Case Study: Text Message Shopping

March - September, 2013

Project purpose
Providing a new channel for customers to connect with Nordstrom, a text messaging tool was created for salespeople titled "Text Style." Salespeople could share product information and images with their customers, without worrying about handing out their personal phone number. I joined the project after the Text Style was funded for development, to lead efforts on expanding the service to a richer and more engaging experience.

As the project lead, I organized and executed concept value testing, service design, prototype build, pilot launch, usability feedback, hiring a professional stylist, marketing design and implementation. From what we learned, I helped craft a business case and pitch the concepts for funding.


Framing the problem

To better understand how customers wanted to engage with Nordstrom over text, we started by looking at established texting relationships personal stylists had with their customers. Limitations of character counts, sharing images over native messaging apps, and a conversation about products converting to a sale all posed unique constraints. 

I'd like to share additional learings once I joined the project that led us down an interesting path of inquiry.

Learning #1: sharing multiple images creates confusion
As a major fashion retailer, variety of choice means finding a shoe that truly meets your needs and aspirations. However, the bare bones text experience is sending one image at a time in rapid succession. When trying to have a conversation about the details of two red wedges, this can be particularly confusing over text messaging. It forced the users to rely on sequence of images, eg "I liked the first one." If an image was received out of order from how it was sent, or reception was spotty, this would immediately create confusion and difficulty troubleshooting.

Ultimately, the solution implemented was to make a photo composite, with number annotations sent as a single message. With the ability to view in full screen and zoom in for detail, a customer could get the full benefit of a larger image with less margin for communication issues. 

Learning #2:  support purchasing by text message
Once we had ironed out some of the awkwardness of discussing products and comparatively shopping over text, the next big question was how to buy. While Nordstrom already supports mobile apps and a mobile website, sending a link to complete the purchase felt like a disconnect from an otherwise entirely text-based experience. So we established a vision to text "buy" to purchase items. While the solution that was later implemented was not quite that clean, we were able make the moment of purchase feel generally straight-forward for users.

Mobile payment, securely storing credit card information, and purchasing from your phone is nothing new. At the time this feature was in development, we felt the betweeness of seeing the future and where we're going, and facing the very practical challenges of the present. With credit card fraud on the rise and the release of Apply Pay and thumbprint unlock on iPhone emminent, designing a solution around payment feels entirely like a temporal activity. This aspect of the buying experience will transform over the next 5 years in an explosive, exciting way. So we design for the present, with an eye toward the future.

Learning #3: the value of anonomynity while shopping
The majority of our customers do not have a strong relationship with a salesperson or stylist, nor are they inclined to hand over their personal mobile number to a someone they bought shoes from once. Who could blame them? From this observation we set out to build a back-end that generated a mobile number for our salespeople using the tool that they could freely give out, and masked the customer's mobile number to protect their privacy. 

While this solution solved the problem of personal privacy, it did not address the larger issue of customers disinterest in forming a texting relationship with someone they had just met. This prompted us to ask several questions:

  • What if a customer didn't need a relationship with a salesperson to text with Nordstrom?
  • What if Nordstrom had a generic phone number that any customer could text?
  • What if you had the option to talk to the same person you connected with originally in the future?

From inquiry to discovery

A proof of concept was created around the concept of "text Nordstrom." A phone was purchased, a number assigned, light branding and a website created. An experienced personal stylist hired to answer fashion and product questions. A small investment in marketing on Facebook to gain an audience. Logistical questions abound, we wanted to start with the simple question: would customers anonymously text Nordstrom with their fashion questions?
Learning #4: Highly personalized, highly anonymous shopping
The benefits of shopping online are numerous. When shopping with a salesperson in a physical retail store, appearance, tone, and body language comprise a set of assumptions we make about the person we're interacting with. This works both to the benefit and detriment of the customer and the salesperson.

When you strip away physical presence to a conversation between two people through words and pictures, there is little that can be assumed. There is a sense of safety in what is left undisclosed. When we looked at how our customers spoke with us over text message, it was more honest, unfiltered, and to the point then we saw with salesperson and customer relationships. The result was a more authentic conversation, addressing the root of what the customer needed. 



This project provided a lot of opportunities for personal growth. What I learned from this project:

  • Be flexible and open about product, let customer feedback guide the proess
  • Metrics are a concrete plot point for business cases
  • Creating a service that delights users is one measure of success