An insight into Usablenet is helping some of the world's biggest brands to go multi-screen.
In the early part of the last decade it would have been unimaginable that some of the world's biggest consumer-facing companies – John Lewis, Marks & Spencer, JC Penney, ASOS – would be in the market for cross platform development services.
What the hell would they have wanted those for?
Back then, in the first wave of mobile content, cross platform tools existed broadly for one reason – to give games developers a means to address the nightmare of Java fragmentation.
But today, things are different.
In the era of the app, the smartphone, the tablet, the smart TV and more, pretty much any company with a consumer following faces the same basic challenge: how to ensure that customers have access to its brand across all channels – and that their experience is good no matter how diverse these channels are.
This is the market reality that has brought companies like Usablenet into the space.
The firm was actually founded in 2000, but has grown spectacularly in the last two years, and now counts more than 300 clients worldwide, with 25 per cent of them in the Fortune 1000. These clients comprise those mentioned above plus FedEx, American Airlines, ShopNBC, Expedia, and many more in retail, travel, healthcare and utilities.
They're using Usablenet's platform to deploy across multiple channels, with a particular focus on enabling robust e-commerce transactions whatever the device form.
ME sat down with Jason Taylor, Usablenet's VP of platform strategy, to find out more.
Can you walk us through a typical customer deployment?
Ours is a transformative tech platform, so the process starts with us asking what kinds of sources a customers has - web service, APIs, sites, apps and so on. Then we talk to the business units about what kinds of outputs they're looking for. That could be anything from a mobile site to a tablet app to a Facebook site or even a kiosk. They'll have an idea about their objectives and where we really add value is in the user experience.
How long does this process take?
Between two to four weeks for the client project definition phase. A total project time is typically 10-12 weeks.
What's driving demand for Usablenet services?
In a lot of cases, the consumers are setting the agenda through their own behaviour and our customers are looking to support that consumer journey across the many different channels. The important thing is to optimise for these channels. So a big plasma in store may be great for viewing products but not right for entering credit card details, for example. That's why you need to link a big screen experience to one on mobile or desktop, for example, where people are happier to checkout.
Why is retail such an important vertical for Usablenet?
If you think about it, the physical store is still where the most expensive items get bought. High street Retailers still make 80 per cent of their revenue from people going into their stores, so mobile can be used to improve the in-store experience as it's in the consumers hand. Retailers are really starting to understand how useful these other devices can be in supporting big ticket in-store sales. Again, looking at Marks & Spencer, they have a kiosk system that can give shoppers the ability to buy items that may not be in that particular store. We do a lot of strategic thinking with customers around these issues.
The arrival of mobile commerce has added a layer of complexity to cross platform services like yours. There are multiple payment options now - credit card, phone bill, PayPal, Facebook - and you don't just have to integrate them, you also need to know how to manage the payment 'flow'. How difficult is this?
Well, I think you answered it when you talked about payment flow. We're not payment experts and we don't wish to be, but there's a lot we can add about user experience and how it can help the process. We have benchmarks and processes we recommend, which we can back up with lots of data. In fact, our analytics can help clients improve the end user experience across all platforms. We work with partners like Adobe, Google and IBM to improve the data, while adding format-specific elements such as geo-location data from mobile sites and apps.
Do you think we'll see more new channels coming to the market?
There are always new devices coming out. Google Glasses have just been announced, and there are watches, bracelets and all these new m-health devices for example.
But some of these devices are really designed for text alerts and so on. Does Usablenet have a role to play there?
It's true that these They might not all be browser based, but the point is that there needs to be a system that can take out content from the web source and mash it up so that it works on these new screens. It's all about universal access. We built a National Lottery site for the UK and the regulations mandate that the site must have a provision for the blind and vision impaired, for example.
You recently launched an 'Agile Web Services' platform. Tell us more about that.
Most customers don't have their own web services, so we adapted our cloud-based platform to deliver them. It means they can create much more advanced UI for their channel outputs as they’re not limited by the website interface. There have been 35 projects built with Agile Web Services so far.
What proportion of your customers have their own resources with which to manage your tech?
At the moment, it's only around five per cent. The remaining 95 per cent don't have internal teams. The fact is, this is a fast moving tech environment and it's just really hard to find developers. They're scarce, and chances are when you do get a good team, they'll be hired away by Google or something.
But ultimately we do want to move towards a licence fee model and transfer our UI knowledge to our clients, so they can manage their own content and do what they want. At the moment, not many have the resources to do this, although some do outsource to big systems integrators, so we do work with these intermediaries. But the long term trend has to be more self-reliance.
How long will that process take?
I reckon half our customers will be licensing the platform in three years.
* This feature is one in a series that will run through April as part of ME's 'cross platform development' month.