by Markus Eichinger
July 30, 2018

We are currently seeing rapid development in commerce – some refer to it as “omnichannel”. However, I am convinced that consumers do not categorize in “channels” when buying, or do you remember the situation when you lastly decided to “choose another channel” on your last shopping trip? I don’t.

In this article, I’d like to emphasize a technical aspect that I see as the common denominator of what would be considered as “channels”. And that’s the disappearance of the user interface (UI), driven by trends like voice commerce and artificial intelligence.

What is the UI?

In computing, it is actually defined as the space where interactions between humans and machines occur – for example, the screen of your smartphone, giving you pictures and specifications of the product.

But here, I would like to extend the meaning conceptually and define UI as any “interface” needed and used for the purchase and giving information on merchandise. As the shopping window in traditional trade, for example.

Ancient forms of trade: Super-rich UI

Traders in the middle ages in Europe as well as today, e.g., in traditional souks, could really draw on the fullness of UI: Presenting goods physically, letting customers touch, feel and smell the quality of food or other trade goods. The interaction is direct: The store owner personally sells to and consults his customers in a 1:1 manner.

A traditional souk in Marrakech, Morocco - a super-rich UI (source: Pixabay)

A traditional souk in Marrakech, Morocco – a super-rich UI (source: Pixabay)

There is virtually no “standard framework” for UI in ancient markets: Each store owner designs and presents the goods as it is most helpful for his business. Search and transparency, however, is an issue for customers. But on the other hand, this leaves control over pricing fully in the hands of the merchants.

Did you know that in many countries such as India, China or Russia, most trade is still carried out in these traditional forms (source: The Atlas)?

Warehouses chains and malls: The standardization of physical UI

The large warehouse chains that first emerged beginning mid-19th century in France and the large suburban shopping malls that evolved further in the US from the 1940s on created a whole new shopping experience.

A spacious environment, a cornucopia of products and a touch of luxury and exclusivity were exactly what the post-war population needed. The high-time of large department stores and huge malls surely was the period after the end of the second world war until the mid/late 2000s, when internet trade kicked in.

An abandoned mall in Augusta, Georgia (source: Wikicommons)

An abandoned mall in Augusta, Georgia (source: Wikicommons)

From a “UI perspective”, a department store means some way of UI standardization – you could even say it provides a “framework for UI”. Only through standardization it was possible to present such vast amounts of goods in a concentrated place, but for the sake of individualism, shopping experience and brand recognition. So it’s no surprise that the Internet is about to outpace the malls easily.

In order to win back fellow customers, successful department stores now introduce shop-in-shop concepts, brand stores and experience areas – they bring back the souk into the mall. In other words: They are re-focusing on the richness of the UI that only a physical presence allows. And that is the right strategy to survive and grow business in the physical world.

The age of e-commerce: The UI gets reduced

In the 2000s, the age of e-commerce started. What took off with hype & downfall is now a 2.8 trillion US dollars market worldwide in sales that will grow to 4.9 trillion in 2021, Statista estimates. And if you look at what is happening in China with Alibaba or JD.com, we might still only be in the beginnings.

In terms of shopping experience, e-commerce might even have caused a bigger change than the trend from mom and pop shops to department stores.

The sheer offer of goods, compared with electronic searchability and comparability of prices has put a lot of pressure on manufacturers, logistic companies, and brick-and-mortar stores.

But in terms of the user interface, e-commerce is far less rich than physical stores: Not only are fewer senses involved (hearing & seeing only), but also are those sensual experiences largely restricted: Seldomly, audio is enriching the online shopping experience (and if so, do you really like it?). Regarding visuality, the size of a screen is much smaller than the “real” world. That means it is far more difficult to properly experience products – so I am not surprised by a  return rate in e-commerce of more than 30% compared to less than 9% in brick-and-mortar.

Left: a beautiful storefront (Source: upliftingblog.com); right: the size of a computer screen (in approximate scale)

Left: a beautiful storefront (Source: upliftingblog.com); right: the size of a computer screen (in approximate scale)

Why combine a mobile experience with a physical one

Mobile commerce is sometimes referred to as a new “channel” in commerce. I don’t think that this is the case – apart from being critical about the term in general, smart devices are just our permanent companions and it is way easier to use them for window-shopping as a pastime than switching on a clumsy PC. From an experience point of view, the small displays of smart devices make it even more challenging to create a real product experience.

Last but not least, the various form factors and screen sizes make it more and more complex for developers to simply deliver a good native UI. In 2016, according to The Verge, Apple alone sold devices with 22 different screen sizes and -resolutions (including Macs). And keep in mind: Apple still is the forerunner of slick technology design.

With the PC display already being a lot smaller than a physical storefront, mobile devices offer even less space to present products or services. Modern UI frameworks such as react and react native might improve the form factor problem, but also require even more standardization – which makes it very challenging to create really unique mobile applications that support the shopping experience.

Having said that, I think the use-cases for mobile-only commerce work best if the goods are rather commoditized and one knows what to expect, e.g., ordering pizza on Deliveroo or Foodora – pictures for ordering food online never depict the full truth and everybody knows that.

Don’t get me wrong – I am a big fan of mobile commerce. I am just saying it makes more sense to combine a mobile experience with a physical one, where the key capabilities of a smartphone such as location, accelerometer and other sensors can play out best.

The disappearing user interface: Voice and AI mean a huge shift in how user interfaces need to be designed

The disappearance of visual UI: Voice

Alexa and Google Assistant came virtually overnight. I still remember this eye-opening moment when I first tried out Amazon’s new voice service one and a half years ago. Since then, however, there emerged some useful and handy applications, but for me, the use-cases are still rather limited to fun applications, home automation, and shopping lists. Why is that, given that there is such a smart AI-powered engine behind these services?

I think we are currently on edge towards a new methodology in UI, and that is a UI without visuality. Since ever, shopping UI was to the largest extent based on visual information exchange: In the physical store, on the PC, and even on the smartphone. All other senses such as hearing, touching, smelling – they contributed to the experience but were not predominant.

With voice, this paradigm is shifting completely: The only sense that developers can rely on is hearing – which offers fewer dimensions than the visual and tactile UIs that commerce relied on until now. A funny example how difficult it might be to transform visual UI into voice UI is Bethesda’s Skyrim “Very Special Edition” – a voice-only (obviously not totally serious) franchise of the famous role-playing video game “The Elder Scrolls – Skyrim”.


A funny perspective: Bethesda’s Skyrim Very Special Edition – playing RPGs without a visual interface is not that easy ;)

Designing the new UI for commerce – and what’s next

Talking of “channels” obviously means talking of UI design. In the last decade, the number of different UIs in commerce has grown immensely, so it is no longer feasible, nor robust, to develop “for a certain channel” only. Commerce will need to learn that the various channels just represent a different UI to the consumer that connects to the same core system that defines the shopping flow and the shopping experience. It is therefore paramount to start with designing that experience and only then follow the customer along with his daily life, offering the UIs that are most convenient for him.

This journey to purchase might start with a list of groceries that I remember while driving in a car and asking my voice-controlled assistant to put the items on a list. Or it might start with opening an app to re-order for delivery the last ten grocery items that I bought one week ago. Or it might just start with me being hungry and grabbing a snack in the store while getting a recommendation for a recipe for tonight’s dinner.

And what comes after voice?

My opinion is that voice is just another step in the total disappearance of the UI. Soon in the future, voice channels will be used to get user’s confirmations for decisions that are prepared by Artificial Intelligence. And that’s where voice makes perfect sense: A simple “yes” to the assistant in your car on the question

“Markus, I hope you had a good day at work. Do you want me to navigate home today? There’s a lot of traffic in the city, and I’d recommend taking another route than the one you normally take”

is much more convenient than looking up traffic forecasts and explaining to the navigation system which route to take.

The above example is pretty self-explanatory, but the same applies to commerce. Algorithms will soon be able to precisely remind you to re-stock certain groceries, will send you offers that are so appealing you just can’t resist, or will pre-fill shopping lists for you. A simple “yes” – and the purchase is done.

Human interaction is losing importance in many fields – and in the long run, this means that UI might ultimately disappear.