Understanding mobile needs (How I bought my daughter a prom dress)

by Brian Katz on March 30, 2015 · 3 comments

I took my daughter prom dress shopping last weekend. I know, most of you think I must be nuts (hence my blog name) but it was actually a lot of fun. That’s not saying I like shopping; I like clothes shopping even less. My daughter is a senior in High school and heads off to college next year, so it was a great chance to spend time with her, and even do a little bonding. Thankfully we weren’t alone; she brought her best friend along with her. We spent six hours at the mall, looking in department stores and apparently stores that were made just for prom. The good news is I was just color commentary and responsible for photos. If all of us liked a dress we sent the photos to mom. 

prom_dress_show_roomSo what does all of this have to do with mobility? Interestingly, it has everything to do with it. One has to remember when taking about computing that everyone is a customer. Yet, we spend very little time understanding the customer needs. If you would expect anyone to get this it would be the stores at the mall. They have been under attack from online retailers for more than a decade and yet most haven’t figured out how to counter it. Prom dress shopping requires going to a store it seems. Dress sizes aren’t apparently the same across different stores and lines. What looks good in a photo on a model doesn’t necessarily look the same on your daughter. This should be something that is easy for stores to keep a handle on and keep business in house.

All in all, we went to 2 department stores and 5 different mall chain clothing stores. My daughter tried on over 20 dresses while her best friend tried on at least 15. Yet very few of the stores had the dresses in my daughter’s size. Her best friend would stand behind her and pull the dress tight for the mirror and the photo. Then while she was trying on the next dress her friend would go through her phone to see if she could find the dress online at the stores website. None of the stores had an app we could download to use for this. One store did have an app but using it to find dresses was not one of its features. This meant going to the website and trying to find the right dress and then seeing if they had the right size. This was easier for the department stores, which have had web sites for years. The salespeople were also more helpful at the department stores. Offering to order the right size and having multiple options for delivery and pickup.

None of the websites had a good way to bookmark the dress picks, unless you put them in the shopping cart. The mall chain stores were much more difficult. To be fair, although the stores were a mad house, the employees were very good at keeping things moving. My favorite part in one of the stores, just for the pure absurdity, was when my daughter asked me to find a specific dress in a specific size, as the one she was wearing was too big. Imagine me walking through a store trying to find a matching pattern, in the right color and size, not something in my wheelhouse. I did finally ask a salesperson for help, they had as much trouble as I did, although dresses were apparently laid out via color not design. I did manage to find her size but in a different color. Now, imagine doing this on the store’s website, which was even more difficult.

When we sat down for a break and to eat I asked my daughter and her friend how it could be done better. An app was certainly the preferred method. Then we walked through some things that would make it a great app. The ability to scan the dress’ bar code would have made life much easier. Then you could put in a size and find out if the store had one currently in your size. If they didn’t have the particular dress in stock, it would give you the option of ordering it shipped to the store or buying it outright and shipped to your home. It would have the ability to recognize the dress if a photo was taken and product code wasn’t scanned. It would also let you take photos of different dresses and then compare yourself side by side in the dresses. It would make it much easier for the girls to choose the right dress for them. There was also room for competition. Some of the stores had very similar dresses. If the girls could use a photo from one store to see if another store had it through the app it would have been a boon for the second store.

Not everything here is easy to do, but very little is extraordinarily hard. It requires connecting a bunch of different pieces. You need to have the store inventory available, as well as the warehouse inventory. Knowing what is in your other stores would be helpful too, as the girls would have gone to another mall if they had the right dress. You need to have the ability to scan a product code and search your database for it. You have to be able to accept payment if you want to sell through the app. The dress recognition function would require a lot of interesting work. Knowing how one dress size correlates to another manufacturers dress size would be helpful too. Virtual try on, take a photo of yourself and get an idea how you would look in a specific color, or in a specific style would be a killer feature according to the girls.

It’s apparent that none of these stores had sat down with their customers and had any understanding of their needs. This is what has to happen with any business. It doesn’t matter how much work you have put into an app or a website if it doesn’t help meet your users’ needs and therefore drive sales and your business forward. It’s all about reimagining processes and workflows to fit the new opportunities that mobile provides.

At the end of our day, we narrowed it down to two dresses, bought one as the second wasn’t available in the right color and size although my daughter pledged to keep her eye out. We also had a bunch of laughs, mostly at my expense, and tons of fun. And just maybe my daughter understands a little bit of what I do. I learnt, at the very least, she and her friends are acutely aware of the FUN principle and drop anything that doesn’t follow it.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

kirsten burnett May 15, 2015 at 5:20 pm

this is so true finiding a retail place with some sort of online help is almost non existent.


Arcus June 11, 2015 at 5:23 pm

Not only the customers are a group who aren’t really considered in the development of for example software. I have worked in a department store and god damn, our product information system was just horrible. Half of the employees there didn’t understand at all how computer programs work and the basic logic behind it. The whole system excpected at least advanced computer skills on basic use from user and well, there was actually the whole reason why it was so big failure. It excpected something from the users and the developers couldn’t really have had any idea of all the possible users of their software.


Ellis Zsoldos Jr. December 1, 2015 at 5:24 am

Good article. I did this with my daughter last year. You had one advantage: The stores we went to wouldn’t let us take photos. They were afraid we’d take the photo to a competitor for a cheaper price. Not really a great way of doing business.

(I also found a watch vendor that didn’t want to tell me the model because I might find it cheaper on-line … but I also can’t get product information without the model number … insane way of doing business)

The dress vendor still got my money (I paid under the big sign that said “never tell Dad how much this was!”) The watch vendor, not so much.

Retail is over-due for shake-up, I just hope it’s an improvement on the other side.


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