by Adam B Cochrane and Joydeep Sengupta. Published originally in Touchpoint Vol. 11 No.2 — Experience Prototyping.
Product designers Joydeep Sengupta and Adam Cochrane look into the issues of prototyping at scale, sharing insights on how fashion retailer Zalando is going about building a prototyping culture within a 14,000 person organisation.
What does it actually take to make prototypes work at Zalando? Joydeep, who builds experiences in the area of convenience, describes the challenge of scale: “One unique thing for us designers, is the size of it.” Indeed, Zalando is large — it operates in 17 countries, and is Europe’s largest online fashion retailer, with over 28 million active users, which creates a few unique challenges.
Scale has a strange way of distorting things. For example, you can have deep empathy and understanding for one or two users, or maybe even 50, but if you try to keep this up for all 28 million, you will surely struggle.
To paint a better picture, we will share the details of three projects which illustrate the impact prototyping can have on an organisation: Jochen Saal, on using experience prototyping to validate the value proposition of a new service offering. Luana Moura Busquets, on using experience prototyping to share critical insights around payment within her team and the bigger organisation. And Dennis Harz, on introducing design and prototype-driven innovation in warehouse processes.
Insights from Jochen Saal
Jochen started seven years ago as a strategic designer at Zalando, responsible for the app experience and the organisation’s future vision. Currently a research strategist, he helps Zalando empathise with its customers and make decisions based on users’ needs and pain points.
Jochen’s case study concerns Zalando Plus, a premium service that offers faster delivery, free return home pick up and access to exclusive offers. The initial concept came straight from top management and had a heavy business agenda attached. From a researcher’s perspective, it triggered serious doubts that actual user problems were being solved. Jochen’s challenge was to figure out and validate what value a premium service could bring to Zalando’s most loyal customers.
Jochen’s interdisciplinary team of five used the double diamond process in conjunction with qualitative methods (two expert and 11 user interviews, customer observations and ‘fake door’ tests) and quantitative research methods (including market research and surveys). Their plan was to not only understand qualitative insights but also to validate them with numbers, in order to help satisfy stakeholders in a data-driven organisation such as Zalando.
The team’s fake door prototype is a method that helps rapidly validate a concept by mocking up a feature or service that doesn’t exist, and attempts to sell it to the customer as if it does. After the user takes an action, the system lets the user know the feature is not available yet, and designers are left with an understanding of the demand for that feature. The tests were carried out over 12 weeks and combined multiple value propositions, such as next day delivery, circular fashion, premium access to select brands, access to a personal assistant and also touched on cost. They required support from a variety of teams including marketing, design and user research.
A little more than 850,000 participants were reached by these tests, and about 4,000 people engaged in the email campaign. This experience prototype helped illustrate just what Zalando customers were looking for in the Zalando Plus experience, and since them the programme has grown, with many features in the roadmap coming from findings discovered by Jochen and his team. In this case, experience prototyping helped create the necessary findings — a balanced view of qualitative insights and supporting numbers — to strategically support the team and key decision makers to build and maintain an impactful roadmap.
Jochen’s advice based on his learnings and experience are:
- Never prototype in silos. Some things need to be seen and felt to be believed, and it’s important to involve stakeholders and work with other teams for better outcomes.
- Be specific about the purpose of the project, the business goals and the hypothesis that you need to validate in order to obtain the right balance of quantitative and qualitative information you need to move forward.
- Lastly, start with the MVP (Minimum Viable Prototype). If you can get the answer with a pen and paper sketch, do that, and build up from there.
Insights from Luana Moura Busquets
The following insights are from Luana Moura Busquets, a designer for the Zalando payments area, which concerns checkout, refunds, invoicing, legal, banking details and even fraud. Each month, Zalando processes approximately ten million orders through more than ten different payment channels.
Luana’s challenge is to figure out the simplest, safest and most trustworthy payment methods for many different customers, while balancing their needs with the current business objectives. To achieve this, it’s important for designers and product owners to understand that the success of our products heavily relies on having a deep understanding of cultural aspects in each country. For example, invoicing still remains the most preferred payment method in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, the Nordics and the Benelux, whereas in Poland, Italy and Spain, customers prefer cash on delivery, and for UK and France it’s card payments. As she said, “For each culture, paying means something distinct, and it’s important to understand this.”
Luana built an experience prototype that would help her product development department understand why certain payment methods are preferred in certain countries and tested it in different markets.
In combination with existing analytic data, observations and card sorting, Luana’s team conducted qualitative research with nine in-home interviews with a variety of participants. She says this experience of being “actually in someone’s home” was the most eyeopening for her team.
Luana stated that, “What we really understood that day was that a seamless experience for our customers is more about the cultural understanding of what ‘seamless’ means for them than designing the shortest and most convenient payment process.”
Luana’s advice for anyone else building prototypes:
- Involve key stakeholders early in experience prototyping and testing with real users, ideally in context. As she said, “It was easier for the product owner to understand and communicate with the management board, because he was part of the discovery phase as well.”
- If you carry out in-home interviews, make sure you can speak the user’s language. Don’t use jargon — use simple and translatable language. Bring a translator along if needed, and even better, bring designers or researchers who are native speakers.
Insights from Dennis Harz
Dennis Harz is a product designer at Zalando logistics, where the day-to-day concerns are often more about increasing efficiency then about addressing user needs. Workers in the organisation’s warehouses constantly struggle with tools that are poorly-designed while simultaneously trying to meet daily fulfilment quotas. In addition, they often work shorter tenures, meaning quick on-boarding and easy-to-operate tools are of key importance.
Dennis was tasked with a platform upgrade and ‘pick tool’ redesign. To familiarise himself with the work, he experienced the journey of a picker himself, thereby also building empathy with the workers. He also conducted interviews with expert pickers, to understand all the warehouse processes. As Dennis said, “Before I came, there hasn’t been any practice of design and prototype-driven innovation in the warehouse processes for years, if at all.”
After Dennis developed his experience prototype, he tested it alongside a control group. Because the interfaces for the handheld devices contain at most a few buttons, there is not a lot of explorative and creative design to be done. However, seemingly small changes can have a major impact when applied on a large scale. In the end, his prototype showed a four percent increase in units per hour picking. Considering the average of one million items processed per day, it means an additional 20,000 items being picked, as well as a boost in ease-of-use for the employees.
Dennis said his motivation was not only to encourage the warehouse workers to perform at a higher efficiency, but also to make the work of thousands of warehouse workers more pleasant. For him, finding the balance between business objectives and employee satisfaction was key.
Dennis summed up his learnings as follows:
- When building a prototype, you have two challenges to address: the people who are using the tools and software at work, and those who want those workers to perform in the most efficient way. Creating a dialogue for win-win situations in these cases is essential.
- The role of a designer is to generate empathy for users amongst stakeholders who have different objectives, meaning they often need to act like diplomats.
Looking back at the aforementioned projects, and across many other projects we worked on at Zalando, we can conclude several things:
- Every good prototype is backed by a clear purpose — Prototyping at scale isn’t always going to be 100 percent risk free, and the designers we talked to were open about their failings and the hurdles they had to cross. As Jochen pointed out, “Be really intentional in what you want to learn, what’s the goal, and what does success look like.”
- The earlier the stakeholders are involved, the more prevalent the learnings are — Design at Zalando is not am individual activity but means mediating the conversations between stakeholders and customers working together. Leveraging the power of experience prototyping through collaboration wherever possible is therefore extremely important to us.
- Simplicity is the key to a successful outcome — Keeping it simple, or testing one idea at a time, becomes exceedingly prevalent not only for the stakeholder management but also for getting the most worthwhile results. Designers have a tendency to overcomplicate. Take one step at a time. Although this takes more time, the impact is far greater.
It’s clear to us that at its core, prototyping is about getting close to the customer. This aligns closely to what Zalando Design is all about. Although we are still finding our way, we are working on creating even faster feedback loops in order to get more input more often so that we can build our culture of prototyping and better align internally and externally on solving our customers’ needs.