Retail technology vendor innovation: Usablenet

What is Usablenet?

US-based but with a global reach, Usablenet provides a range of mobile and multichannel technology services and solutions within a number of industries. The company has approaching 400 customers – around half of which operate in the retail space.

Chief marketing officer (CMO) at Usablenet Carin van Vuuren describes the business as the "teenager in the mobile space", having started its purely mobile technology focus back in the early 2000s.

Clients in the retail space include the likes of John Lewis, Selfridges and Marks & Spencer in the UK, and a number of the leading players in the US, such as fashion brand J Crew and online shopping hub Avenue 32.

What's new at Usablenet?

The "most important" evolution in the business in the last six months, according to van Vuuren, is the ability to create services for clients.

This manifests itself in an update to Usablenet's platform called U-Experience, which helps clients expand into multichannel. Using agile web services, mashup, HTML 5 and a U-FX framework, U-Experience plays a role in creating mobile sites and experiences for clients and can be deployed via the cloud or via client infrastructure.

It is available as a fully-managed service solution or as a client-development platform, and is PCI and HIPAA compliant.

"We can create services that actually retain business logic so if you have payment on desktop and an entire journey there – we can take that and make it a service and offer them to clients to power other multichannel experiences," noted van Vuuren.

"Instead of creating individual services that power single activities, we actually offer a service to clients where we can bundle things. Instead of writing 5,000 lines of code, we write 40 lines of code but you've retained that entire experience."

This part of the Usablenet offering has been labelled agile web services, as the company aims to reduce the work for developers and the time it takes retailers to get a solution to market.

"We are enabling the technology in the background, and providing efficiency for large organisations, which are all – to some extent – dealing with legacy infrastructure," van Vuuren added.

"As businesses are building new platforms, our services can enable them to do things they cannot do themselves."

What makes Usablenet stand out?

Usablenet is an advocate of a mobile-first attitude and is keen for retailers to instil this thinking when investing in and updating their technology platforms.

As businesses in the sector look to find ways in which they can operate successfully across various channels, they are typically investigating how they can utilise their existing desktop website on smaller screens. Van Vuuren believes that this is actually an upside down approach to eCommerce evolution.

She argued that many retailers are thinking about responsive design as a solution but forgetting what it actually means to the consumer.

Usablenet has created a platform that takes a mobile experience and presents it on tablet in an optimised way. The architecture allows a user to complete all they tasks they do on mobile but on a bigger screen – with touch and swipe facilities.

The vendor has launched this with Avenue 32, allowing shoppers to navigate on the mobile but simultaneously on a tablet device. The platform has the ability to take the journey and core paths designed for mobile, but "change the presentation layer" so that it is customised for a tablet.

For example, the product landing page switches to either three or five items across depending on whether the tablet is being held portrait of landscape.

"If one is truly thinking mobile first then desktop becomes the very last device you need to think about," van Vuuren remarked.

"You should first design an experience that is completely appropriate for the smaller screen and then you go to tablet, then desktop or big 40-inch TV. Responsive design for so many retailers is about redesigning a desktop site that's also going to look good on all these other devices, but we fundamentally want to flip the perspective."

What the CMO says…

Van Vuuren expects that by next year, the majority of purchases conducted in retail will have involved a consumer touching a mobile device at some stage during the process. Her thoughts mirror those of many in the industry, including Shop Direct eCommerce director Jonathan Wall, who said this week that, by 2015, he predicts 100% of his company's transactions to have involved mobile in some way.

"When you walk around a high street or shopping mall, people have their phones in their hands or very close by – mobiles have become extensions of ourselves," van Vuuren explained.

"Whether it's taking a picture or texting a friend about a product, consumers are going shopping with a phone in their hand or bag, and effectively using the devices as shopping assistants."

The Usablenet CMO is adamant that amid all the innovative technology being brought into retail, businesses must not lose sight of what a customer requires.

She said: "Allowing task completion and providing speed on mobile sound like table stakes but they are fundamental requirements – consumers having trouble with these will not return to these retailers.

"We talk about augmented reality and other new tech experiences but, first and foremost, it's important to do the basics right."