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what I think

Articles I’ve Authored (published by others)

I’m not a reporter. I don’t write corporate newsletters. I write about current or trending retail, m/e-commerce, and technology issues, considering and evaluating their effect on consumers, the marketplace, verticals, and specific companies. My retail and m/e-commerce writing is almost always related to UX/CX (User Experience/Customer Experience) based upon the CX Profitability Continuum. Technology articles are often related to HUI (Humanized User Interface™).

Know Me by My Comments

I've been quoted in more than 20 retail and business publications, which is a real honor. It's probably because being a "yes man" is not in my DNA and I've have shunned the standard line of crap to say what I believe.

Amazon is Scouting the Wrong Approach to Improving Product Discovery

Jeff Bezos has said "To invent you have to experiment and if you know in advance that it’s going to work, it’s not an experiment. By that definition Amazon Scout is an enormous experiment.

Scout is a new visual search engine of sorts (within Amazon). It’s aimed at categories where visual appeal is a big part of shoppers’ selection criteria, so furniture, women’s shoes, and lighting are early subjects. Shoppers choose a product subcategory and then give a thumbs up or down to each product image with price. It seems like a simple and intuitive method of culling preferred items from a giant list of possibilities —it is, but without a massive rework, it will be a failed “experiment.”

The system utilizes machine learning—a form of AI that “learns” from criteria (in this case, a like or dislike) and then makes replacements to the displayed assortment based on similarities or contrasts to the user-ranked item. The more rankings, the more tuned the selection, until, in theory, the product choices displayed are largely purchase candidate items that meet the shopper’s desires.

The major breakpoint is that humans rarely make absolute judgements when it comes to tasks like shopping, especially when there is an emotional component to the goods being considered. Scout forces the normal expanse of gray area multifaceted decision making into one of black or white, which may for shoppers result in unwanted results, time /effort wasted, disappointment, frustration, and/lost discovery opportunities.

And, Scout is further hindered by a cluster of shortcomings including:

·         the system’s inability to ascertain the reason for a like or dislike (price, appearance, color, texture, size, etc.)

·         the possibility that the algorithms that select what replacements to make may be biased or outright flawed (unintended bias is a huge concern with algorithm design)

·         whether there is sufficient/correct product metadata to effectively support the algorithm’s replacement selection process

·         (seemingly) no input from a shopper’s prior purchase history

·         no convenient access to supplemental product selection attributes including star ratings and user reviews

·         expecting users to shop one way for visually oriented items and another for other items is a UI design fail

·         Scout is likely as time consuming and probably more, than a well-structured traditional filtered search is at uncovering candidate products and it can lead to a dead end

Scout does allow users to see a “Quick View” pop-up window of product attributes and then within that, either select “See More Details” which opens the standard product description page in a new browser tab, or rank a sub-selection of related products. Surprisingly, ranking the new products apparently does not change the main Scout results page when a shopper returns there. It does populate on the “Your Journey” visual history of sorts in the footer, that allows deselected items to be either quick viewed in a new pop-up window or removed from disliked status, resetting the main Scout results or not, depending upon where the product view originated.

If all of that sounds fairly complex and cumbersome, it is. Additionally, it makes for many screen touches—a rudimentary UX design fault that smacks the principle of creating user delight upside the head. In fact, going beyond simple likes and dislikes generates an experience that reeks of a half-baked product that forgoes a properly considered, tested, and iterated, user-centered design.

Conceivably, if as I believe, Scout will be a washout, not all is lost. In fact, Bezos has said “If you want to be inventive, you have to be willing to fail.” And that’s how I think the core concept can turn and add utility.

Some critics of Alexa as a shopping tool reference users’ inability to get a good sense of a product they are unfamiliar with from Alexa’s terse aural descriptions—and they have a point. Alexa does need much work to become a viable shopping assistant. But pairing Alexa with the general premise of Scout on the Echo Show device or any device with Alexa and a screen, can leverage the best of both. Here’s an illustration:

User: “Alexa show me patio chairs under two hundred dollars.”

Alexa: “Displaying patio chairs under two hundred dollars.”

User: “No. Only lounge chairs.”

Alexa: “Displaying lounge chairs under $200.”

User: “Similar to the third one in the second row, but no yellow chairs.”

Alexa: “Do you like this selection?”

User: “I like the way the second and third look, but am unsure how sturdy they are.”


In the example, the visuals add understanding that brief verbal descriptions lack and the user’s natural spoken language provides an intuitive means to filter search criteria and provide meaningful shopper insights.

And BTW, Amazon just announced Alexa Presentation Language (APL) which “…enables you to build interactive voice experiences that include graphics, images, slideshows, and video, and to customize them for different device types.” It sure makes my premise for salvaging the benefit of Scout as an Alexa enhancement a very viable outcome.

But until my predicted Alexa Scout union, expect the usual poorly analyzed press hype around anything Amazon and the rarely reported Amazon customer frustration.

Try it for yourself for a real purchase and see how valuable it is to you.

What if Walmart Leveraged a Radical Partnership Tactic to Thwart Amazon?

Amazon, especially after the Whole Foods acquisition, is viewed by pundits and analysts of every stripe, as unstoppable and unconquerable. The premise is not new, yet many behemoth companies have been in a similar position only to be unseated from their dominance. Two examples are General Motors and Sears. So why would Amazon be the exception that can never be toppled from on high?

Retailers are Selling Their Soul and Giving Away Customers

In Jim Croce’s classic “You Don’t Mess Around With Jim” he warns “You don’t tug on superman’s cape, You don’t spit into the wind, You don’t pull the mask off that old lone ranger, And you don’t mess around with Jim.” If he were with us to update the ditty for some of today’s retailers, he might change the last caution to

No Surprise: It Sounds Like Alexa Will Recognize Your Voice Soon

Time magazine put out an exclusive that Amazon’s popular assistant Alexa will soon be able to identify people by voice. The magazine is making this seem like an Amazon breakthrough, but it’s far from it. In fact, this is the most underwhelming tech story that I can remember. It seems that the writer is not at all familiar…

Crowdfunding: Does a Successful Campaign Validate a Viable Business Opportunity?

According to folklore, Steve Jobs knew exactly what people wanted or what their needs were and with that skill, created products that consumers couldn’t resist. Legend also has it that Apple never did user research or focus groups. Well… Steve did have a good product track record, but his ideas didn’t always work and there are people who say Apple did indeed do user research and product testing in the Jobs days…