better their purpose and why they were designed in that particular way, considering both their visual appeal and function (but there is a qualification to that, later explained).

The second study examined reasons for changes in appreciation following to being informed of designers’ intentions. Study 2 aimed to distinguish between appreciation that is due to appraisal of the intention per se and appreciation attributed to how well a product fulfills a designer’s intention, independent of whether a consumer approves or not of the intention itself. This study concentrated on three of the products used in Study 1, described briefly with their stated intentions (images included in the article):

  • A cross-cultural memory game (Product B) — The game “was designed with the aim of making the inhabitants of The Netherlands aware of their similarities instead of their differences” (i.e., comparing elements of Dutch and Middle Eastern cultures). [Product B gained the most in post-appreciation in Study 1.]
  • A partially transparent bag (Product C) — Things that are no longer in need, but are still in good condition, can be left in this bag on the street for anyone interested: “It was designed with the aim of enabling people to be generous towards strangers.” [Moderate gain.]
  • A “fitted-form” kitchen cupboard (Product G) — In this cupboard everyday products can be stored in fitted compartments according to their exact shapes. The designer’s intention said the product “was designed with the aim of helping people appreciate the comfortable predictability of daily household task”. [Product G gained the least in post-appreciation in Study 1.]

Consistent with Study 1, these three products were appreciated similarly and to a high degree based on images alone, and their appreciation increased to large, medium and small degrees after being informed of intentions. It is noted, however, that overall just half of respondents reported that knowing an intention changed how much they liked the respective product (about two-thirds for B, half for C, and a third for G). Subsequently respondents were probed about their reasons for changes in appreciation (liking) and specifically about their assessment of the product as means to achieve the stated intention. Three themes emerged as underlying the influence of intention knowledge on product appreciation: (a) perception of the product; (b) evaluation of the intention; and (c) evaluation of the product as a means to fulfill its intention (as explicitly queried).

Knowledge of the designer’s intention can change the way consumers perceive the product, its form and features. Firstly, it can make the product appear more interesting, such as by adding an element of surprise, an unexpected insight about its form (found especially for product B). In some cases it simply helps to comprehend the product’s form. The insight gained from knowing the designer’s intention may be expressed in revealing a new meaning of the product that improves appreciation (e.g., a more positive social ‘giving’ meaning of product C). But here is a snag — if the intention consumers are told of contradicts the meaning they assigned to the product when initially perceiving its image, it may inversely decrease one’s appreciation. For example, the ‘form-fitted’ cupboard (G) may seem nicely chaotic, but the way a consumer-participant interpreted it does not agree with the intention given by the designer (it ‘steals’ something from its attraction), and therefore the consumer becomes disappointed.

Upon being informed of the designer’s intention, a consumer may appreciate an idea or cause expressed in the intention itself (e.g., on merit of being morally virtuous, products B and C). The positive attitude towards the intention would then be transferred to the product (e.g., ‘helping people is a very beautiful thing’ in reference to C). On the downside, knowing an intention may push consumers away from a product (e.g., disliking the ‘predictability’ of one’s behaviour underlying product G). A product may thus gain or lose consumers’ favour in so far as the intention reflects on its essence.

But relying on a (declared) intention for the idea, cause or aim it conveys is not a sufficient criterion for driving appreciation upper or lower. Consumers also consider, as expected of them, whether the product is an able means to implement an idea or fulfill its aim. It is not just about what the designer intended to achieve but also how well a product was designed to achieve the designer’s goal. Participants in Study 2 were found to hold a product in favour for its capacity to fulfill its intended aim, even though they did not judge it as virtuous or worthy. There were also opposite cases where appreciation decreased but participants pointed out that the fault was not in the intention, rather in its implementation (e.g., “I think it’s a good idea [intention] but this [product C] won’t really work”). The authors suggest that participants use references in their judgements, including alternative known or imagined products which they believe to be more successful for fulfilling a similar aim or alternative aims or causes they could think of as appropriate for the same product.

The researchers find evidence in participants’ explanations suggesting they see how efficiency can be beautiful (e.g., how materials are used optimally and aesthetically). They relate this notion to a design principle of obtaining ‘maximum-effect-from-minimum-means’. Participants also endorsed novel or unusual means to realise the intention behind a product. Hekkert defined the principle above as one of the goals to pursue for a pleasing design.  It means conveying more information through fewer and simpler features, creating more meanings through a single construct, and applying metaphors. Hekkert also recommended a sensible balance between typicality and novelty (‘most advanced, yet acceptable’) that will inspire consumers but not intimidate them (4).

  • This research was carried out as part of the Project UMA: “Unified Model of Aesthetics” for designed artefacts at the Department of Industrial Design, Delft University of Technology, The Netherlands. (See how the model depicts a balance in meeting safety needs versus accomplishment needs for aesthetic pleasure: connectedness-autonomy, unity-variety, typicality-novelty).

Knowledge of the intentions of designers can elucidate for consumers why a product was designed to appear and to be used in a particular way. It contributes motivation or cause (e.g., social solidarity, energy-saving) for obtaining and using the designed product. But the intention should be reasonable and agreeable to consumers, and the product design in practice has to convince consumers it is fit and capable to fulfill the intention. It is nevertheless desirable that the product is visually pleasing, as an object of aesthetic appeal and as a communicator of functional and symbolic meanings.

When marketers assess that consumers are likely to have greater difficulty to interpret a product visual design and infer the intention behind it, they may wisely accompany a presentation of the product with a statement by the designer. This would apply, for instance, to innovative products, early products of their type, or original concepts for known products. The designer may introduce the design concept, his or her intention or aim, and perhaps how it was derived; this introduction may be delivered in text as well as video in assorted media as suitable (print, online, mobile). On the part of consumers, exposure to the designer’s viewpoint would  enrich their shopping and purchasing experience, helping them to develop better-tuned visual impressions and judgements of products.

Ron Ventura, Ph.D. (Marketing)

Notes:

(1) How People’s Appreciation of Products Is Affected by Their Knowledge of the Designers’ Intentions; Odette da Silva, Nathan Crilly, & Paul Hekkert, 2015; International Journal of Design, 9 (2), pp. 21-33.

(2) How Consumers Perceive Product Appearance: The Identification of Three Product Appearance Attributes; Janneke Blijlevens, Marielle E.H. Creusen, & Jan P.L. Schoorman, 2009; International Journal of Design, 3 (3), pp. 27-35.

(3) Seeking the Ideal Form: Product Design and Consumer Response; Peter H. Bloch, 1995; Journal of Marketing, 59 (3), pp. 16-29.

(4) Design Aesthetics: Principles of Pleasure in Design; Paul Hekkert, 2006; Psychology Science, 48 (2), pp. 157-172.

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For the past two years the Internet company Yahoo is under immense pressure: The management led by CEO Marissa Mayer, in office since 2012, is working hard to reinvigorate the core online business of the company with new up-to-date technologies; and furthermore, creating more value, mainly from advertising. The board of directors is seeking to give management more time to find a way out of the difficult times, however it is struggling to fend off pressures from activist investors who demand a break-up of the company in order to salvage the real value they see captured in Yahoo through its stakes in external companies — Alibaba of China and Yahoo Japan. Yahoo is in a delicate and complex situation, carrying a danger that consumers-users will be left behind in the final business outcome.

The key criticism of Yahoo concerns the poor performance of its online advertising system, lagging behind other platforms such as Google (search) and Facebook (social media). The core business of the company entails its search engine and media (news in various domains), acting as sources of income from advertising (e.g., display ads, sponsored results). Display advertising is now active also in Yahoo’s Mail (e-mail service).

Underlying the poor financial performance of the advertising system are mainly two problems: (a) inconvenient and technologically outdated utilities and tools for advertisers when placing their orders for online ads (1); (b) a relatively low volume of search queries by Internet users, particularly far behind Google, and insufficient returns by visitors to the different sections of Yahoo websites. For example, according to figures revealed by the New-York Times, only ten percent (10%) out of one billion monthly visitors of Yahoo websites return every day, suggesting weak brand attachment; the reported figure for Facebook is 65% (2). It may start from failing to persuade more Internet users to make Yahoo a start homepage on their browsers.

Yahoo may be suffering, nevertheless, from a  broader problem of generating income from its online services. That is, the company should not rely only on income from advertising but create additional schemes that can generate income from use of its online services. Yahoo could monetise services, for instance, by charging users on premium plans (e.g., allowing extended storage capacity, more advanced tools or features, increased customisation, access to extended content). Yahoo may further not have a wide enough range of services on which it can charge premiums from registered (logged-in) users. Rightfully, companies are reluctant to ask customers to pay for online services, but that may be an unaffordable privilege, as in the case of Yahoo. Moreover, charging price premiums for enhanced services is legitimate and can contribute to higher perceived quality or value to consumers.

The complexity of the situation can partly be explained by the claim of investors that a greater portion of market value of Yahoo arises from its stakes in Alibaba and Yahoo Japan than from its own activity. Yahoo originally (2005) had a stake of ~24% in the Chinese e-commerce company Alibaba. Shortly before an initial public offering (IPO) of Alibaba in September 2014, that stake was valued $40 billion. During the IPO, Yahoo sold 40% of that stake as agreed with Alibaba to the latter’s requirement. Yahoo eventually collected more than $9bn, available to award shareholders or re-invest in the company (how funds were actually used is unpublished). The remaining stake of Yahoo in Alibaba (~15%) was worth some $30bn in December 2015. Investors thought that not enough value stemmed from Yahoo’s genuine activity before Alibaba’s IPO, and some seem to believe that is nonetheless apparent after the IPO.

The first two years of Mayer as CEO enjoyed a sense of improvement and optimism. Until the IPO of Alibaba, Yahoo acquired more than forty technology companies to bring fresh methods, tools and skills to the company. The share price of Yahoo climbed from a low of under $20 to above $30 by the end of 2013 and reached $50 in late 2014. But after Alibaba’s IPO, tensions with investors, especially the activist ones, escalated as patience with Mayer as well as the board was running thin. The share price also started to decline back to $30 during 2015 (it recovered to ~$36 since January 2016).

It must be noted that the board of directors together with Mayer did try to find solutions that would satisfy the investors while saving the core business of Yahoo. One plan considered was to sell the remaining stake of Yahoo in Alibaba but that solution was abandoned due to concerns about a looming large tax liability. Another solution, championed by Mayer, was to put the core media and search business of Yahoo on sale in one piece, but that plan was also just recently suspended as the process failed to mature. The most serious prospective buyer was the US telecom company Verizon; they were thinking of merging the activity of Yahoo with that of AOL, acquired last year, but executives were worried about the company’s ability to pull together such an integration effort in a short time (3).

  • Update note (July 2016): After all, a deal was done with Verizon to buy Yahoo for $4.8bn (excluding its stakes in Alibaba and Yahoo Japan.)

In the second part of this article I examine the display and organization of Yahoo’s websites with a user-consumer viewpoint in mind — visual layout, sections and services on the website, composition of content, links, menus and other objects. The examination is focused more on the content and services Yahoo provides to its users rather than its advertising.

Yahoo runs multiple versions of its website in different countries and languages. The major part of the review is centered on the website of Yahoo in the United Kingdom as a pivot exemplar. References will be subsequently made to other versions. Nevertheless, all of the additional websites visited (8) highly resemble the UK website in appearance and composition. Through the examination I intend to argue that Yahoo has not organized and designed the homepages of its website versions appropriately to expose users to, and give them the necessary inducement to access, some of its core services that would also be important sources of income. However, beyond the homepages, I also relate to the ‘portfolio’ of media topical sections and services that comprise the websites.

Some of the graphics on the page were not captured (the title name Yahoo and news bar were supplemented)

Two services of Yahoo are primary assets: the search engine (Yahoo! Search) and the e-mail service (Yahoo! Mail). Both follow the company’s website in substance from its early days. They are essential components of Yahoo’s brand. The search facility is the gate to the enormous content on the Internet. The e-mail service with its mailbox management utilities is at the foundations of the company’s invaluable customer base. Both have advanced over the years and added features, although there is argument over the nature of progress particularly with regard to the search engine. A third additional asset of Yahoo is the media content of news stories and videos in various domains delivered on the website. On the left-hand of the homepage appears a sidebar with links to services and news topics on the website; a ‘global’ heading bar appears on top of any webpage on Yahoo’s site.

As important and interesting as the news media content may be, its preview takes grossly too much space of the homepage. Conversely, the search window for initial queries, while on top, is marginalised on the page, nearly “drowning” in the news content. It sends a message to visitors that this feature is secondary or less to media content. It is little wonder that on-face Internet users perceive Google as the universal search engine (Yahoo has been relying on the powers of search engines of Google and previously Microsoft’s Bing in recent years). The icon-link to the e-mail service is not in a much better position at the top right corner. Even though three links for Mail appear on the homepage — the icon right to the search window, on top of the vertical sidebar, and on left side of the heading bar — none of these positions is central. The allocation of space on the homepage is not reasonably proportional between these three assets. It suggests that Yahoo has become a media company and has practically discounted its two other assets.

The sidebar added to the website in the past two years is a welcome contribution as it helps to quickly familiarise with or easily find some key services and news topics on Yahoo’s site. Nevertheless, icons-links for those services and topics could receive better attention and salience in users’ eyes and minds if they were arranged in a central area of the page adjacent to the Search window and Mail icon (e.g., beneath them). It would give Yahoo an opportunity to promote services or topics with a greater income potential vis-à-vis visitors’ interests and utility in using particular services. For example, the online cloud-based service Flickr for storing, editing and showcasing photos is hardly noticed on the head-bar, and if at all on the sidebar (Flickr was acquired by Yahoo in 2005). If site users could also see more instantly and clearly what functional services (non-news) are offered by Yahoo, it might be better understood why there is a Sign-In option separate from Mail.

  • Extra feature-services such as Contacts, Calendar, Notepad and Messenger (chat) are already included in Mail.

Yahoo highlights on its homepage general news, sport, entertainment and finance. On the ‘homepage’ of the news section one can find more categories such as UK,  World, Science & Tech, Motoring and Celebrity. Links to some of them appear on the sidebar of the UK homepage (e.g., Cars [Motoring], Celebrity). Interestingly, some news/media sections do behave as more autonomous sites and some have a different layout with a visual graphic display of tiles — Parenting, Style and Movies. (In the Italian version, Beauty and Celebrity sections also exhibit a tile ‘art’ display.)

The news headlines with the snippets (briefs) are useful but those do not necessarily belong on the homepage in that long a list. The ‘ribbon’ of images for selected stories would most appropriately fit on the homepage with a focal story changing on top — that is all that needs to remain on the homepage (with some enhancements such as choice of category) while the additional headlines are delegated to the News ‘homepage’. In the final display of the homepage, a concise and elegant arrangement should include the Search window and Mail/ Sign-In icons, surrounded by a News showcase and a palette of selected services or media topics.

  • A visitor has to look deeper into the website to trace additional services that may be  interesting and useful. A few examples: (1) The Finance (news and more) section includes a personalised utility ‘My Portfolios’ for managing investments; (2) On a page enlisting more services one can find Groups (discussion forums) and Shopping. Other features or services on a sidebar or head-bar refer to Weather, Mobile (downloading Yahoo apps), and Answers (subdivision of Search — peer-to-peer Q&A exchanges).

When the homepage of UK website is compared with other country and language websites of Yahoo, it is mostly noticeable that some of the links on the sidebar and head-bar may vary, apparently accounting for regional and cultural differences in public interests. Countries may also be affiliated or in co-operation with different local content and service providers. For instance: Italy assigns more importance to Style, Beauty and Celebrity, also having more invested topical sections; France has a section on real-estate (Immobilier) in affiliation with BFM TV); Australia has a TV section affiliated with PLUS7); and in Germany the Weather and Flickr services are represented on both sidebar and head-bar. It is further observed that the sidebar in Yahoo Australia includes many more links than in other site versions.

Regarding the US website, some differences can be marked. First, subject titles of appear above each news headline. Second, a reference to the social blogspace site Tumblr appears on the head-bar (in addition to Flickr) — it appears also on the site of Australia but not on the other sites visited (Tumblr was acquired by Yahoo in 2013). Third, the US site chose to mention on its sidebar Shopping and Politics.

  • The Yahoo websites exhibit anomalies implying that the company refrains from promoting some of its own in-house or subsidiary services. For instance, Flickr and Tumblr are sidelined, and the latter is exclusive to just a couple of countries. The ‘Shopping’ product search for attractive retailer offers (powered by Nextag) is more often hidden, and Yahoo homepages provide links to eBay and Amazon.

In order to design in practice the most appropriate and effective composition and layout of the homepage, Yahoo may apply usability tests, eye tracking, and possibly also tracking of mouse movements and clicks. These three methodological approaches can be used in parallel or even simultaneously to derive findings that can support and complement each other in guiding the design process. Attention obviously should be paid to visual appeal of the page appearance in the final design. As suggested above, however, emphasis should be directed to the content and services provided by Yahoo as opposed to the advertising space.

Notwithstanding, the homepage is just the start of the journey of a visitor on the website. Of course much depends on the quality of services and content in determining how long a visitor will stay on the site. For example, how the mail, e-commerce (shopping), or photo service platform compare with competition. Particularly with respect to the search engine, continued utilisation relies on relevance, credibility and timeliness (historical to up-to-date) of results generated.

Yahoo provides specialised searches of websites and pages, images, videos, answers, products and more. Yet the company acquired in the past the Altavista engine that was advantageous in retrieving higher-quality and academic-level information sources and materials but it was apparently submerged without leaving a trace; and as indicated earlier, Yahoo has turned to stronger capabilities of competitors at the expense of developing more of their own. Marissa Mayer aims alternately to create a leverage by developing a powerful intelligent search engine for mobile devices in a mobile-friendly site/app. Even though the mobile-driven approach can be a move in the right direction for Yahoo, it may not resolve the suggested problems inherent in the online website, and skeptics doubt that the company has the skills and resources in its current state to accomplish those goals.

Yahoo has a lot at stake. It should not rely on users to know how to get to its services independently or to search for their Internet addresses. The site, online or mobile, has to give a hand and show users the way to the services it wants them most to visit and apply, and there is no better place to start than on the site’s homepage. The solutions needed are not just about technology but in the domain of marketing strategy and user-consumer online and mobile behaviour. Yet, looking at how events roll at Yahoo, the decisions made could be driven by business and financial considerations above the heads of users-consumers.

  • The lessons for Yahoo should now be learnt by Verizon as it intends to merge between functions and capabilities of Yahoo and AOL, and probably rebrand them.

Ron Ventura, Ph.D. (Marketing)

Notes:

(1) “Marissa’s Moment of Truth”, Jess Hempel, Fortune Europe Edition, 14 May 2014  pp. 38-44.

(2) “Yahoo’s Suitors Are in the Dark About its Financial Details”, International New-York Times, 16-17 April 2016.

 

 

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Human thinking processes are rich and variable, whether in search, problem solving, learning, perceiving and recognizing stimuli, or decision-making. But people are subject to limitations on the complexity of their computations and especially the capacity of their ‘working’ (short-term) memory. As consumers, they frequently need to struggle with large amounts of information on numerous brands, products or services with varying characteristics, available from a variety of retailers and e-tailers, stretching the consumers’ cognitive abilities and patience. Wait no longer, a new class of increasingly intelligent decision aids is being put forward to consumers by the evolving field of Cognitive Computing. Computer-based ‘smart agents’ will get smarter, yet most importantly, they would be more human-like in their thinking.

Cognitive computing is set to upgrade human decision-making, consumers’ in particular. Following IBM, a leader in this field, cognitive computing is built on methods of Artificial Intelligence (AI) yet intends to take this field a leap forward by making it “feel” less artificial and more similar to human cognition. That is, a human-computer interaction will feel more natural and fluent if the thinking processes of the computer resemble more closely those of its human users (e.g., manager, service representative, consumer). Dr. John E. Kelly, SVP at IBM Research, provides the following definition in his white paper introducing the topic (“Computer, Cognition, and the Future of Knowing”): “Cognitive computing refers to systems that learn at scale, reason with purpose and interact with humans. Rather than been explicitly programmed, they learn and reason from interactions with us and from their experiences with their environment.” The paper seeks to rebuke claims of any intention behind cognitive computing to replace human thinking and decisions. The motivation, as suggested by Kelly, is to augment human ability to understand and act upon the complex systems of our society.

Understanding natural language has been for a long time a human cognitive competence that computers could not imitate. However, comprehension of natural language, in text or speech, is now considered one of the important abilities of cognitive computing systems. Another important ability concerns the recognition of visual images and objects embedded in them (e.g., face recognition receives particular attention). Furthermore, cognitive computing systems are able to process and analyse unstructured data which constitutes 80% of the world’s data, according to IBM. They can extract contextual meaning so as to make sense of the unstructured data (verbal and visual). This is a marked difference between the new computers’ cognitive systems and traditional information systems.

  • The Cognitive Computing Forum, which organises conferences in this area, lists a dozen characteristics integral to those systems. In addition to (a) natural language processing; and (b) vision-based sensing and image recognition, they are likely to include machine learning, neural networks, algorithms that learn and adapt, semantic understanding, reasoning and decision automation, sophisticated pattern recognition, and more (note that there is an overlap between some of the methodologies on this list). They also need to exhibit common sense.

The power of cognitive computing is derived from its combination between cognitive processes attributed to the human brain (e.g., learning, reasoning) and the enhanced computation (complexity, speed) and memory capabilities of advanced computer technologies. In terms of intelligence, it is acknowledged that cognitive processes of the human brain are superior to computers inasmuch as could be achieved through conventional programming. Yet, the actual performance of human cognition (‘rationality’) is bounded by memory and computation limitations. Hence, we can employ cognitive computing systems that are capable of handling much larger amounts of information than humans can, while using cognitive (‘neural’) processes similar to humans’. Kelly posits in IBM’s paper: “The true potential of the Cognitive Era will be realized by combining the data analytics and statistical reasoning of machines with uniquely human qualities, such as self-directed goals, common sense and ethical values.”  It is not sufficiently understood yet how cognitive processes physically occur in the human central nervous system. But, it is argued, there is growing knowledge and understanding of their operation or neural function to be sufficient for emulating at least some of them by computers. (This argument refers to the concept of different levels of analysis that may and should prevail simultaneously.)

The distinguished scholar Herbert A. Simon studied thinking processes from the perspective of information processing theory, which he championed. In the research he and his colleagues conducted, he traced and described in a formalised manner strategies and rules that people utilise to perform different cognitive tasks, especially solving problems (e.g., his comprehensive work with Allen Newell on Human Problem Solving, 1972). In his theory, any strategy or rule specified — from more elaborate optimizing algorithms to short-cut rules (heuristics) — is composed of elementary information processes (e.g., add, subtract, compare, substitute). On the other hand, strategies may be joined in higher-level compound information processes. Strategy specifications were subsequently translated into computer programmes for simulation and testing.

The main objective of Simon was to gain better understanding of human thinking and the cognitive processes involved therein. He proclaimed that computer thinking is programmed in order to simulate human thinking, as part of an investigation aimed at understanding the latter (1). Thus, Simon did not explicitly aim to overcome the limitations of the human brain but rather simulate how the brain may work-out around those limitations to perform various tasks. His approach, followed by other researchers, was based on recording how people perform given tasks, and testing for efficacy of the process models through computer simulations. This course of research is different from the goals of novel cognitive computing.

  • We may identify multiple levels in research on cognition: an information processing level (‘mental’), a neural-functional level, and a neurophysiological level (i.e., how elements of thought emerge and take form in the brain). Moreover, researchers aim to obtain a comprehensive picture of brain structures and areas responsible for sensory, cognitive, emotional and motor phenomena, and how they inter-relate. Progress is made by incorporating methods and approaches of the neurosciences side-by-side with those of cognitive psychology and experimental psychology to establish coherent and valid links between those levels.

Simon created explicit programmes of the steps required to solve particular types of problems, though he aimed at developing also more generalised programmes that would be able to handle broader categories of problems (e.g., the General Problem Solver embodying the Means-End heuristic) and other cognitive tasks (e.g., pattern detection, rule induction) that may also be applied in problem solving. Yet, cognitive computing seeks to reach beyond explicit programming and construct guidelines for far more generalised processes that can learn and adapt to data, and handle broader families of tasks and contexts. If necessary, computers would generate their own instructions or rules for performing a task. In problem solving, computers are taught not merely how to solve a problem but how to look for a solution.

While cognitive computing can employ greater memory and computation resources than naturally available to humans, it is not truly attempted to create a fully rational system. The computer cognitive system should retain some properties of bounded rationality if only to maintain resemblance to the original human cognitive system. First, forming and selecting heuristics is an integral property of human intelligence. Second, cognitive computing systems try to exhibit common sense, which may not be entirely rational (i.e., based on good instincts and experience), and introduce effects of emotions and ethical or moral values that may alter or interfere with rational cognitive processes. Third, cognitive computing systems are allowed to err:

  • As Kelly explains in IBM’s paper, cognitive systems are probabilistic, meaning that they have the power to adapt and interpret the complexity and unpredictability of unstructured data, yet they do not “know” the answer and therefore may make mistakes in assigning the correct meaning to data and queries (e.g., IBM’s Watson misjudged a clue in the quiz game Jeopardy against two human contestants — nonetheless “he” won the competition). To reflect this characteristic, “the cognitive system assigns a confidence level to each potential insight or answer”.

Applications of cognitive computing are gradually growing in number (e.g., experimental projects with the cooperation and support of IBM on Watson). They may not be targeted directly for use by consumers at this stage, but consumers are seen as the end-beneficiaries. The users could first be professionals and service agents who help consumers in different areas. For example, applied systems in development and trial would:

  1. help medical doctors in identifying (cancer) diagnoses and advising their patients on treatment options (it is projected that such a system will “take part” in doctor-patient consultations);
  2. perform sophisticated analyses of financial markets and their instruments in real-time to guide financial advisers with investment recommendations to their clients;
  3. assist account managers or service representatives to locate and extract relevant information from a company’s knowledge base to advise a customer in a short time (CRM/customer support).

The health-advisory platform WellCafé by Welltok provides an example of application aimed at consumers: The platform guides consumers on healthy behaviours recommended for them whereby the new assistant Concierge lets them converse in natural language to get help on resources and programmes personally relevant to them as well as various health-related topics (e.g., dining options). (2)

Consider domains such as cars, tourism (vacation resorts), or real-estate (second-hand apartments and houses). Consumers may encounter tremendous information in these domains on numerous options and many attributes to consider (for cars there may also be technical detail more difficult to digest). A cognitive system has to help the consumer in studying the market environment (e.g., organising the information from sources such as company websites and professional and peer reviews [social media], detecting patterns in structured and unstructured data, screening and sorting) and learning vis-à-vis the consumer’s preferences and habits in order to prioritize and construct personally fitting recommendations. Additionally, it is noteworthy that in any of these domains visual information (e.g., photographs) could be most relevant and valuable to consumers in their decision process — visual appeal of car models, mountain or seaside holiday resorts, and apartments cannot be discarded. Cognitive computing assistants may raise very high consumer expectations.

Cognitive computing aims to mimic human cognitive processes that would be performed by intelligent computers with enhanced resources on behalf of humans. The application of capabilities of such a system would facilitate consumers or the professionals and agents that help them with decisions and other tasks — saving them time and effort (sometimes frustration), providing them well-organised information with customised recommendations for action that users would feel they  have reached themselves. Time and experience will tell how comfortably people interact and engage with the human-like intelligent assistants and how productive they indeed find them, using the cognitive assistant as the most natural thing to do.

Ron Ventura, Ph.D. (Marketing)

Notes:

1.  “Thinking by Computers”, Herbert A. Simon, 1966/2008, reprinted in Economics, Bounded Rationality and the Cognitive Revolution, Massimo Egidi and Robin Marris (eds.)[pp. 55-75], Edward Elgar.

2. The examples given above are described in IBM’s white paper by Kelly and in: “Cognitive Computing: Real-World Applications for an Emerging Technology”, Judit Lamont (Ph.D.), 1 Sept. 2015, KMWorld.com

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The collapse of a company is not necessarily an outcome of a single calamitous event. More likely, a final collapse will follow a period of several months or years of gradual deterioration in the management and performance of the failing company. The causes are usually a mixture of external events or market factors and not least internal actions or non-actions committed by the company. This seems to be the case with Mega Retailing, the second largest chain of supermarkets in Israel, that practically collapsed this month (January ’16) but the process of its deterioration may be traced through at least five years backwards.

The current Mega retail chain is in fact a successor of a consumer co-operative chain, “Co-op Blue Square”, established in the 1930s. That co-operative existed until the late 1990s when it could no longer sustain itself. Consumers who had a stake in the enterprise were required to sell their shares and a majority stake in “Blue Square” (73%) was acquired by the Alon energy group.

The company, renamed in Israel as “Alon Blue Square”, expanded since 2003 and added more business units in different retail areas. For instance, Alon brought under the rooftop of Blue Square (holding a 78% stake) its compounds of car fueling stations with adjacent trade services. The chain of supermarkets received the new brand name Mega (after going through an earlier short phase under the name “Super Centre”), instituted as a subsidiary in full control of Blue Square, its home company. Yet another critical move saw the establishment of “Blue Square Real Estate”, a subsidiary of the home company, which divorced Mega from control over its physical locations, making the real estate company its landlord. At the end, Blue Square is about to lose the core business that carried its name to begin with.

  • Alon Blue Square also acquired a chain of convenience stores (“am:pm”) that is separate from Mega but competes with it in city centres and neighbourhoods.

Multiple reasons can be given for the poor condition of Mega as proposed in the media. Some blame the high operating costs of Mega on wages and benefits for employees being higher than standard in the food retail industry; it is probably a legacy inherited from the older days of Co-op Blue Square when it was affiliated with a strong labour union. Not to be confused, employees in stores still earn relatively low wages, but with the low margins in the industry, the differences from competitors are claimed to be crucial. On the other hand, the management could be held responsible for keeping deficiencies reminiscent of the culture of Co-op in those older days. The owners on their part did not seem to be interested enough in what was happening to their supermarket company. Mega was lacking in strategic (marketing) thinking and mindset that would allow it to adapt better to new realities of a competitive market and higher standards of servicing and merchandising.

One should not go far to find what is wrong with the Mega chain. The problems of Mega show most visibly and strikingly in its stores. A particular branch is used here as an exemplar to demonstrate some troubling aspects. It is a neighbourhood store in the northern part of Tel-Aviv. The supermarket is not large (estimated at a little less than 300sqm or about 2500sqf) with a main hall (75% of its area) and an extension (two “corridors”). The store was established in the early 1970s and for a decade or two it was considered spacious and modern. The last major renovation took place about fifteen years ago but unfortunately within a few years it has lost much of its newly gained attraction.

There are six columns of displays across the main hall which leave too little space for moving in the aisles between them. In addition, the displays reach high above the head. The whole arrangement of this hall makes a shopper feel lost in space and closed-in. Bad merchandising appears to make the supermarket look crowded and untidy. A whole new concept should have been applied to this store with fewer columns, lower displays (e.g., no more than 1.50m) that would allow shoppers to look beyond the aisle, and fewer product types and brands (SKUs) on offer — in this supermarket ‘less is more’ would be perfectly right. Shoppers obliged to get essential products like bakery and dairy in corridors may find it unpleasant.

Another troubling matter in the store concerns the shopping carts and baskets, or rather the lack of them. To pick-up one of the few shopping carts available one has to pass across the cashiers and away from the entrance. Even if one was lucky to get a shopping cart, he or she would find the cart difficult to navigate with in the aisles, especially as the store, like the whole chain, moved to larger carts definitely not useful in this specific store. What shoppers should have been provided are hand-held baskets (or wheeled baskets), and these should have been arranged in ‘towers’ near the entrance of the supermarket (not hidden under cashier desks). The baskets would serve a much better purpose in the entry area than a large unappealing promotional stand positioned there. As a result, the store also does not have a welcoming and convenient “decompression zone”.

  • Considering the competition in vicinity (e.g., a large supermarket of the leader chain “Supersol” in a nearby shopping centre; a minimarket store across the street), the approach in that  Mega’s store, whether out of flawed thinking or lack of care, could not be affordable.

Similar problems can be found in other Mega stores: (a) A delivery service interrupts and blocks the way out for customers who take home their shopping bags  — delivery boxes are piled in a passage on the exit from cashiers, personnel are handling deliveries in the same area where customers should complete their shopping and leave, and preparing deliveries for some shoppers halts others for long minutes; (b) The staff arranges merchandise on shelves during the day, often blocking aisles with box-loaded shopping carts or boxes left on the floor — shoppers have to make their way competing with personnel on access to displays; (c) Product displays do not look neat and tidy, some items get out-of-place, some are falling to one side or another — even if shoppers are responsible for not leaving items in place, a store worker should always pass by, check and fix displays. If shoppers find a store in good order, clean and tidy, they will (mostly) feel obliged to make an effort to keep it that way for everyone to enjoy.

It does not seem to be a question of good will. Mega stores are missing order and organisation. Moreover, the employees may not have a guiding hand and initiative they need from either general management or store managers to get the supermarkets look and feel the way they probably aim at. In a  presentation (in Hebrew) of a strategic plan from 2013 (Blue Square’s website) the management of Mega shows that on top of every other goal they want the customers to love their stores; Mega’s vision through its history is “At Mega (we’re) listening to you! Always, at every place and in every encounter, because we really care.” Yet the stores could not show for it. The employees may have wanted it to happen but the management was not behind them to show them how, and it is still unclear why store managers were not helping or how well coordinated they were with top management.

A seasoned consultant in marketing and retailing (Galit Moor, “Shopoholist”) told “The Marker” Israeli business newspaper about rivalries and non-coordination between the trade and operational departments of Mega — the trade people would reach agreements with suppliers but operations people would not respect them and not follow them through in the stores, causing confusion and loss of trust of suppliers. She also related to lack of understanding of consumers and not really listening to their concerns, a top management detached from the stores, and mistakes in running stores, particularly failures in dealing with details at the store level (MarkerWeek, 24 July 2015). The management was not focused, undecided whether to compete on price (e.g., to fight off discount chains) or on enhanced customer experience (blending price perception, service, convenience, variety and quality of products), and therefore it must have had difficulties setting clear priorities to staff at stores. It is not too surprising that staff and managers could neither treat properly details of service and merchandising in the stores.

In mid-2015 Mega was in debt of 1.3 billion shekels (~$340m), 700 million shekels of which owed to suppliers and the rest to banks. The delay in payments to suppliers has led to sour relations with them, where some have also froze or reduced further supplies to the retail chain. Mega started with an aggressive plan of cuts, primarily closing stores, but it could not save it at this stage. By the end of 2015, just before the court intervened (stay of proceedings), the debt accumulated to 1.5 billion shekels, half of which to suppliers who largely lost confidence in and patience with Mega.

In the previous decade Mega has expanded while defining three sub-chains: “Mega City” supermarkets for serving neighbourhoods, large central “Mega”-stores, and large discount stores (“Mega Bull”, i.e., “target”). The latter was re-named just three years ago “You” and added more stores.  Mega was actually responding to a move similar in kind by the leading competitor Supersol with their sub-chains “My Supersol” neighbourhood  supermarkets, “Supersol Express”, and large discount stores “Supersol Deal” (a confounded fourth sub-chain of ‘warehouse’ discount stores “Big” was later eliminated). Probably not by coincidence, the restructuring of chains by Mega and Supersol resemble a strategic move by Tesco in the 1990s. The expansion, and especially the establishment of very large stores, has led the Israeli chains, like the British one, into trouble. The suspect reasons are failure to adapt in time to changes in economic atmosphere and consumer behaviour since 2008 vis-à-vis an inadequate reply to the challenge from new discount chains. (It is now revealed that Tesco faulted in delaying payments to suppliers, as Mega did.)

  • Mega operated in total about 185 stores in mid-2015. Initially the plan was to close 32 stores, mainly their “You” discount stores. However, it eventually closed at least 55 stores by the end of the year, and Mega is now left with fewer than 130 stores. Its number of employees was intended to be reduced from 6,000 to 5,000 but actually dropped to 3,500 (most of them were store employees, but the staff in headquarters was also significantly cut).
  • In the first half of 2015 Mega reported sales of 2.6 billion shekels (~$685m), down from almost three billion shekels in same period of 2014. Of total sales, 80% were attributed to the stores Mega expected to keep and 20% to the 32 stores intended to be shut down. In profit, stores planned-to-continue earned 55m shekels whereas stores planned to close lost 577m shekels. As it turned out, the initial recovery plan was not sufficient.
  • Mega is second to Supersol in the food retailing industry yet not so close behind: Supersol’s market share in 2014 was estimated 18% versus Mega with 9% (a ratio of 2:1). The private discount chains held together 28% [stable 45% attributed to open-air markets, groceries and minimarket stores]. It should be noted that according to predictions (2013-2015) the private chains were expected to gain mostly at the expense of Mega with a small but not negligible slide down for Supersol (The Marker, 30 Dec. 2014) — Mega found itself in a classic disadvantageous ‘sandwich’ position.

From start Mega committed to selling at lower prices than other stores in towns and cities. At the same time, it aimed for each store to be an integral part of its community, so that residents-shoppers will feel at home in their supermarkets. However, Mega did not succeed in maintaining its ‘low price’ position according to price comparisons published over time. It is questionable whether restructuring its chain, following Supersol, was necessary and suitable for Mega. The position of Mega City on prices may have been only weakened and diluted relative to its discount sub-chain. Mega has already had a well-entrenched network of neighbourhood supermarkets with emphasis on lowering cost to consumers — it should have concentrated its efforts on this chain. Yet, Mega did not succeed to keep lower prices as well as invest in the shopping experience and product variety in its stores, potentially conflicting objectives; it did not offer thereof a consistent value proposition.

It is difficult to understand how the owners of Alon Blue Square did not notice what was happening at Mega. They are accused of taking high dividends over time (the owners claim they have been misinformed about real profits, ringing bells from Tesco). The owners may have also acted irresponsibly by means of an over-charging rental policy of its real-estate subsidiary towards Mega’s stores.

The interests of the owners at this stage are vague. Blue Square chose to rent properties to chains that took over stores of Mega-You — was it to salvage Mega or to protect other interests of Blue Square? Proposals published to buy Mega retail chain actually focus on Blue Square Real Estate. Truly, one has to buy the properties in order to be able to continue operating stores in them, but that is only due to a status created by the owners that may now play against Mega. Hence, it could be a major difference if the potential buyer is a retailer or a real-estate developer. It is in the public’s and the food retailing industry’s interest that the buyer is required to take over also the supermarket business of Mega and not dispose of it. It is furthermore important that the supermarket industry has at least one other strong retail chain as a challenger to Supersol, not leaving Supersol over-powered against a competition too dispersed among several small and medium chains.

There is not really a good reason to miss “Blue Square” as a co-operative. A new competitive business ownership and directive has had an opportunity to re-create the supermarket chain and its brand. The chain was re-branded as Mega and yet it disappointed because core components of strategy, culture and implementation were flawed. It is now time to re-invent the concept of the chain and its brand. Nonetheless, the title “Blue Square” at Alon without the supermarket retail chain will be quite void and meaningless.

Ron Ventura, Ph.D. (Marketing)

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The EXPO 2015 exhibition in Milano, that is coming to a close at the end of October, has concentrated on the future of agriculture and food on our planet. The urgency of these topics is elevated by adverse conditions of climate change (warming) and shortage in water, predicted to worsen further. The EXPO is generally a prime opportunity for countries to promote their nation-brands. This time countries were invited to showcase their advanced scientific and technological capabilities by offering programmes and solutions to overcome environmental and economic challenges of agriculture and food provision.

The supermarket retailer Coop of Italy has yet taken a different direction, within the realm of its business specialisation: Coop Italia proposes at EXPO 2015 its vision of how shopping will be conducted in future supermarkets. They have put on stage a functioning model of a supermarket store (Future Food District / il supermercato del futuro) where detailed product information is displayed on large digital screens and check-out and payment are performed on computer-automated terminals. Almost obviously, such a supermarket will require even fewer human service personnel than met today in the store.

  • Coop Italia covers online (in Italian) a range of aspects such as food retailing, shopping, technology, and the future of food itself.

Coop Italia: Future Food District at EXPO 2015 (3)

It should be emphasised that the experimental supermarket of Coop at EXPO Milano is not just for demonstration but visitors of the site can practically collect food products into their shopping baskets and purchase them at the end of their trip. In the store’s front and on the upper level a visitor/shopper may find fresh produce and packaged food products displayed on shelves. From there he or she may descend to the lower level to find mostly refrigerated and frozen products. If products were actually selected from the display area, the shopper may go to the self-service scan-and-pay terminals and finalise the purchase (payment can be made by credit and debit cards or in cash).

The prospective format offers, according to Coop Italia, new interactions between consumers, products and producers. Mainly, consumers can observe and read from digital display screens much more information on products and their producers than has been traditionally possible in supermarkets. The screens are hanging usually above shelf cabinets or refrigerators at about head level. When the shopperCoop Italia: Future Food District at EXPO 2015 (4) points to a particular product’s title and image on the nearest screen, a variety of details in text and graphics, and a larger pictorial image of the product, will appear on screen. Besides the essentials of product name, size measures and price, additional information may be presented on product components and nutritional values (e.g., calories, sugar, salt, fat, protein, fibres), and on its source (e.g., producer company and country of origin). This facility should save shoppers the effort of tearing their eyes while reading small print on product packages, where packaging is relevant at all. The information is also displayed in a more friendly and comprehensible form (e.g., using understandable terms, illustrated visually in graphic charts). These enhancements of the future shopping experience are much about advanced display technology and data visualization.

Occasionally the visitor/shopper may also see some sales statistics and more background on growing and production of the product of interest with emphasis on nutritional and health implications. Coop Italia suggests that presenting more of these kinds of information will give better direction to consumers on preferred or recommended food products in future times (e.g., given new constraints on food provision). Thus Coop connects to the general issue of the future of food at the focus of EXPO 2015.

Coop Italia: Future Food District at EXPO 2015 (1)

Being on site, the space of the supermarket looked elegant and modern. The large black screens hanging over, positioned in an angle as “\”, definitely signalled a change in the visual scene of the store. It was the first cue to be noticed as to how the future supermarket could be different. The screens were easily discernible but their arrangement was not in any way disturbing to the eye — one could quickly get used to them. Activating the display and viewing information for any chosen product was intriguing and to some extent even entertaining. On one hand it felt like “playing” while shopping, on the other hand it increased interest in products considered, if only for curiosity and not for purchase. The information presented was usually helpful and of practical value for decision-making. Overall, the future supermarket model appeared to enrich the shopping experience.

There were some impediments, however, in practice. Making the screen to display information related to a desired product was not always smooth and easy. It was not clear, for instance, if one should raise a chosen product item up to the screen above or just point towards the image of the relevant product (visitors could be seen trying both). Whatever sensors were supposed to identify the gesture of the shopper’s hand or the product itself, they occasionally were not satisfactorily responsive. Most screens were located on-top so that shoppers could not touch them, and therefore the question was: How do I cause the system to recognize my choice of product. But perhaps it was also a matter of some more training by the shopper to get it right (gamers should have better success with such a system).

Screens on-top and as panels on the door-side of refrigerators

Screens on-top and as panels on the door-side of refrigerators

Additionally, sometimes it felt the information displayed changed too quickly, not giving enough time to review parts of the data provided. Information on each product was usually screened in two or three “shots” (i.e., display of first portion of product information replaced by display of the next portion). Since the shopper has no control of the duration of display, it could be sometimes irritating when, as a shopper, I could not review a data figure of interest in time. But one should remember that usually a shopper is not alone and the same screen may have to serve multiple customers within a few minutes, so a single shopper may be allowed just a brief time to inspect the most needed information. The stress on shoppers might be felt particularly during peak hours of shopping.  Hence, shoppers may benefit from the convenience of viewing information on large screens, but when necessary they should be able to toggle to the private screens on their mobile devices to continue their review of product information.

  • It is noted that Coop Italia provides QR codes for products that shoppers can scan and access the product information on their own devices (and possibly conduct the purchase online).

Regardless of the technology employed, the Coop deserves congratulating for their visually appealing layout and arrangement of product display, and its orderliness and cleanliness. It was evident that great care was invested in setting-up and housekeeping the supermarket. Since this is indeed an experimental stage for the future supermarket, it is reasonable and expected  that work to improve the performance and usability of the technology installed will continue. When it arrives, the younger generations will most likely be prepared for this concept. In summary, the shopping experience ‘nel supermercato del futuro’ was positive and encouraging.

 


How is Coop Italia perceived following its initiative? Naturally, the Coop would expect its Future Food District initiative to have a positive effect on the company’s image. Feedback they received from consumers following their visit of the future supermarket included (most frequent responses, cited from video clip):

  • The Coop demonstrates that it is modern and up-to-date (48%)
  • The Coop demonstrates that it has at heart the future of the planet and its inhabitants (29%)
  • The Coop demonstrates that it keeps in line with the new requirements of consumers (27%)
  • The Coop anticipates the future (19%)
  • The Coop is looking to generate curiosity and interest (13%)

But 16.5% also indicated that the Coop has gone too much ahead of its time, that consumers are not ready yet for all this technology, and 15% argued that the Coop may risk distancing those who are not familiar with the technology. Hence, the technological advances may be welcome, yet it could be too early to implement at this time.

 


The EXPO exhibition in Milano this year was enormous in scope and fascinating; it was well-organised and instructive. All countries presented products and other artefacts, images and models standing for some of their national and cultural assets and symbols,   emphasising, as much as possible for each country, environmental considerations and priorities. The differences in scale between exhibits of countries, however, were striking. There was also large diversity in level of sophistication of presentation, in the technologies used and other display aids applied. In particular, some countries focused more on high-tech techniques while others relied mainly on low-tech features.

Country exhibits hosted in shared-pavilions by theme (e.g., Cacao and chocolate, coffee, rice, bio-Mediterranean, arid zone) were modest; those countries also related  moderately to projects or developments to resolve agricultural and food challenges. But even among smaller exhibits it is unfair to talk of homogeneity because some countries were enlightening exceptions who managed to put up impressive and interesting exhibits.

Countries exhibiting in their own pavilions blended more expansively between their traditional assets and their programmes and technological solutions dedicated specifically to the challenges of future agriculture and food. It must be noted that some pavilions were impressive in their architecture per se. But the country pavilions also proved that size is not everything — diversity in level of effort invested, ingenuity and richness was discernible among those pavilion exhibitions. Furthermore, it also did not seem that variation in quality, originality and interest of exhibits was accounted for merely by differences in economic power or resources.

Israel Pavilion at EXPO 2015: A Vertical Field

Israel Pavilion at EXPO 2015: A Vertical Field

 

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Oftentimes references to and appraisals of product design (e.g., on websites, in magazines) concentrate on the aesthetics of the product’s visual appearance. The importance of this facet of visual design of products is now well acknowledged, particularly in attracting consumers to them. This is of no dispute. Visual design, however, has an informational capacity and it can communicate to consumers on other aspects embedded in the product or reflected from it.  These facets are functional, symbolic (personal, social) and ergonomic (affecting ease-of-use) that may be inferred from visual design or appearance of a product. They deserve no less attention than aesthetics in discussions of product design from a marketing point-of-view.

Product design did not gain much awareness or interest from marketing and consumer scholars until the mid-1990s. The researchers Peter Bloch and Robert Veryzer made each this critical observation in separate articles in 1995 as they started to conceptualise the meanings and roles of product design with respect to consumer behaviour.  Bloch referred to the powers of good design in attracting consumers, communicating to them, and adding value by enhancing the quality of their usage experiences (1). Veryzer wrote of the low relevance consumer researchers attributed to product design and aesthetics (e.g., superficial styling, related primarily to works of art) that impeded the progress of consumer research to that time in these areas. He set out to start developing a theory on the contributions of product design to consumer-product interactions, and how different considerations (e.g., aesthetic, functional, communication) affect varied consumer reactions (e.g., understanding the product, aesthetic response)(2). Both Bloch and Veryzer recognized the importance of the communicative functions of visual product design beyond aesthetics.

The aesthetics of appearance of a product ascribe to its beauty, evoking visual appeal. It relies on physical properties in the design, such as form, size (proportions), texture (materials) and colours, and how they combine or belong together (i.e., a holistic view, unity of design elements). professional designers may relate to harmony and balance. More commonly, innate preferences of people are shaped by Gestalt rules pertaining, for example, to symmetry, similarity, proximity, repetition and closure. An aesthetic pleasing appearance  increases consumers’ attraction to look at products longer, hold and obtain them.

Nevertheless, the visual design of a product can tell consumers beyond experiencing its aesthetics and appeal. Design of a product entails generally the composition and arrangement of components and overall configuration of the product. Only some of the components are readily visible to consumers (i.e., on surface); many others most relevant to the product’s orderly functioning are hidden from them, and for a good reason. Thereof appearance plays a vital role in communicating to consumers about the function and usage of a product. While it is widely accepted that “form follows function”, one should observe that in many cases form tells people how a product can or should be used (i.e., from a consumer perspective, function is determined by form). In its communicative role, design incorporates important visual and iconic cues about product use and mode of operation. The visual comprehensibility of a product is therefore vital to successful consumer-product interaction (2).

  • Features of products (e.g., electric, electronic and digital), and how to activate them, should be easily identifiable; symbols need to be self-explanatory as much as possible or be easily learnt. The consumer should be able to make basic operations without reading a manual, especially if he or she is experienced with that type of product (e.g., setting parameters and taking a photo shot on a camera). Manuals are more often refered for performing more complex or specialised tasks. Consumers expect to receive fundamental information about the product from its appearance.

Crilly, Moultrie, and Clarkson elaborate on Shannon’s model of communication, as formerly interpreted in the context of product design.


  • The source is the designer or design team
  • The transmitter is the product by its (visual) design
  • The channel is the environment in which consumer-product interaction occurs
  • The receiver entails the perceptual senses of the consumer
  • The destination is the consumer’s faculty for response, incorporating cognitive, affective and behavioural responses.

The researchers concentrate on cognitive responses to visual product design, and identify through a literature review three categories: (a) Aesthetic Impression is the sensation that results from perception of attractiveness; (b) Semantic Interpretation pertains to what a product seems to say about its function, mode-of-use and qualities; and (c) Symbolic Association relates to what a product may say about its owner or user (personal and social significance attached to the design). Decoding the “design message” from appearance and making judgements thereafter is part of cognitive response (3). Crilly et al. note that different types of emotions may stem from all cognitive categories; moreover, there are considerable interdependencies between cognitive and affective responses, where cognition is leading to affect and affect is influencing cognition.

Crilly and his colleagues suggest that aesthetic impression should account for objective qualities of design as well as subjective experiences of consumers. As a second dimension they distinguish between information and concinnity (harmonious arrangement of elements) originating in design. Information may objectively refer to the level of contrast between elements comprising the product’s design against its surroundings or among the elements themselves, while subjective information reflects a degree of novelty perceived by consumers, arising from deviation of the design from forms familiar to them. Novelty induces greater interest, but care should be taken because excessive deviations might cause greater difficulty for consumers to identify the correct category a product belongs in (e.g., by comparing to familiar prototypes), leading to confusion. Concinnity at an objective level would indicate whether the design is in good order (e.g., following Gestalt rules); subjectively, it reflects the extent to which the design makes sense to viewers (i.e., easier to understand, assign meaning, based for example on cultural norms or comparison to other relevant objects).

Semantic interpretation and symbolic association may play a more complex or nuanced role in communication from design (Veryzer recommended distinguishing between aesthetic and communicative roles). The semantics of design pertain primarily to qualities of the product, mode-of-operation and ease-of-use. Physical properties are relevant mainly with respect to how a product should be handled (e.g., its density, stability, fragility). Most importantly, Crilly et al. refer to how consumers may infer from visible components of the product — its layout, feature buttons or switches, levers etc. — how to operate it correctly and more effectively, and how easy using the product is going to be. Among the examples they give: a grooved handle may suggest in what direction it should be turned and how much force should be applied, or flashing switches signal they should be switched off.

The semantics implied from design may refer in particular to affordances (what a product is suitable for or made to do, given its form); constraints (what a product is limited in doing and should not be forced to do); and mappings (how a user’s actions relate to corresponding behaviour of the system). Mapping suggests in this context an interesting aspect of visual compatibility that seems desirable between ‘handles’  for operating a product and its form and response — buttons of a gas stove arranged to fit the layout of burners in the stove itself; levers in an electric-car-seat-control-panel for moving the seat arranged to represent the seat itself.

Think for a moment of TV sets, but not the current flat screens; reflect instead on TV “boxes” from past decades, before the 1990s. This domain demonstrates so well how technology and tastes in design have changed side-by-side over the years. The TV sets from the 1940s to 1970s were casted in a wooden “box” housing.  The TV set was perceived to a great extent as a piece of furniture in the house, and very likely it was designed in wood to match better in look with other furnitures. Early on owners used to put their TV set in a cabin with doors, as if they were not sure about its nature and wanted to conceal it in a furniture. From the 1950s the attitude changed and people were more open and happy to show the innovative technological appliance in their house. From the late 1970s the wooden housing was replaced with injection-moulded plastic. At first frames still adopted a wooden look but the appearance has gradually changed to black and grey-metalic look. The trend transformed from reflecting craftmanship and traditional warm appearance to modern cool appearance that puts technology a front.

Through several decades control panels were usually visible on the right-hand side of the screen. In the 1990s, as remote control handsets became more prevalent, control panels were reduced and became less apparent. This was partly done to leave more space for larger screens (e.g., 26”). Then came the flat screens (plasma or LCD, >32”), and control panels vanished from the front of TV.  Some controls may be found on the TV back but most selections and tuning the viewer is expected to perform on the remote control.  This is the second important change in TV sets: they leave no visual cues for their mode-of-operation easily accessible on the product itself, relying on its remote accessory. The TV sets are now made to take least space possible in the house. Manufacturers of flat screen TVs give priority to a “clean” visual design outwards and their advanced technology inwards. But from a communicative perspective, one may ask if this is the better user-friendly approach. It could be more comfortable and re-assuring for users to place a few controls (e.g., power, sound, channel buttons) on a front panel below the screen rather than hide them on the TV back.

Symbolic association turns our attention from the product to its owner or user. It may involve attributes that correspond to the user’s own personality (e.g., enhance or corroborate one’s self-image) as well as reflect desirable attributes or social standing of the user to others based on product’s appearance. Those product-person symbols may be shaped by the sociocultural context of use. Symbolic associations have been classified in literature, for example, as self-expressive symbolism (supporting one’s unique personality, idiosyncrasy or distinction, and differentiation from others) and categorical symbolism (suggesting one’s group membership, including social position and status, as reflected frequently via shared consumption symbols)(3).

One of the more prominent examples given for products with strong symbolic associations are clothing garments, especially the more fashionable they are, and contingent on type (materials), purpose and style of the garment. Let us look, however, to another domain perhaps less often used as an example: Think of bright beige leather seats in a car. Such seats reflect elegance and high quality; to the car’s owner the leather may also signal softness and comfort (semantic meanings). The leather seats may symbolise elegance of the car owner himself, enhance self-importance to the owner and suggest to others who see the car on the street that the owner has to be a respected person of higher prestige. (The implied symbols seem to matter to men more than to women.)

Consumers perceive physical properties in forming impression of a product’s visual design and appraising it. But to formulate their experience or judgements they translate or map the physical terms (e.g., form, size, colour, surface and texture) onto abstract attributes. Blijlevens, Creusen and Schoorman who studied and identified three such attributes for durable products note that consumers differ, however, from professional (industrial) designers in their understanding and the attributes they use to describe a design. Design literature uses terms such as harmony, unity, symmetry, typicality, massiveness and naturalness that ordinary or design-novice consumers are not familiar with and may not understand. The undesirable implication is that consumers frequently do not grasp the meaning of appearance embedded in the product as intended by its designers (4).

  • The three attributes in the model based on consumer descriptions constructed by Blijlevens et al. are: (a) Modernity (descriptions of ‘modern’, ‘oldish/old-fashioned’ [reversed], ‘futuristic’; (b) Simplicity (‘simple’, ‘minimalistic’, ‘plain’); (c) Playfulness (‘playful’, ‘funny’). Of the three attributes, modernity coincides directly with a parallel attribute used by designers while simplicity correlates inversely with an attribute of ‘complexity’ in design literature. Yet, playfulness  is an attribute more distinctive of consumers with no attribute close enough in meaning as used by designers (regarded as more accurate and deeper attributes).
  • The researchers suggest that (i) consumers’ attributes should complement, not replace, those used by designers to provide consumer viewpoint; (ii) there should be continued effort to study the mapping of physical properties onto consumer attributes; and (iii) marketers should be cognizant of changes in tastes and fashions of aesthetics and visual design that may alter existing relations or mappings over time.

Aesthetic appearance of products is a likely source of pleasure; consumers enjoy talking about appealing and creative visual design, the more so when they have greater acumen in these matters. But the picture cannot be complete, from a marketing perspective, without relating to semantic and symbolic connotations emanating from the visual design of a product because they have important influence on consumer decisions. They are significant to the practical use of a product as well as extended psychological (self-image) and social implications of product ownership and usage.

Ron Ventura, Ph.D. (Marketing)

References:

(1) Seeking the Ideal Form: Product Design and Consumer Response; Peter H. Bloch, 1995; Journal of Marketing, 59 (3), pp. 16-29.

(2) The Place of Product Design and Aesthetics in Consumer Research; Robert W. Veryzer Jr., 1995; in NA — Advances in Consumer Research, Vol. 22, F.R. Kardes and M. Sujan (eds.), pp. 641-645, Provo, UT: Association for Consumer Research.    http://www.acrwebsite.org/search/view-conference-proceedings.aspx?Id=7824

(3) Seeing Things: Consumer Response to the Visual Domain in Product Design; Nathan Crilly, James Moultrie, & P. John Clarkson, 2004; Design Studies, 25 (6), pp. 547-577.

(4) How Consumers Perceive Product Appearance: The Identification of Three Product Appearance Attributes; Janneke Blijlevens, Marielle E.H. Creusen, & Jan P. Schoorman, 2009; International Journal of Design, 3(3), pp. 27-35.  http://www.ijdesign.org/ojs/index.php/IJDesign/article/view/535/272

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As a shopper approaches the entrance to a store or shop, and walks through the doorstep, he or she quickly figures out how inviting the venue is. Does the store look interesting and compelling, showing a potential for exhibiting merchandise articles of value? Or does the scene look so crowded and messy it is hard to believe one can find there anything he or she may need or desire? More basically, do the store’s interior design and display appear pleasant to the eye or annoying? While consumers generally like to keep things simple and in good order, some degree of visual complexity can help to capture shoppers’ attention and make the store more attractive and inviting for prospect customers.

A simple design, stripped of any form of art and modestly furnished for displaying merchandise, stands the risk of being perceived too boring to justify spending time in the store or shop. An element of surprise, a break from the ordinary or standard, may be necessary to intrigue the shopper and entice him to enter and study the store more closely. But deciding on the right measure of complexity can be difficult. A store owner may not want to complicate its design and display to a level that is overwhelming for the shopper, making it hard for the eye to absorb (e.g., an unruly mixture of deep and flashy colours, every furniture or fixture in a different form and style). Challenging the shoppers is welcome, but the challenge should be carefully planned and designed so as not to scare them off. Importantly, planning for visual complexity is not just a matter of amount but even more so a matter of its form and composition.

Introducing variability (e.g., in shapes or colours) and irregularities (e.g., construct displays in non-parallel lines), for example, increase the complexity of a design. Complexity does not have to be extensive — a few elements can be sufficient to spice-up the design of a store; and even a disruption of “normal” order can have rules. When increasing visual complexity in the store one should take care to maintain the aesthetic appearance of its scene. In reference to the design of products, Hekkert (1) proposed four goals towards an aesthetic and pleasant visual design: maximum effectiveness from minimum means (e.g., use a few and simple features, apply correlated features that co-align into a meaningful construct); unity in variety (i.e., follow specific principles like those of Gestalt to maintain order and control in variety); striking a balance between novelty and typicality that excites but does not shock the consumers; and, co-ordinate between stimuli that relate to the different human senses.  Hekkert argued that the aesthetic experience should be considered in tandem with the experience of meaning and emotional experience. We may refer to these goals as a benchmark for constructing discernible but sensible complexity — for instance, breaking away from a Gestalt principle (e.g., symmetry) increases complexity, but it should be done without dissolving the whole organization of the store’s scene. Such guidelines could be of particular relevance for the design of product display, that is, visual merchandising.

Visual complexity may arise from different factors such as the number and range of elements or objects in a scene, the variety and density of visual-graphic features present (e.g., colours, shapes, texture), and deviation from principles of organization and regularity (e.g., symmetry, similarity, repetition). Clutter is associated with complexity but is not synonym with it. Clutter frequently represents the objective information-side of complexity, that is, the (excessive) detail and (weak-structured) layout of information in the scene. It is viewed as a driver of complexity though it is not the only facet to consider. Visual complexity, on the other hand, often reflects the personal subjective perspective, such as the evaluation by individuals (e.g., with respect to attractiveness) and their response to complexity. However, references in research to ‘complexity’ can be as complex and diverse as the term itself suggests. The effect of visual complexity on consumer processing, evaluation and behavioural response is important with respect to appearance of products and their packages, ads, webpages, and scenes of retail and service physical environments.

Store owners have the choice whether to display more or less merchandise in the main space of the premises, and where and how to display it (e.g., on tables, counters or shelves at the centre, along the wall, or as a fixture attached to the wall). Additional elements of interior design would accompany the display to create the overall impression for the shopper-viewer. Orth and Wirtz (2) tested direct and mediated effects of visual interior complexity on store attractiveness in two types of environments, deli stores (merchandise-oriented) and coffee shops (service-oriented). They showed that greater complexity (e.g., many products crowded on a long counter) hurts the perceived attractiveness of the store. Attractiveness is furthermore mediated by the pleasure experienced by shoppers-viewers from the display and overall scene. That is, lower attractiveness is driven, or can be explained, by shoppers being unhappy with or annoyed by the visual scene. It is also attributed to a decrease in processing fluency of the more complex visual scene (fluency is mediating between complexity and pleasure). The consequences, as this research shows, can be a behavioural tendency of avoidance from a more complex store and weaker intention to revisit it.

  • The researchers measured “attractiveness” with respect to aspects of overall attractiveness, product quality and price level. However, information on products and prices was only implicitly shown but not manipulated, or alternatively not shown at all.  Hence, our ability to learn how complexity, as an attribute of visual design, fares in its effect on store attractive relative to the other two aspects is very limited. The effect of complexity that seems truly to matter relates to pleasure experienced from viewing the store’s scene, pertaining particularly to its visual appeal (not mentioned in the scale of attractiveness) — complexity is less appealing to the eye. This experience is sensibly influenced by the lower fluency when perceiving the visual scene.

A rich view into the store-perhaps too rich

But the case for visual complexity in the store is not yet lost. The answer for employing complexity to the advantage of the store or shop may be in selectively implementing particular layers or facets of visual complexity in the interior design and visual merchandising of the retail outlet. We may learn a lesson from research by Pieters, Wedel and Batra (3) who analysed visual complexity and its effects in the context of advertising from the consumer perspective. They made an important distinction between “feature complexity” and “design complexity” and showed that these layers of complexity have opposite effects on attention and attitude (through techniques of eye-tracking and direct questions).

Feature complexity refers to the variation, density and layout of visual features (colour, luminance and edges) across a whole scene. For example, an ad image that contains more colours all over is more feature-complex. In other words, feature complexity is enhanced as the eye has to shift more frequently between areas of different colour, luminance or texture and cross more edges of objects and frames. Clutter is associated in this account with feature complexity. Design complexity pertains to the appearance of identifiable objects contained in the scene (e.g., a picture of a product or a fashion model figure, a brand logo). The six criteria defined by the authors may be divided into two groups: (a) criteria concerned with the appearance of specific objects (irregularity of object shape, dissimilarity of objects [differ in shape, colour, texture or orientation], and having more edge and colour detail); (b) criteria concerned with the layout or arrangement of objects ([greater] quantity, asymmetry of object arrangement and irregularity of object arrangement). It is noted that configuring and designing the appearance and arrangement of particular objects is to a great extent in the control of ad designers, and hence their better ability to determine the level of design complexity of the ad. Pieters and his colleagues substantiate the following differing effects of feature and design complexities:

  • Feature complexity reduces attention to the advertising brand (e.g., its name heading or logo). Furthermore, greater feature complexity (visual clutter) hurts consumer attitude towards the ad.
  • Design complexity increases attention to the pictorial elements in the ad as well as to the ad in whole. Moreover, higher levels of design complexity improve attitude towards the ad.
  •  (It is also shown that greater design complexity together with better brand identifiability in the ad enhance ad comprehensibility, probably by improving consumer ability to attach associations inferred from the ad with the focal brand.)

Extending insights from ads to brick-and-mortar retail stores is not quick and easy. First, an ad is a two-dimensional image whereas the store’s space is a three-dimensional scene — our perception of visual effects differs between 2D and 3D views (e.g.,  a photograph compared with the actual location). In addition, ads often incorporate an heterogeneous mix of different types of pictorial and text elements and other graphic features, conjoint in a discontinuous layout not possible in a physical 3D space. Nevertheless, some insights on visual complexity seem applicable also to the interior design of a store and to visual merchandising.

Consider these two examples for increasing design complexity in a store:

  1. Imagine a shelf display on a wall where merchandise articles (e.g., sweaters) on each row are in a different colour; suppose we now arrange items so that in the center we get, for instance, a circle filled with items in a colour different from the remaining display, thus adding a colour while “breaking” the horizontal rows of the shelves.
  2. Suppose we created a display composed of small square tables on the floor with merchandise articles (e.g., books) on top; we may add complexity by placing one table in a different shape (e.g., triangle), or moreover add a stand in an irregular shape.

Another issue may be raised with regard to design complexity, whether instead of manipulating visual aspects of specific fixtures or props it is better to manipulate their arrangement and for example set asymmetric or irregular layouts. These design variations may serve to make a statement or highlight cues about the store’s image. The challenge is not to lose sight of the whole scene to avoid rendering it too confused, disturbing or difficult to follow (i.e., cluttered). We may further realise that even in a store the visibility of a brand logo, large photographic images posted on walls and other signage count, no less than in ads — they support brand identifiability and visual merchandising.

A classic stationary shop re-modelled to fit 21st century

A classic stationary shop re-modelled to fit 21st century

If a retailer is cautious and prefers to start in a middle ground, here are a few possible avenues for action. Front windows make a good place to start. Particularly the cabin-type window displays that are closed on the back and block the view into the shop’s space sustain a scene that is closer to 2D. The front window displays are of special importance because they provide shoppers the first introduction as they approach the shop. And of course one may also on advertising for the store, such as for an ad that includes a photographic image of the store. Specifically for ad posters that are intended to be shown in the store (e.g., new fashion outfits, deals), Pieters, Wedel and Batra recommend that they should reduce feature-based clutter as much as possible because of the short duration shoppers are expected to be exposed to those ads. Photo images of a store may also constitute a practical and suitable medium for studying consumers’ evaluation (e.g., visual appeal) and attitude given an exhibited level of complexity in the store.

Introducing visual complexity in a store is a matter of form, composition and style. Not just the extent of complexity created but also in what ways it is done will determine its acceptance and favourability by shoppers. Ultimately visual complexity needs to stimulate shoppers to purchase. Applying aspects of design complexity is the course for store owners or managers, and visual merchandisers and interior designers working with them, to exercise their creativity. But it is essential at all times to keep an eye on the overall scene outcome so as not to fall into a trap of creating too much visual clutter and confusion.

Ron Ventura, Ph.D. (Marketing)

References:

(1) Design Aesthetics: Principles of Pleasure in Design; Paul Hekkert, 2006; Psychology Science, 48 (2), pp. 157-172.

(2) Consumer Processing of Interior Service Environments: The Inerplay Among Visual Complexity, Processing Fluency, and Attractiveness; Ulrich R. Orth & Jochen Wirtz, 2014; Journal of Service Research, 17 (3), pp. 296-309

(3) The Stopping Power of Advertising: Measures and Effects of Visual Complexity; Rik Pieters, Michel Wedel, & Rajeev Batra, 2010; Journal of Marketing, 74 (Sept.), pp. 48-60.

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