Online shopping, reality and speed – what is important in the customer experience?

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E-commerce opportunities have revolutionized modern life. We don’t have to go anywhere or actively search for anything, going from store to store seeking out the one needed, elusive item. And rarities? Forget it. You can find it online with a little bit of attentive searching. The time-consuming hunt, the trying to find something out-of-print or a song with just a lyric like we did in the old days – it’s nothing now. And maybe we lose that sense of accomplishment and the appreciation of having something simply because of the work we had to do to get it. (The same principles were at work in my early refusal to get email – I wanted my paper-and-pen penfriend world to remain the same… rare, personal and full of anticipation.)

And while online shopping has certainly made my life richer (as stupid as that sounds), I recognize that the in-person, “instant gratification” retail shopping experience also is not going away. People want to feel, see, taste, touch, hear everything and experience something tactile, particularly in trying on clothes and the like, but at the same time, online shopping means you’re no longer limited to what you can find in a local shop or the mall or something. And that’s why I love it – I hate shopping in person.

How are some of the biggest e-commerce giants tapping into massive troves of data on shoppers’ habits and preferences to tailor and curate in-store shopping experiences and in turn, at the same time, drive shoppers back to the e-commerce platform?

Amazon.com’s new flagship store experiment is a case study in doing exactly this. When I read the Vox article about this store I was as perplexed as the writer initially had been. Why would the entity that pretty much singlehandedly made e-commerce a thing move back to brick-and-mortar? I never in a million years imagined that I would see this dubious store for myself, and yet the very same day as I read the article, I ended up at University Village in Seattle and went in the store. Nothing impressive, nothing that would make me want to go back. And I don’t need in-person employees to offer to help me, only to tell me, “Well, you can buy that online… on Amazon.” DUH! It seems like a really expensive experience to create that can only benefit a limited number of people, if it really “benefits” anyone at all.

I recently watched Aziz Ansari’s Netflix sitcom Master of None, and he lamented the horror of going online to try to replace a beloved pair of shoes only to find that they were out of stock – so he had to (insert exasperated tone here) actually go out to find and buy them in person. “Who has time for that?”

Precisely.

Internet of things = Big Data – Big Brother?

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This summer, George Orwell, the frighteningly prescient author of the classic novel 1984, would have turned 110 years old. In honor of the big day, a Dutch art collective, FRONT404, decorated Utrecht’s ubiquitous security surveillance cameras with party hats in an attempt to remind us that these devices are there, always on. The artists state: “By making these inconspicuous cameras that we ignore in our daily lives catch the eye again we also create awareness of how many cameras really watch us nowadays. And [how] the surveillance state described by Orwell is getting closer and closer to reality.”

But the real surveillance state, if we want to call it that, is not necessarily as blatant as the camera on every street corner (although the cameras play their own big part). The real “surveillance” is in the data collected about you every day in your online dealings.

And contributing to the acceleration of this trend is the much-discussed “internet of things” (IoT) concept. A spate of articles about the popular IoT idea has churned through the media, mostly painting the rosy picture of convenience and ease enabled by connecting everything (did we learn nothing from the re-imagining of Battlestar Galactica about the dangers of networks?), but also covering topics, such as the challenges of keeping the “things” secure and the potential lines crossed in terms of personal privacy. But if we stop to consider a few of the basic applications of IoT, such as rental cars with “black boxes” attached to monitor renters’ driving – or insurance-company customers and their driving, there are implications. What is the line between the collection of beneficial data and the violation of privacy?

A recent TechCrunch article framed the “monitored driving” angle as though it’s mostly a positive, but does – and we should all be vigilant here – sound the alarm on the caution we need to take in weighing the implications. In this article it is presented as letting you take risk into your own hands and gain from a prevention-based versus reactive insurance claim model, but what do you give up for that? The insurance industry and its relationship with drivers/consumers is highlighted as a potential source of positive change through IoT and the application of data. Insurance companies want to use data to personalize your policies, which will supposedly make coverage and claims more reflective of your personal use. “The idea of ‘connected coverage’ means that insurance companies will encourage you to take risk management into your own hands by leveraging IoT. Ultimately, that could mean saving a big chunk of cash.”

Saving cash = good news! Right? Probably, yes. But the new “You + IoT + Provider = A New Dialogue” equation demands a greater vigilance than most consumers are willing to exert. Many compare the changes and conveniences enabled by IoT and Big Data to finally living in a “Jetsons” era. But the flipside is living under the watchful eye of Big Brother. We accept it because of its potential bonuses and benefits, but I ask again: where does insight end and intrusion begin? The pool of data available to entities in all industries will continue to proliferate – how can this be managed – treating you, based on the individualized data collected about you, as a unique customer, without penalizing you for the same body of behavioral data?

A Backchannel/Medium piece by Angus Hervey perfectly expressed the ambivalence I feel and the questions we should all be asking:

“A world where our entire physical environment has the ability to exchange data with the internet and other connected objects. A world that’s more convenient, more streamlined, and more responsive to our needs. It’s also a terrifying prospect. A world of ubiquitous surveillance, a world where privacy is no longer a guaranteed right but instead a privilege you must fight for. The possibility of data breaches, backdoors into home systems, vehicles being hacked by shadowy forces, are very real.

Start thinking differently about the IoT. Make sure you place it within its larger technological context, and join the vanguard that’s establishing new design practices and principles for how we’re going to manage it. It’s not more of the same. It’s something new. And once we get past that stupid name, it’s going to change the world.”

Data protection, use, rights and apathy

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Do we have any idea what we are giving up in letting our data run free? Not really.

Watch the frightening documentary Terms and Conditions May Apply and start to get the idea. In our race to have speed, convenience, access and mobility – among other things – we are willing to sign away rights, privacy and protection for ourselves without even knowing it. Or in lacking the attention span or interest to follow things like privacy rights or something like the net neutrality debate in the US, we lose choice and transparency.

As John Oliver explained on his fantastic and revealing weekly HBO program, Last Week Tonight, discussing the net neutrality subterfuge, companies can bury all the information they are required to tell consumers but don’t really want them to read or understand in EULAs. Much of the time, these terms and conditions are innocuous but some are quite malicious, misleading and violate user privacy, leaving most users uninformed and having given blind consent.

At 9:50:

“The cable companies have figured out the great truth of America: if you want to do something evil put it inside something boring. Apple could put the entire text of Mein Kampf inside the iTunes user agreement and you’d just click ‘Agree’.”

It’s one thing to just complain and worry about data collection and use – but what kinds of solutions may exist? Craig Mundie’s piece in Foreign Affairs addressing the issue. “The time has come for a new approach: shifting the focus from limiting the collection and retention of data to controlling data at the most important point — the moment when it is used.”

Some kind of change has to happen because “… there is hardly any part of one’s life that does not emit some sort of “data exhaust” as a byproduct. And it has become virtually impossible for someone to know exactly how much of his data is out there or where it is stored. Meanwhile, ever more powerful processors and servers have made it possible to analyze all this data and to generate new insights and inferences about individual preferences and behavior.”

Interestingly, Mundie cites the introduction and eventual ubiquity of credit cards as the truly disruptive technology that opened the consumer-data floodgates. Did anyone imagine that the truly disruptive technology – well before the internet – was the credit card? They open so much access for financial institutions to create credit reports and scores and to basically control a person’s life based on their spending and saving habits, to keep tabs on her location, habits, tastes, propensities – it’s a gold mine of data that financial institutions could sell to retailers – so much opportunity for consumer exploitation. Consumers, though, have trusted that this would not happen because of data handling and storage regulations.

But once the floodgates were open, and regulations in place – the internet came along. But data privacy and rights have not changed to keep pace with how industry and technology have changed.

The part that is most alarming for me when I think about it is that whole business models and companies are built on this virtually free access to, collection of and manipulation, analysis, sale and packaging of data. How many of us are actually employed in industries whose bread and butter is somehow a link in that data collection and use chain?

Are the trade-offs of allowing all this data collection worth it? The Mundie article cites the public good as one reason not to entirely do away with data collection (but to limit/change it). One example is in a case when vast data sets yielded key findings in medical research, which can benefit society as a whole. But does that supersede the right of the individual not to have their own personal data used in some way to which they have not expressly consented? (Opting into a serpentine user agreement as a layperson does not really signify consent in my mind.)

Solutions that Mundie proposes are interesting but fail to take into account personal laziness. People like talking about having their privacy violated, but if taking control meant, as the writer suggests, “It would also require people to constantly reevaluate what kinds of uses of their personal data they consider acceptable” and one would have to take personal responsibility for context and assessing the value of how their data were used, almost no one would do it.

People do not want to evaluate at all – which is why they just say yes or no in the first place – expedience, convenience. Damn the consequences.

Love Convenience

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Twenty-one winding kilometers to go, and as always on these long drives, my thoughts are random. Last night, it was this vague thought about love in all its forms – what is “real” love, how much of it is informed by “settling”, “convenience”, not having bigger or grander expectations? I have been thinking the last two days about how love is often dictated by convenience for some people. These people may not even recognize that they have chosen convenience – and even if convenient, it does not negate that love plays a part.

Sometimes convenience would make so much more sense. I have often asked myself why I could not just love the guy in Gothenburg who professed his love to and for me confidently and completely. He wanted me to live with him and move forward with a future together, and that would have been a really easy option, especially given my “homeless/hotel existence” in Gothenburg for much of the last year. He was a great guy, very nice, honest, direct and decisive. But there must have been something missing – or at least there was not enough there for me to submit in such a committed and tethered way and give up what is otherwise a very happy life being on my own. Being nearly 40 years old and not having any strong desire to have a real, committed and serious relationship has not given me cause or evidence to believe or know that the fabled and storied idea of “love” was something real – certainly not something that a rational, older, experienced sort like me could connect with. The case could be made for consciously choosing to be with someone who meets all kinds of positive criteria even if there had been no “falling madly in love” on my end of things. But that is not me.

I had never seen or felt this elusive “click” – certainly not mutually. I have made a lot of choices and decisions in my life based on the assumption that I never would.

As people tell you, though, you can be hit by this powerful feeling at the most unexpected and inconvenient moments. If you plan it or are looking for it, it probably won’t happen. You will probably find something – maybe even the set of positive criteria outlined above – but it won’t be this bolt of lightning that somehow makes all the sense in the world while simultaneously being totally crazy. And naturally, it being an unexpected, unplanned and inconvenient – but not at all unwelcome – intrusion on the grind of daily life, it has none of the calm outlines of something well-considered or rational. It may turn out to be rational – or may work in a fluid and beautiful way – but it never makes sense at first. How does one reconcile falling in love with someone far away – and all the waiting, distance and inconvenience of that?

Only because love cannot be another way.

It is only too late if you are dead

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“Whatever you’re meant to do, do it now. The conditions are always impossible.”
― Doris Lessing

Nobel laureate Doris Lessing and creative pioneer Lou Reed both died recently. I think of this Lessing quote and the way Reed lived his life – unapologetically, his own way – and continue to realize the value of doing whatever it is you want to, are meant to, dream of doing – right now – regardless of whether the circumstances are ideal. (They never are, really. Meaning they always are. Any time is as good as any other.) We can make excuses forever – excuses will stop us in our tracks, hold us back, but all that happens is a life of regret about the things we never dared to try. That’s not to say I have always been completely faithful to the idea of jumping when the urge struck.  I am as cautious and fearful as anyone else – just about different things.

People tell me all the time that they wanted to do X or Y but that “now it’s too late” – followed by a litany of other reasons why. “I’m too old.” “It will take too long.” “I am working all day.” “It’s too far away.” “I am not smart enough.” But this idea that just because something was not done and completed at a specific point in time, like it is now out of reach forever, is complete bullshit. Nothing is too late. It is only too late if you are dead.

That is not to say it (whatever “it” is) won’t be the most difficult thing you ever did or tried to do. Even if you give this nebulous “it” your all, there is no guarantee of success. Obviously if you are 45 and think you can compete in the Olympics against 20-year-old athletes, maybe you are deluded – but does that mean you should not strive for that goal anyway just to push yourself to see how far you can go, even if you don’t compete in the Olympics? This is an extreme example. Most of us are not setting our sights on such accomplishments. Most of us are wishing for a new job, a promotion, a different educational experience, a move abroad, learning a language… and none of these things is anywhere near impossible.

It is a story I have told and written about before but choose to repeat to make a point. Around the time I had decided to move to Iceland, I found myself sometimes racked with doubt. I did not really have a plan – was I making a big mistake? As the day of my move drew nearer, though, I grew surer that I would hate myself if I did not at least try. One afternoon, I ran into a man (a former colleague with whom both my dad and I had worked when we were colleagues) I had known. I knew, via my dad, that this man had recently been diagnosed with fairly advanced cancer for which there were very few treatment options. When I had seen this many only a matter of months earlier, he had been vibrant and alive, and suddenly here he was before me, a shell of his former physical self. In that moment, it struck me vividly – he had talked almost daily at the office about his retirement countdown, looking forward to sailing around the world (his big retirement plan). Everything hinged on this magic number, magic day, “When I retire…”. Now he was not even going to make it to retirement. That encounter cemented my decision for me – it is not possible to live in this “I will do X when…” way. Yes, sometimes real, tangible circumstances delay our plans, but for the most part, when you have your moment, as frightening as it is, what is more frightening than not taking the risk? What is the alternative? Everything is a risk, and life continually postponed and planned out is not living. A more “convenient time” and “the right moment” may not come to pass.

This year, having seen so much loss, especially in very unexpected places, it hit home for me again. Plans, to some extent, mock us. When confronted by loss, even the loss of people in the periphery with whom we are not directly close, it can shock us and create emotional turmoil by stirring up so much self-reflection that normal daily life does not provoke. It reminds us both to hold on to what we have and let go of limitations simultaneously.