Playful spaces

Ross Philips delves into the world of retail spaces and how playful spaces play a role in engaging customers in-store. Dalziel & Pow.

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By Ross Phillips
Posted 11. 03. 2014
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In 1995 the Antirom Collective worked with Levi Strauss and Co to update its in-store kiosks with a range of interactive toys, some based on the product, some not. This collaboration led to the creation of an interactive window using touch sensors that allowed passers-by to play a series of short games whether the store was open or not. This work felt like the first pioneering steps into a new retail experience, but nearly 20 years later, while the Antirom Collective’s output has been a major influence on other forms of digital expression, I would suggest that the exploration of this potential hasn’t gone as far as it should.

We have an increasingly sophisticated, interactively literate customer, a strong desire to make physical retail spaces more alluring, technology that is cheaper and more accessible than ever before and more awareness from retailers of digital’s potential to engage, educate and communicate. Yet, more often than not, what we see in store is clunky, technology driven, and feels at odds with the brand.

We need to create personal, engaging experiences that are embedded into the heart of our retail spaces and reach out to the world, with every part of the experience speaking the same interactive language, from the dramatic (window displays) to the seemingly mundane (till receipts). All of these touchpoints have the potential to surprise and delight the customer and I believe that a lighter, more playful tone is the key to engagement.

The question is how do we make this happen? It comes down to communication – the people, and the systems they work with, don’t talk to each other enough, and this needs to change.

For true creative ideas to flourish in a retail environment there needs to be close collaboration between all departments, facilitated by the person or team with the creative vision. Without someone to care for the idea from inception to delivery, this exposure to multiple agendas often leads to a dilution of the work. Customers are generally blissfully, and rightfully, unaware of the process needed to get something onto the shop floor or uploaded to a website but they instinctively know if what they’re using doesn’t feel good or, increasingly importantly, doesn’t feel like a part of the whole.

As the shopping experience becomes more fragmented, it’s important to use your data to build up a coherent picture of your store, your product and your customers. However, as this data is usually acquired from a number of different systems, systems that have been bolted onto each other over the years, it can be near impossible. This is why newer companies are able to innovate more quickly and why older, more established companies need to either look at ways of connecting what they own, or tearing down their Heath Robinson-esque structures and starting over. The ideas are the easy bit, but it’s these fundamental issues, in my experience, that lead to poor execution or projects not progressing beyond the sketchbook.

However, it’s not all doom and gloom and lots of people are doing amazing work, with retailers increasingly taking inspiration from further afield: immersive theatre like Punchdrunk and Shunt; artists like Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, Pippilotti Rist and Jeppe Hein; and video-game developers from more established players such as Nintendo and Valve to the burgeoning indie scene led by people including Dan Pinchbeck, Mike Bithell and Henry Smith.

Henry Smith’s ‘Spaceteam’ typifies a number of the design elements that are key to creating more appropriate interactive experiences in retail.

Players get together in the same space and, using their smartphones and the Spaceteam app, engage in a four-player game that’s fun, modern, collaborative and a bit silly. For me, it’s the way that the very complex hardware and software become invisible and what you remember are the very human experiences of communicating, laughing and performing.

You can see elements of game design in Poke’s wonderful Bakertweet project for Albion Bakery in 2010, which is a clever box that the bakers use to announce the arrival of freshly baked pastries to their Twitter followers. The direct connection with the bakery, the promised reward and the feeling of competition it engenders all work together to create a playful and engaging use of technology where the product remains the focus.

In the spirit of engagement/play we have been collaborating with design studio Hide & Seek to produce a series of simple games that allow us to explore new ways in which people can engage with their environments. The London-based studio has been designing games for spaces since 2007 working with clients as diverse as the Royal Opera House, eBay, Cadbury and the BBC. These ‘tiny games for retail’ are, of course, designed to be played but I wanted to show rather than tell, and hopefully open up wider discourse and thinking about the possibilities and benefits of designing play into our retail spaces.

It’s 2014 and Antirom has long since disbanded, but its early forays, which once felt so avant-garde, now have a home in the mainstream. Now is the time to take these ideas forward, to look outside of retail for inspiration, to be more connected internally and with customers, to give them a platform for creativity, to try things faster, learn from mistakes and be more playful.

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