Walmart e-commerce transformation and user experience observations

Marc Lore e-commerce chief of Walmart is leaving for a new pursuit. He sold Jet.com to Walmart and took over as e-commerce chief. You can consider his 5-year stint as a successful one. He has doubled its market share of online sales to 5.8 percent and Walmart’s stock price increased by more than 80 percent since the Jet.com acquisition. All organizations now recognize that they are a Digital and Information organization first. Even as recently as 5 years back this view was not very common. To transform a large and major retailer and adopt digital technologies across the supply chain, inventory management, customer service at stores, and e-commerce is a major undertaking.

Let us look at this transformation through a few observations from Walmart’s mobile application. There are two key features that provided me a positive experience.

1) Search with support for barcode scanning and voice: The barcode scanner can be used to check the price of any item in a Walmart store. Some of the other retailers still rely on a price check kiosk, which doesn’t work sometimes and so out of date when compared to what Walmart offers.

2) Item locator: If you want to pick up say party supplies, as soon as you search and land on the item page you can see its location with the aisle number. It is one of the most useful features for a big-box retailer like Walmart.

3) Accurate Stock Information: The app also shows if the item is in or out of stock. I have found this feature to be highly accurate at 98% or above. Given what goes into maintaining accurate inventory across channels it is a commendable mark.

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On the other hand, Walmart’s e-commerce and Digital adoption are still work-in-progress. On opening the Walmart Mobile app, you will see the Conway law in operation. The Walmart.com and Store app (Pickup & Delivery) are two different apps bundled, uncomfortably into one. In a twist, the dot com application provides the aisle location whereas the store app doesn’t.

Walmart has introduced a marketplace where customers can buy merchandise sold by other sellers. But when you search, click and add to the cart, this information is not prominently shared. The return policy and processes for an item sold in Marketplace are different from ones sold by Walmart. As a customer, you may easily miss it and have to go through the hoops to return an item. Marc has succeeded in transforming a non-digital native organization, but there is still some way to go, as you see from the disjoined user experience.

Note: Walmart logo, images, text & icons are part of copyrights, trademarks, and intellectual properties that are owned or controlled by Walmart.

Candidate Journey and Experience in Recruitment

If you are ordering a pizza, there are many touchpoints that you experience as part of the process. Once you have the app for your favorite pizza joint set up and your profile configured, you can review the offers, your rewards point, etc. You can add items from the menu to the cart and complete checkout in a few seconds. The apps also offer a tracking feature with a map and show the location of the delivery person, quite similar to the Uber driver tracking feature. If you are searching for a job and going through a recruitment process as a candidate your experience may not be as smooth as ordering a pizza !!!

Organizations invest hundreds if not thousands of dollars on hiring, compensation, and retention of employees. If they are into services then human capital is a critical element for their success. When compared to the effort and investment that goes into customer experience and very recently into employee experience, the focus on “candidate experience” is minuscule. The recruitment process at the outset is much simpler than delivering pizza across thousands of locations within 30 mins.

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To illustrate I have captured the candidate journey (using Miro’s customer journey template) with a few touchpoints. In your experience, you may have observed that many of these interactions can leave a bad taste with the candidate and impact an organization’s reputation negatively. Some of the challenges to improve the candidate experience may be,

  • Unlike a pizza from a delivery chain, the recruitment process is not standardized across organizations.
  • There are a number of sources (internal job site, placement agencies, coding schools, etc.) that recruitment teams use to identify, connect, and engage a candidate. Because of this, they can’t provide a uniform experience across them.
  • Demanding on the job position, market, and experience the candidate expectation from recruitment varies a lot.
  • Recruitment teams may be constraint by the applicant tracking systems they need to use and a mix of point solutions. None of these were designed with candidate experience as a focus point.

All of these point to an opportunity to reimagine this area by applying the best practices from customer experience and service design, along with the right dose of digital technologies like RPA, Chatbots, AI/ML to provide a more human touch.

Orange Milkshake to Tesla – First Principles Mental Model

When you are new to cooking without some expert guidance it can be intimidating. My initial challenge was how much salt to add. Once my friend recounted an incident when his roommate gave him an Orange milkshake!!! If you feel a shock or horror that means you know some cooking. In general, we don’t add milk to citrus fruit, unless we want to make paneer. The citrus fruits have acids and that makes milk (a fat & protein emulsion) curdle. You may wonder when we jumped into the chemistry or physics lab with a milkshake in hand 😀.

Let us leave the chemistry lab and try to make some Boondi laddus – South Indian style. I made it for this Diwali, it came out well and most of my friends appreciated it. As I was making sugar syrup, I was fully focused – almost in a “Flow” moment. Because, if you cook the sugar syrup a few minutes more or less, the entire effort you put in will go waste. You have to hit the “single thread” consistency mark.

When you try to learn cooking, your mom, grandma, or anyone whom you consider an expert might have pointed out things like – don’t add tamarind to sambar before the vegetable is cooked; don’t boil the curry after adding coconut milk, etc. These instructions, rather warnings may contain some “First Principles” – i.e., the assumptions & principle which can’t be derived from others. Ashok Krish uncovers the science behind cooking in his new book “Masala Lab: The Science of Indian Cooking”. The Frist principles apply not just to cooking, but to any domain whether it is software or mechanical engineering or automation or electric car manufacturing. Here is an example from Shane Parrish’ Farnum Street on Elon Musk applying this to the “expensive lithium-ion battery” problem when he started Tesla.

“historically, it costs $600 per kilowatt-hour. And so it’s not going to be much better than that in the future. … So the first principles would be, … what are the material constituents of the batteries? What is the spot market value of the material constituents? … It’s got cobalt, nickel, aluminum, carbon, and some polymers for separation, and a steel can. So, break that down on a material basis; if we bought that on a London Metal Exchange, what would each of these things cost? Oh, jeez, it’s … $80 per kilowatt-hour. So, clearly, you just need to think of clever ways to take those materials and combine them into the shape of a battery cell, and you can have batteries that are much, much cheaper than anyone realizes.”

Once you understand the First Principles, you can create and conduct experiments in a playful manner – How about A/B testing of cooking recipes? Listen to Ashok’s discussion with Amit Verma about his book and many interesting topics like note-taking systems, writing, etc. As I was listening to it, as part of my research for this post, I didn’t notice an hour has passed. I suggest you set aside a decent bit of time for this (unless you listen to podcasts @ 3X speed like Ashok Krish).

image credit: https://electrek.co/2018/04/14/tesla-battery-degradation-data/

Anxiety to Strength – Few ideas

In our professional and personal life, there are times when we may feel anxious. It could be about our future or the way we are managing the present or a lost opportunity. We may look around and wonder how everyone else seems to get along fine and even thrive. This comparison can make us feel insecure. Soon you get into a whirlpool of self-doubt and lose your confidence to handle the situation. Here are a few thought experiments to get out of this,

  • Pay gratitude to your gifts: In your anxiety, you may forget the gifts you have. It may a strong and healthy body, a loving family or a strong community of friends.
  • Time Travel (No time machine or V/R required 😀): When you open your iPhone or google photos, you may see an “On this day” picture. It may be from a get together with friends, or your child riding a bike without training wheels for the first time. If you reflect back 3 years from now, will you remember this anxious feeling and the event that triggered it? Mostly not.
  • Seek the strength in you & others: As NMSubra recounts the leadership lessons, “People are multi-faced”. If you are in a team of project managers, and your project plan walkthrough resulted in lots of minor feedback and corrections. You will feel a little low. If the next walkthrough by your peer nails it, you will be awed by his/her attention to detail. If a comparison drives your anxiety, you may overestimate other strengths and miss your own. You may also lose sight of your unique “personal core competency” and bringing it to the role/situation. (You can find an excellent article on core competency & other gold nuggets here)

When we seek and uncover our strengths and similarly identify them in others, we can appreciate the uniqueness of each one. This can calm us down. It can also guide us to build on the strengths of each other.

Image Credit: https://isha.sadhguru.org/yoga/yoga-articles-spirituality/spirituality-make-special/

Happy Pongal – Harvest & Divest

Wish you all a happy Pongal/Makar Sankranti. Pongal is celebrated in many parts of India as a harvest festival. It marks the arrival of fresh grains and a new start. Bhogi is celebrated the day before Pongal. On Bhogi old things are discarded, the house is cleaned, and it is quite similar to spring cleaning. The discarded items are usually burnt, a practice more suitable when things were made of wood and other natural materials. The idea is to discard the old, before ushering in the new. This exercise need not be limited to the physical aspect, we can discard old ideas, any painful memories, and make a fresh start.

If you are working in technology for a decade or so you would have seen several new technologies emerge and gain traction. The speed of technology adoption is increasing as well. Gartner and other analysts track them and provide forecasts as a hype cycle, technology radar, and other representations. Occasionally you may bump into a dot matrix printer, a mainframe screen, and will be reminded of legacy technologies still hanging around. Unlike our homes, retiring legacy technology in an organization is a complex and resource-intensive exercise.

Adobe Flash – a relic from the initial days of internet and browser wars is one such legacy technology. If you are a digital native, you can read a bit of its history here. If you remember Y2K, you can still read it to go on a nostalgic trip. I remember Flash as a priority item in my UI test automation feasibility checklist. Test automation of an application that uses the Flash component was a major challenge with the toolset we had. A set of best practices and checks will be applied to automate or workaround those components. As Flash goes away many automation practitioners will have to find other challenges to apply their creativity. Increased adoption HTML5 based applications will improve the effectiveness of GUI driven test and business process automation implementations. As we enthusiastically adopt new technology, we can also identify the legacy ones to be discarded.

PowerApps & Flow Platform for Citizen Developers

Rajalakshmi has been regularly sharing learnings and her views on automation, AI/ML, and other tools. She recently highlighted the new features of Power Automate – the Microsoft RPA product to automate business processes. I want to share a few learnings and observations on the other Power platform product – PowerApps & MS Flow. 

1.    Disjointed process & Manual interventions: As you start automating business processes, you quickly realize that few manual steps remain as isolated islands. Most often these steps could be a checkpoint or approval, where you still want to bring in a human for decision making. In an ideal world, you can gather sufficient historic data and come up with a predictive model to make these decisions. But there are use cases where automation of these islands doesn’t provide enough business returns. This where you can use Microsoft Flow & Outlook to stitch together a human-in-loop. Maybe in the future integration with Teams will enable user inputs for an automated process.

2.    Manual or Ad-hoc trigger: Let us say you are being deputed to a new location or a project. This may trigger a set of events and tasks. Though the events/tasks can be automated through an RPA or other tools, the trigger may be manual and ad-hoc. Also, when it is triggered a set of inputs needs to be provided by a user. Most RPA tools don’t have an in-built low-code capability, they may quickly move in this direction. You can PowerApps forms to build a simple form, which can be deployed across mobile, desktop, or tablet form factors. It also integrates into MS-Teams. 

The direction Microsoft is taking with its PowerApps and Power Automate platform suggests that it wants to empower business users to build small point automation wherever required. You can trigger a PowerApps Flow or Power Automate from SharePoint, Teams and maybe in Outlook and other places. There seems to a strong commitment to enabling developers at scale on this platform as seen from the below features & focus.

A.    Availability of templates: You can select a template that is quite similar to your use cases and start adopting it for your needs. It shortens the learning curve.

B.    Focus on Diagnosis & Testability: In PowerApps you can quickly test a form or an entire app very quickly. The debugging features not only identify any issues within a form, but also points to runtime, performance, and backend integration failures.

C.    Developer support: I have faced few hiccups with PowerApps, but most of them could be resolved by a quick search in Microsoft forums. A chatbot to support developer queries will come in a future version of Power Automate.

Productivity Hack – Flow State

Imagine for a moment you are flying an airplane. Nothing fancy, let us assume a Cassena 152 or 172. Since you have completed only 15 hours of flight, and not yet soloed, you have a flight trainer with you. You just took off from the runway and climbing steadily. Suddenly the door opens on your side!!! What will you do….? You will simply shut the door and continue to climb, watch engine rpm, throttle, and many other things taught to you and are part of flying an airplane. 

Let us assume you are flying a kite or riding a bike, truly enjoying the experience, and fully focused on it. Suddenly you hear a loud noise. You may barely turn your head and notice it. Why is that? Once an activity fully occupies your attention, is challenging and you have sufficient mastery in the task, you may get into a state of “Flow”. Once you are in this state, time flies, you are at your productive best, you may not get distracted easily and you come out of it with a sense of happiness and accomplishment.

Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihaly who is famous for his theory on flow defines flow as “a state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience is so enjoyable that people will continue to do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it”. He also concludes that happiness can be experienced when achieving flow in our lives. 

 “The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.” – Mihaly Csikszentmihaly.

Your productivity and quality of work improve immensely when you are in a Flow state. I find the below practices helpful to get into a Flow state,

  • Having a dedicated space: As most of us work from home we will have a workplace setup. You may observe whenever you are in this space, your mind may automatically wander into work-related thoughts. If you want to reflect on the past week, or practice a hobby, pick a different space. This will signal to your mind that this time and space is for the hobby and not your office work.
  • A ritual: The last couple of days, I am having a cup of green tea as I sit down to write these posts. Again, a signal to my mind.
  • Avoid distractions: The most obvious one. Put your phone on silent, close the door, inform the kids to avoid barging into the room. Whatever it takes to keep you focused.
  • Persist through the first 15 mins: It takes some time to immerse yourself in the activity. If you can sit through the first 15-20 mins you will most likely get into a Flow state.

Organizations understand that Flow state brings benefits to them and their employees with increased satisfaction, productivity, and happiness.

image credit: https://www.aopa.org/news-and-media/all-news/2020/october/05/training-tip-opening-a-door-to-trouble

A second trip to market & A memory upgrade

Whenever I make a weekend trip to a supermarket, I consult my wife and make a list. This keeps the trip short and focused. I use Google keep for such “to-buy lists”. Today I was making a traditional dish and I had to use coconut milk. I didn’t like the canned coconut milk that I used today. There are so many brands of them. I don’t remember the one which I bought a few months back and it tasted better. Now I can add specialized, blacklisted brands to my shopping list 🙂 to avoid this mistake. At home and at work, our mind is occupied by things to do, things to remember (birthdays, anniversaries, brands to be avoided), assignments from your kid’s extra classes, and many more things. We may easily get overwhelmed and ofter forget a zoom session for the kid’s music class or call we committed to return. All the unfinished tasks and things to remember taxes our brain and our thoughts keep on running after them.

We can use tools like Google Keep, Microsoft One Note, Google Sheets to dump as much of the reminders, to-docs, and more. This allows our mind to relax and stop going after what is the next to-do item. I try to use them as much as I can for my grocery runs, mail drop-offs (store to addresses), meeting notes, among others.

Google Keep or Apple Notes is very useful for small information that you want to capture – say you want to capture the addresses of a few labs or doctors you are researching for an appointment. Whereas Microsoft OneNote provides a powerful platform to capture the interesting article you read, your notes from a monthly governance review, etc. I use it for my work-in-progress articles. As the content in OneNote grows you can use its powerful search function to find anything on any of its pages. You can spend some time to organize your content using it’s hierarchical and easy to understand structure like books, section, page, and sub-page. If you have a personal Office 365 subscription, you can use this tool on your laptop or through a browser or mobile app and access its content anytime and anywhere.

If you are not using these tools, I strongly recommend you consider using them. If you are familiar with them and you want to gain more mileage you can leverage a methodology like David Allen’s Getting Things Done. You can read an excellent article from NMSubra which explains this methodology. As technology overwhelms us, it also provides us a means to augment our capabilities.

image: https://www.createdigital.org.au/computer-chip-make-memories-like-human-brain/

Learnings from Empowering Business Workforce

One of my project teams is on a journey to empower themselves with technology. The team is using a rule-based dashboard. They wanted to tweak the rules, as per business demands, without waiting for IT support. Since this is a globally distributed team, they also want to coordinate and collaborate across markets. The ideas and change requests need to be reviewed for impact across regions. A decision was made by IT to empower business to own configuration changes and limit IT ownership to major releases. To facilitate this change management a set of training, process standardization, and quick prototypes were built to manage the ideas and change requests. Organizations across the world are striving to empower their workforces and I would like to share few learnings here,

  • Clear roles and responsibilities: As business users learn and create tools and make simple configuration changes, there needs to be clarity on the roles. For example, business users may not have sufficient knowledge or skills to carry out a deployment or set up an environment. These should still be supported by an IT expert.
  • Process clarity: A clear definition of the current process will give you a head start. As the team knows what role they play, and the steps involved in accomplishing a task. This will help you to plan what steps will be handed over to the business, what access and controls will be transferred, and to which roles.
  • Training: The most essential components in this change, is training. The citizen developers within business obviously need to get trained on the platform. In addition, they need to get a sufficient understanding of the technical environment setup, where they can develop, test, etc. This training can be a mix of documents, e-learnings, gamified learning courses, and simulations. A role-play and or mentor/mentee approach can also be very effective.
  • Prototypes: As the team completes the training, they can be introduced to their new roles and tools, in a gradual fashion. They can participate in building a prototype for a use case in the backlog. The feedback from this exercise will help us improve the training, the role definitions, and the process.

When the workforce is empowered with technology to implement their ideas, without waiting for approvals and support, you can see the ideas and change going live in days/weeks instead of months. The other less exploited opportunity is to leverage platforms like Microsoft PowerApps to build quick prototypes. The prototypes can be used to gather end-user feedback and finetune the process. This is especially useful if the process is dynamic or where it is less defined or adhered to. The excellent developer experience provided by PowerApps and UiPath platforms enables business users to adopt them easily and build a solution for themselves.

Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art

I came across an interview conversation in an interview between Joe Rogan and James Nester, author of “Breath – The New Science of a Lost Art” – a New York Times bestseller. They were discussing how you can warm your body through an ancient breathing technique. I was curious and bought the book.

I enjoyed the author’s personal journey to understand breathing – a regular and unnoticed activity that everyone carries on. The book has a non-linear narrative that takes you across different subjects, experts, locations, and experiments. 

In modern medicine and science, the body components involved in breathing are neatly segmented and taken up as an area of specialization. But you see the author taking an interconnected view – he explains how breathing influences your blood pressure, how breathing exercises help regulate blood pressure and support heart function.

He introduces us to experts from a diverse set of fields. You see a choir conductor, treating tuberculosis and emphysema patients before moving on to coach Olympic teams. An anthropologist and a dentist help uncover the relationship between our diet and congestion, sinusitis, and sleep apnea. The author names such experts as Pulmonauts, as they explore pulmonology from different angles.

As you read through the book you get explored to the science, knowledge, and practices available across different subjects and experts. I enjoyed most the interrelationship that he highlights. The story of different experts putting together the learning from one domain into another and coming up with creative solutions is inspiring. It demonstrates the pitfalls of narrow specializations that are the norm. It shows the power of a polymath or a t-shaped knowledge & integrated creative approach can bring.

image credit: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B0818ZZNLR/ref=dp-kindle-redirect?_encoding=UTF8&btkr=1

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