Sears Canada: a Case Study
In our world today companies are attracted to the concept of UX and user centered design like flies are to honey. As explained in my previous article user experience in the present is a giant in the technical and corporate world. Not a trend nor a fad the once fringe idea of creating not just for aesthetic but with a focus on usability for every user has permeated directly into the mainstream.
Over the summer I had the opportunity and the privilege to intern as a front-end developer at Initium Commerce lab in Toronto. A subsidiary of Sears Canada the majority of my time spent there was on the development and design of E-commerce solutions and what I experienced was eye-opening.
Sears Canada had a host of extremely talented designers. Hours a week would be poured into making sure each button, each colour, and shade would mesh perfectly to form the most pleasing aesthetic design. However the intrinsic difference between aesthetic design and good design was often lost.
Although design in essence is subjective, user-centered design is not. Properly executed, UX design will be backed up by data and research on every aspect of a users’ interaction with the subject. Thought is given on not just how something looks, but on how a person will interact with it. Empathy is required to understand the journey the user takes from the first step to the last, a road map of their experiences noted, desire lines analyzed and a prototype created. In contrast these needs for good design were often not met due to pressure from leadership and priority on the wrong things. Which brings me to my first point, in order for a firm to create an excellent user experience, a culture that fosters this mindset must first be established.
Stairway to UX Heaven
- Foster the right mindset
- Understand your audience
- Communication between ALL parties involved
- Design for them, not for yourself
Fundamentally abstracting the techniques that go into UX design leaves us with research, planning, design and development. Having worked as both a freelance designer in my own capacity as well as a professional front-end developer I’ve come to understand that the most important aspect and very first step to creating a good user experience is to have the right mindset. Working in an industry that has been laden with years of politics and structured answers to every problem, the radical and frequently out-side-the-box solutions that UX needs is often a point of friction for senior leadership and designers to wrap their heads around.
During my time at Sears one of the strongest examples of this clash in perspective were the existence of colour swatches on one of the landing pages. These swatches were a direct order from upper management and for the design team enormous pressure was put on implementing them. They had to have the designs finished by yesterday which meant there was little to no time to do things the right way, no time for guerrilla tests, no time to look at analytics and no time to even consider the idea “hey maybe this might be confusing to our user”. We live in an age dominated by eCommerce and anyone who’s ever shopped online would be familiar with the idea of swatches, they help a user navigate the page easier and allows a preview in the colour of a product by hovering over them. Effective implementation of this feature is a standard in almost all eCommerce businesses, conversely due to the intense time constraint brought upon by upper management the correct implementation was never given the time to develop. Instead the team at Sears simply created a static image in Photoshop and slapped it on the front page. Not only was this confusing to any user who expected a dynamic and interactive experience, the styles weren’t even consistent with the rest of the Sears site. A quick foray one level deeper displayed square instead of circular swatches, breaking the design principle of cohesion.
Through no fault of their own the design team was hindered at an institutional level. Due a lack of understanding of what UX was and how to implement it from the upper management, the result of their pressuring request was a poorly designed feature and a kink in the user journey.
Who’s this for Anyways?
Know your audience, know yourself.
Picture yourself walking into a restaurant in Amsterdam. Maybe you’re craving some Dutch Cuisine, perhaps some Pofferjes or a nice meal of Bitterballen. You walk down a narrow dutch street and cross a scenic bridge spanning a nearby canal. The ambient sounds of water gently lapping at boats in the background is music to your ears. The world is good. As you approach the restaurant you can smell the delicious scent of freshly made Kroket waft through the air. With apprehension you waltz right through the front door, until BAM! it hits you. Instead of being greeted by a friendly waitress in what you can only assume would have been clogs, you’re instead met with a bruise on the head, the front door stands only 5 ft tall! As extreme an example as this sounds, its safe to say building a restaurant with a door barely fitting Bilbo Baggins in a city with the statistically tallest people in the world would be a very bad idea. Why then would designing and developing a product or service be any different?
Another trap that many corporations often fall into is the lack of understanding of whom they are developing for, at least not in their audience’s entirety. A total and holistic understanding of any and all users is the foundation for UX design and often times the best solution for user issues isn’t the most aesthetic one, or the one with most features. Like the beaten path analogy, many times the desire line created through grass is unsightly and detracts from the over all scenery, however in hindsight the path itself should have been created where the beaten path stands and it’s only through understanding all the nuances of a companies’ users can great UX be developed. For Sears Canada the opposite approach to problems was taken more often than not. Rather than focusing on maximizing the ease of use for their audience, focus was put on other aspects of development. Fonts lacking contrast were sporadically set through the site, alienating users who had vision problems or users who didn’t understand how to manipulate their computer’s brightness. Instead of implementing fixes such as bolder colour contrasts and tones, effort was pushed towards creating the nicest effect or the trendiest look.
Teamwork Makes the Dream work
If you’ve ever played a team sport or worked in a group then you’re probably familiar with the age old idiom of team work. There simply isn’t an “I” in team and just like high octane sports, or for people like me e-sports (League of Legends pictured above), If you don’t work united you’ll fail divided. Parallel to this concept in product development are the different teams operating in their realms. Data, Dev-ops and Design, all work together towards building the perfect outcome.
During my tenure at Sears one of the largest blockages to a cohesive team environment was communication. Although a team slack existed the idea that it would serve as an omni-channel tool to foster team contact was far from the truth. Instead of building avenues of conversation it evolved into a shelter for separate teams and group cliques. This culture of teams working and communicating only domestically and not together meant that there were constant gaps in the transmissions process. Deliverables took longer to complete and deadlines weren’t met because a proper network of correspondence simply didn't exist.
the most successful designers will be those who can work with intangible materials — code, words, and voice.
As I will mention in a future article another common hindrance to the success of teams looking to develop UX lies in the inability for separate teams to efficiently communicate even if a reliable communications infrastructure is laid. This is due to the fact that developers and designers today still speak different languages. The jargon behind both worlds at current creates a chasm that is often difficult for either parties to cross. Nonetheless according to an article written following John Maeda, a Giant in the design world, the fine line dividing development and design is quickly blurring and in 50 years might not even exist. The onus is thus on designers and developers to start learning to speak the lingo of the other.
The age of single channel segregation of teams are no longer enough to sustain a user centered design ecosystem. Like the railroad boom of the 1800’s that connected Canada from sea to shining sea, Inter team communication has to be created out so that a network of cohesion and unity with a singular goal in mind is developed. Will this take more time? Yes, however Rome wasn’t built in a day and a lasting brand won’t be either.
Selflessness is a Virtue
ARIA — more than just a nice sounding name
If today you were to tell someone that they couldn’t access a certain business or restrict their ability to do things like enter a park or use a water fountain you’d face massive backlash — and rightly so. Equality is a global concept that I’d like think we can all agree on. Why then would it be fair to design applications on the internet don’t follow the same rules of common sense equality? Besides as a business, estranging potential customers, designing and developing unaccesible applications is simply ethically wrong.
Released more than a decade ago ARIA stands for Accessible Rich Internet Applications and it’s exactly what the acronym implies. It’s a set of standards supported by the World Wide Web Consortium that explains how to create internet applications that work, for everybody. And it’s not just for developers. Universal design, design meant to include the needs of everyone goes well and far beyond just web applications. Engineering, urban planning, materials science, all these things take into account the idea of universal design. With over a decade of precedence and a diverse amount of resources dedicated to teaching and even checking ARIA compliance, it’s simply unacceptable to be unaware or ignorant about its implementation. Features such as screen reader functionality, tabbing through various content, readable font and kearning design and hover descriptions over buttons are foundational examples of what every site should have.
Lastly to add to the focus on the user, load time optimization also needs to be taken into account. Although not necessarily a design issue the golden second, or the amount of time it takes for a user to get bored has implications in UX as well. Simplicity and minimalist design is all the rage in current times; trendy and light these designs display only the core features that are necessary for a user to optimize their experience. And the reason behind their success is a very simple concept. Designers need to learn to design not for themselves but for the user. The age old saying of “more features, more problems” holds ever true. Bloated effects, navbars, animations and buttons all may look cool, however designers have to remember that at the core their designs have to be scale-able and practical. Painting the most beautiful painting in the world means nothing if no one ever waits long enough to see it.
Too Long; Didn’t Read
“There is nothing more dangerous than standing still in a world that is changing.” — French President, Jacques Chirac
At it’s fundamentals I didn’t write this article to bash on Sears. They offered me a golden ticket to understand the process behind a multi billion dollar corporation and the people behind them and for that I’m grateful. Rather in the spirit of heurism I took my experience as a outlet to learn and to develop.
The story of Sears Canada is age old, a King in the North, Sears had a virtual monopoly over the retail market in the late 90’s and early 2000’s. However In a rapid industry that is always changing its adapt or die, and at a quintessential focal point in the history of commerce, the introduction of the big “e”, Sears failed to change. Although they didn’t adapt in the past they still have a chance to fix the present. UX design will dictate the way people create for the foreseeable future and modifying old trends to acclimate for the new is only the first step in the bearing of a new entity. However with dedication, understanding and a nudge in the right direction a brand that champions the user experience and paves way for a legacy immortalized is sure to be born.