Crafting the UX of REI's Retail Experience
UX Magazine sat down with Samantha Starmer, Manager, eCommerce Experience at REI at the Forrester Customer Experience Forum. This discussion was part of our ongoing effort to profile business UX leaders so other businesspeople can learn from the examples set by other managers and executives, and so practitioners and consultants can hear about UX from the client's perspective. You can read more about the Business UX Leaders Series here.
Part 1: Background on REI, its approach to UX and digital systems, and how providing helpful educational content helps serve business and customer experience (CX) goals
Part 2: How UX and CX strategy and practices are being applied at REI, and how they're affecting the business
Part 3: REI's agile approach to requirements and product development, stakeholder involvement in projects, and the role of vendors and partners in REI's UX work
- What does REI do?
- Starmer: REI is a member-owned co-op. It's been around since 1938. And our mission is to inspire, educate, and outfit for a lifetime of outdoor adventure and stewardship. We sell outdoor apparel through our website, as well as over 100 brick-and-mortar stores across the country. And we also have an adventure travel agency and outdoor activity related classes, and a lot of opportunities to help the environment and volunteer to get outside.
- Your title is Manager, eCommerce Experience, but people seem to distinguish less and less between eCommerce and regular commerce. Does this affect your work?
- Starmer: That's a really good question. Our division used to be called "Online," which I think has similar challenges to it, because certainly we weren't the only group doing things online. The eCommerce title for the division, I think, is really to focus us around the website and driving engagement and revenue through a digital experience. But, certainly, we recognize that working across channels is critically important.
- I think it's actually Forrester who had a study that basically said that 53% of consumers research online before they buy a product offline. And, for us, we know that over half of our customers pick up products that they've ordered online in the store. So figuring out ways to blend that experience in a holistic way is part of our agenda, even though the title is "eCommerce."
- REI is unique among retailers in that it's member owned. Has that affected your perception of customers and the personas of your users?
- Starmer: Yeah, absolutely. It's funny because our members are so loyal. People who have low member numbers (because they're sequential) brag about them and tell their friends, "I have a number that's below five digits." And they can rattle it off. I go to conferences like this, and I get stopped in the hall: "REI. Oh my gosh. I love REI." So it's been amazing to work for a company that has that loyalty, and I think so much of it comes from the membership.
- The added sense of trust and connection to the company, because they know that, when they spend money with us, not only does it go back to them, but we use it to drive some of our stewardship efforts, and that kind of thing.
- REI's heritage is in brick-and-mortar, and the stores all have a very specific, warm, hand-crafted feel to them. How have you translated that experience into the digital space?
- Starmer: My UX manager jokes that we're the only company she's worked for that has no shortage of content. One of our key tenets is around educating, so in a store you might have what we call a "Green Vest"—a store employee, because they wear green vests—and usually they'll not only know about the product, but they might have used it last weekend and then they can tell you where to go. They can tell you if there are local community groups.
- So that idea of friendly expertise is something that we try really hard to bring to the online environment by creating a lot of content—videos and articles that really help our customers with activities, not just with the product.
- So we really try to think about that full activity experience that the customer is looking to do—and yes, buying the product is part of that—but there is a broader life cycle around that. That's what we try to bring online.
- How do you cost-justify providing all of that educational content when the people who use it might not buy anything, or use REI for research but by from another retailer?
- Starmer: For us, it's just been part of our brand and our mission for so long that it's not necessarily something that we have to continually cost-justify. That said, when we've done usability studies and other types of research, it's definitely clear that that helpful content can increase sales and does increase sales.
- What's the role of your business unit within REI?
- Starmer: Yeah, so I have information architecture, user experience, I have a customer experience analyst on the team who we recently brought over to really focus on synthesizing qualitative and quantitative customer behavior and feedback. Then also, like I said, really looking at how do we better integrate across channels—the experience—because I think customers don't think in terms of channel. They think in terms of what they need from a company or brand. So what are the best ways to fulfill that so they're satisfied, regardless of which entry point or touchpoint they work through.
- You mentioned you're starting to focus on synthesizing quantitative and qualitative customer behavior and feedback. Can you explain what you mean by that?
- Starmer: Basically, what we want to do is take things like clickstream behavior, other web analytics customer behavior, revenue numbers, that kind of thing, and also look at the more qualitative customer feedback that might come from user research, contextual inquiry, feedback comments through live chat or email, and trend spot and find ways to develop customer experience KPIs that we can use to measure how we're doing from a customer experience perspective.
- I think a lot of times a lot of user experience people tend to be scared of quantitative and numbers and a lot of the numbers people I know are a little wary of the "softness" of qualitative, so I think there's a lot of value in finding ways to look at those together.
- Is REI developing or managing any digital interactive systems other than the website?
- Starmer: We spend a lot of time thinking about digital experiences beyond just selling. So we have two videos, we have something called the Family Adventure Program, which helps families find family-friendly hiking trails and helps them get outside, and that has interactive aspects to it. So I think continuing to think about, again, our broad mission and how can we best translate that into interactive experiences digitally is something that really excites me.
- A lot of the research and initiatives we're thinking about right now are, how do they want to interact with us? How do customers want to interact with us? And figure out whether it's the website, whether it's a mobile device, via iPad—maximizing those channel capabilities according to how the customer wants to interact with us.
- So certainly as mobile devices become more ubiquitous, I think there's really interesting opportunities for retailers and for all companies, really, around, should you have, or could you have, a store employee with an iPod or an iPad and have that be an information source for them so that they have that right at their fingertips to be with a customer.
- Maybe you give customers—members—an iPod when they come into the store to help them find information on the fly. People are already doing it anyway. People are bringing in their mobile phones and looking up information about the product. I think that this is the area of opportunity for companies, is figuring out how these new content providers, how these new devices can and should interact with the physical space.
- How does REI define 'user experience' and its relationship to customer experience (CX)?
- Starmer: I think that it's an interesting question, when you talk about user experience and customer experience. User experience, in general, we're thinking about people using something, people interacting with something. Right now, most specifically, that's the website and any mobile applications or mobile sites, but that's really part of a larger umbrella around the full customer experience, which would include interactions with a store employee, using the product, using our services, taking a class, that kind of thing.
- How did user and customer experience become part of the conversation and strategy at REI?
- Starmer: Thinking about the customer is just part of our DNA, and you hear people talk about the company who work there and you can tell that people are customer-focused. But in terms of having user experience as a formal discipline, that's been more recent. And I think it's been an interesting tipping point of lots of bottoms-up work and some top-down recognition from our CEO that customer experience is critical.
- So I think there's been a synergy there that has been really, really great, in that I had just gotten approval to bring in a user experience person right around the same time that our CEO started really talking about an initiative to transform our customer experience. So it's like, "Oh, heck, I've got an experience person. Great!"
- Basically, in the company overall, many people at the company who had been thinking about customer experience through much of their career, through the growth of user experience as a discipline in general and through initiatives around customer experience overall increasing—I mean, this particular conference has I don't know how many more people than it did last year, but it grew way more than they expected. So I think there's just been a lot of synergy in terms of efforts around thinking about customer experience.
- Are the UX efforts at REI concentrated in one business unit, or more diffused throughout the company?
- Starmer: Well, I have a specific user experience team, but we are very collaborative and partner heavily across the company with marketing, with IT, with public affairs, with our retail partners in the physical stores. So I think that what my team does is bring some specific methodologies and skills and ways of being driven around the customer, and ways of gathering that feedback and making improvements. So it goes hand-in-hand. I think we helped offer some tools.
- We do have a customer experience focus and strategy and user experience—I think like I said before—can provide some tools and ways of thinking about improving the experience that have traditionally been done online. But I think a lot of those tools can translate into thinking about the fuller customer experience.
- What are some examples of ways you're applying UX practices and techniques to improving CX?
- Starmer: We have done a number of card sorts—so a type of research to find out how customers organize content, really. And the information that we get from that type of research helps us understand how customers think about products in general, and can be used to think about how we should group products in a physical store, not just online.
- Before I came along, we had a really great market research team, and still do. So we had always been doing a lot of good customer research. So our efforts in the user experience space are a complement to those existing efforts, and our focus being more on the digital side of things and more about how customers might use the digital channel with other channels as well.
- I mentioned the card sorts. We've done those both online and in the store. Obviously usability testing. Partnering with the marketing research team to think about how to talk to customers and how can we all get value from different ways of talking to customers. If they do a focus group, are there some questions that we might be able to insert in from the digital perspective? And vice-versa. They're always keenly interested to hear the outcome of any research that we do.
- Does REI relate to its spending on UX—particularly on designers and researchers—as a cost center, or as an investment?
- Starmer: I've never gotten the sense that we're viewed as cost center. In fact, people have been so excited to work with us. We're actually really popular. We get invited to meetings all the time on strategy, as well as on actual execution of projects. So that's been incredibly exciting, and again, I think what that is showing is this thread of thinking of thinking about the customer, then once you can find tangible ways to help drive that conversation and help learn about what customers want, packaging that together is hugely beneficial for strategy and for prioritization.
- Have you been able to measure and prove the payoff of investing in UX?
- Starmer: I think that's part of the reason we brought in this new function, to think about the qualitative and the quantitative impact of customer experience efforts. So again, the team is new, and I wouldn't say that we have all the answers yet, but we're actively looking at what are those right questions, and have certainly seen—to what you mentioned earlier—the ability to watch things faster and better, with having user experience involved. So from just that perspective, it's pretty clear that it's a win. The longer-term ROI question, that I think a lot of our conference attendees are out battling that one right now, because it's a tough one, but we're absolutely looking at it.
- How do you and your team interact with and support other business units in REI?
- Starmer: If someone says, "Gosh, I would like to find a better way to talk about this kind of product on the website," We can respond and say, "Okay. Well, let's think about this type of research and let's do this type of prototyping." We can really provide actionable ways to get customer feedback and to develop something that is centered around the customer needs, rather than someone having to guess.
- I think the way we look at it is providing other people with tools, when possible as well. It's understanding what points different types of research and different types of methodologies might be beneficial and giving people the ability to do some of that work themselves. I have no need to only have user experience happening in my team. I think that the more we can have other people think about the customer in some of the ways that we do, that's better for all of us.
- How does REI approach the development and management of requirements for new products and for systems you're maintaining?
- Starmer: It's interesting because pretty recently we've started in working with agile methodologies and a lot of user experience people I know want to run away from agile because, historically, it's been a developer's way of looking at the world. But we've been really successful thus far at figuring out the best ways to integrate user experience with agile approaches.
- We do something that I've heard other people call "Sprint 0"—starting the user experience work early so that we can get some stories generated and user requirements from a user perspective generated early enough that developers have plenty to work on. So we're really moving away, in a lot of cases—for the website at least—from a waterfall approach of writing up reams of requirements in advance.
- Has that agile approach had a positive effect on how members of a project team work together?
- Starmer: Absolutely. I think that because we're doing a lot of the agile best practices co-locating, that's been amazing. We recently had a situation where one of our developers, who sits next to an interactive designer, came up with his own idea for improving the experience, and partnered with the designer on it, and they were able to get it into the product. That was super-exciting, because that was a case of user experience permeating different people, and not having to just be, "Oh, that person's the user experience person and they're going to do all the work." Here was a case where the developer had the best ideas to serve the customer.
- Can you share an example of how your product management approach has been put into practice?
- Starmer: We recently launched what we call Product Finders on the website—so back to this idea of providing friendly expertise and that "Green Vest" experience, we wanted to give more novice users or people experiencing an activity who are newer to that activity a way to pick a tent, say.
- So when we were developing the Product Finders, a) we did that at an extremely fast agile iteration, but b) we used rapid prototyping methods with customers in this physical store. At this point we're doing paper prototyping and live wired prototyping to get their feedback right then and there. The whole team worked on that, and what's amazing to me about that particular instance is it was one of the fastest iterations we've ever had, even with that testing and interaction with the customer. So when people say, "Oh, user experience is going to slow everything down," I actually think it can speed things up if you do things right, and it gives you the better chance of getting it closer to what the user needs the first time.
- I think for us being able to partner with the teams that are working on these iterations is great for collaboration and trust and partnership so that—you know, we haven't done this yet, but I can totally see a case where a program manager is doing some of the prototyping work or talking to customers.
- How involved have REI executives been with your UX efforts?
- Starmer: They're really interested. I think that we're still a new team and so it will take a bit of time for us to have enough projects that touch all areas of the company. But as people have heard about what we do and maybe watch part of a usability test or hear about these prototyping efforts, they're super excited and want to be involved. We've always had high-level interest from executives around what we're doing and what benefits it can bring.
- Direct stakeholder involvement can be a double-edged sword if they're not prepared to engage constructively. Has that been an issue for you?
- Starmer: You know, it's been really amazing in how well it's worked. I think a lot of that is because we're such a collaborative company historically. I mentioned that just being there feels really different then working at other companies, so I think that we have a tradition of empowering people to do what they're most skilled at and then finding ways to partner and participate when it makes the most sense.
- Do you engage the support of outside vendors and partners in your UX initiatives?
- Starmer: Yeah, we've certainly brought in both agencies and individual people to help efforts, particularly if it's on a big project or a specialized project. But in general, we drive the strategy and much of the work around user experience.
- I absolutely do believe that, in some cases, it doesn't make sense to try and have an expert in every single area or every single device, say, on our own team. It can be valuable to work with people who that's what they focus on. On the flip side, part of the reason we've been successful is having a lot of this come internally—not just from our own team, but years of other people before I even got there talking about customers. I walked into my interview, I remember, and was told that we had had a usability lab for years. That's pretty impressive for a company like us, which is not fundamentally a technology company. So lots of people before me did a lot of work to pave the way for user experience.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR(S)
Samantha Starmer leads experience, design and IA teams at REI (Recreational Equipment Inc.). Her recent focus has been evangelizing and creating holistic customer experiences across channels, time and devices. She regularly teaches at the University of Washington’s Information School and enjoys being active in the UX and IA communities. She is creating a new blog, but in the meantime, you can follow her on Twitter at @samanthastarmer.