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TargetThis is the second post in my series looking at the usability of mobile apps. Last week, I wrote about HotelTonight.

Target has long been a leader in using technology. The Minneapolis-based retailer has great apps for iOS and Android. Among other things, you can:

  • Search for products.
  • Buy things online for delivery.
  • Look at the weekly ad for your market.
  • Look up maps of your store.
  • Get coupons delivered to your phone. (On iPhones, these can be added to Passbook.)
  • Store gift cards that can be redeemed by showing your phone.

Overall, the execution is very good. It’s even better when you consider the complexity of the problem that Target is trying to solve: it has nearly 1,800 stores, more than 238 million square feet of retail space and tens of thousands of SKUs. That’s a lot of complexity to pack into the palm of your hand.

Although Target has done a good job, there’s also much room for optimization, so for the sake of this UX clinic series, that’s what I’ll be focusing on here. (And kudos to Target for fixing one of the issues between the time I started planning this post and checked back with them for my final verification.)

For more on optimizing the mobile experience for retail, check out the retail track, “Commerce: Mobile experience determines whether you live or die,” at VentureBeat’s MobileBeat conference, July 9-10.

One shortcoming I found was that the app wouldn’t override my ‘home location’ when I was somewhere else. The app let’s you set a home location, which is handy. You can also search for a product and have the app tell you what aisle in the store it’s located in.

But I live in San Francisco and when I was in a Target store on the Peninsula recently and did a search on an item, the aisle number was based on my “home” store, not the store I was standing in. Target did the hard work of locating where in each store each item is, but didn’t do the small work of using the phone’s location to override my home location!

At least they’ve fixed that now. But there’s a better answer. Because mobile real estate is limited, it’s important to show the most relevant data. My logic would be:

  • If you’re in a store (according to your phone’s location), show the location within the store. But if the item is out of stock, show that it’s out of stock and show the nearest location that has it. It would also be good to suggest alternative products that fill the need.
  • If you’re not in a store, show the store that is nearest and the user-selected “home” location.

Here, I can see this pizza wheel is located in aisle m33 of the Tanforan store. Great. I know that it’s in stock and where to go in the store. If a product is running low on stock, it will say limited availability.

Target has two different versions of the product availability view. One that shows while you’re not in a store and another that shows when you’re in the store.

Here’s an example of the in-store view:

It shows a zoomable map from PointInside. That level of detail is unnecessary at home but is useful when you’re trying to navigate the store. I expect that this will get even better when Apple officially launches iBeacon, which was announced last week at WWDC and promises microlocation using Bluetooth LE.

Knowing the user’s context can be critical to an app. If you’re designing an app for an amusement park, the remote context might feature pricing, ticket purchasing, etc. But inside the park, it might focus on wait times at various attractions, locations of food and beverage outlets, etc.

Another area for improvement in the Target app is pricing. Here, I scanned a box of cereal while in the store:

For starters, if you don’t have an image, there should be a placeholder that says “No image available” or something similar.

But the bigger issue is that the app tells me to “see store for price”. I’m in the store; I shouldn’t have to see the store for pricing. Target offers dedicated price scanners throughout the store, but I have a tool that is much more capable in my hands. Show me the price.

I could write a separate post on whether Target should show me pricing anywhere I happen to be. (There are pluses and minuses to that kind of price transparency.) But while I’m standing in the store, Target should be able to use a geofence to enable price display. Or the pricing could be made available when connected to the store’s WiFi network.

While we’re on the subject of pricing, notice that in this example, Target shows me the online price of the product:

$7.44 is 20% less than the $9.29 in-store price.

At stores where Target offers online price matching (City Target stores, like the one in downtown San Francisco do not), this could be used to build a list of items that have a verified price differential and a mobile coupon generated for those items. At checkout, that mobile coupon could be scanned to automatically adjust the prices to their online equivalents instead of requiring a visit to the customer service counter or a manager to approve. It creates a better experience for the consumer and lower service costs for Target.

Target’s app also offers a view of its Weekly Ad. This is essentially the same ad that you could find in the Sunday newspaper.

Unfortunately, it also feels like a terrible port job.

This ad has no relevance to me. Just because every newspaper subscriber has to see the same ad doesn’t mean as a mobile user, I should see those items. I don’t have pets, so using the limited mobile shelf space to show me pet food is a waste of an opportunity.

At a minimum, this should be personalizable. I should be able to select categories of products I’m interested in and those would be surfaced. These should be persistent. Ideally, if I choose, I could link to my Target purchase history and have personally relevant items automatically show up.

Most applications that startups offer won’t have anywhere near the complexity of one from a multichannel retailer like Target. But paying attention to things like the best source of user location, user context, and personalization can help virtually any app.

Rakesh Agrawal is a consultant focused on the intersection of local, social, mobile and payments. He is a principal analyst at reDesign mobile. Previously, he launched local, mobile and search products for Microsoft, Aol and washingtonpost.com. He blogs at http://redesignmobile.com and tweets at @rakeshlobster. Agrawal is also a regular commentator on CNBC and Bloomberg Television.

Top image credit: Lynn Watson / Shutterstock.com

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