Technology Killed the Physical Store

Kate on Tap No. 1

Best read while drinking a PBR pounder. Let’s face it: if you’re gonna relate to my longing for Blockbuster, you’re missing the old days and are at least half hipster.


In starting this new venture that is House, I have been thinking a lot about experiences. Not just product-based user experience, but life experience. There was a story on NPR in 2014 that has stayed with me (2014 seems like a REALLY long time ago, but it’s not). It was about the future of retail and how online retailers are becoming the go-to. (No shit, right? Keep reading.) But a newer movement, niche retail, is finding its place among a sea of digital shops. A dude out in California is running a store that sells nothing but bar accessories. When asked why people wouldn’t just hop on Amazon for the product, he said:

“The product itself is not special. I don’t like to think that I sell products. I like to think that I sell the ritual, the wisdom. My customers don’t shop here to purchase things necessarily. My customers come here to ask questions.”

This man is selling the experience, and people are loving it. He is giving them a reason to get out from behind their computers and have conversations. This has kept me thinking about how or where we, as people and experience designers, are building our experience database. Is it with people or computers?

So let’s real-talk for a second. I may or may not have found myself watching a movie on VHS recently. What movie, you ask? Mrs. Doubtfire. Why, you ask? I was visiting relatives and it just happened.

As this all went down, I took a moment to absorb the experience. You take the VHS tape out of the sleeve. You discover (in frustration) that the last person to view it clearly was not kind and did not rewind. So then you sit through the violent noise that is the rewinding process. Eventually, the even more violent, jolted, thud occurs and you’re like “whoop, it’s ready.” Next, cinematic genius ensues. I cataloged this experience, as I have the unlimited number of times that came before.

So now it’s 2016—the future. You go home, put on your sweatpants, prepare your Thai takeout and open up the pot of gold that is your Netflix queue. Maybe you’re mid-binge or maybe you’re looking for something new. This process is akin to online dating. Do you want drama or do you want comedy? Who really knows. But it’s there—all at your fingertips.

As much as I love sweatpants, curry and laziness, I can’t help but think about the process of cataloging that experience and how different it is. As a designer, I am seeing the link styles, the hover effects, the transitions and user flows, and I will remember them based on using similar things in the future. There is nothing visceral about the experience. It will be remembered in bits and pieces and visuals. Not how it made me FEEL.

But the times when I got in my car with my friends, drove to Blockbuster and walked the aisles to find exactly what we wanted, those I remember. Conversation ensued, choices were made, debates happened and the store had a smell. It was an experience. You were in it.

What has happened to the physical experience? What happened to us talking to the Blockbuster employees, what happened to the conversation we had with one another about our movie choices? What even happened to the disappointment of getting to Blockbuster and that new release we wanted was sold out?

How can we make people feel this way when they use our digital products?

Sometimes there is just too much technology. In our line of work, forward thinking is always better thinking, and it almost always involves technology. But the more and more we integrate collaborative software and internal instant messaging services, for example, the less we are ACTUALLY interacting with people. Don Draper didn’t send a mock-up in InVision every time he needed to present to a client (I am specifically channeling his Kodak Carousel pitch). That era of work set the tone for decades after. And they were fine, right?

As much as InVision and Slack have absolutely bettered our work processes, we must never forget the value that resides in the simple act of walking over to someone’s desk or turning to the person next to us and asking what they think. The facial expressions, gestures and verbal feedback are the things you remember about an experience. You can search your inbox or sift through archives of work on Dribbble, but that face-to-face meeting with your co-worker, or the conversation on the car ride home after you and your friend discovered Blockbuster was out of a recent release — these are the experiences you don’t forget. You don’t have to organize them into folders or upload them to Google Drive. They are yours.

These moments and memories are the things that better your life and color your work as a creator of experiences. Constantly walking into that right door when the left door is the one that works—that stays with you. Your mental library of successes and failures, good and bad experiences, conversations — this is what makes you a better experience designer. You know how people think and work. And while Netflix’s “recommended” category can use its algorithms to tell you the perfect rom-com based on your past views, no one other than your human self can tell someone that Rose could have shared that door with Jack and no one would have ever had to let go.

So, the takeaway here? Don’t get lazy. Don’t just send your mock-up, read the comments, make the fixes and send ’em back. Have those face-to-face conversations. Even an argument here and there is amazingly healthy and beneficial. Make people feel something. Our work isn’t an assembly line. You’re in it, so act like it.


Kate on Tap is a series written by Kate Ferrara while at the bar. Each article is paired with an appropriate alcoholic beverage for your reading & drinking pleasure.

#kateontap #housebuilt

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