Sunday, October 4, 2015

6 Best Practices for E-commerce CXOs and Developers

Over the past few weeks, I have spoken to a few senior IT decision makers from e-tail, retail and other industry segments where e-commerce is becoming the new business magnet. Alongside, I have also flipped through tons of content on what makes or mars the prospects of an e-commerce firm.

The result: this blog post you are going through right now. What I have done is distilled some industry best practices and do’s and don’ts that can be helpful for e-tail newbies as well as fast-growing e-commerce sites. Given that there’s little spare time for people working in this realm, here you go:

Aim for simplicity: Designing a user interface is a highly evolved discipline now. All the same, it is the online users who are the most evolved of species! Which is why keeping the UX simple yet elegant, rich yet devoid of unnecessary complexity, appealing and vibrant without being gaudy or over-the-top is more important than ever. What is the one thing that strikes us about a Google or Apple product? Its simple yet amazing user design, isn’t it?

Ensure easy site navigation: Many of the high-traffic e-commerce sites today boast of millions of products across hundreds or even thousands of product categories and sub-categories. One key thumb rule in designing navigation is that the user should not be made to click too many times (some call it the three-click rule) or find it too difficult to locate a product. Site search, in this context, is extremely important., a popular e-commerce blog, points out that even the biggest of e-com sites often fall flat in optimizing site search. It says: “Site visitors that use search boxes are more likely to know specifically what they want and are closer to conversion than those just browsing.”

It goes on to suggest that the merchandising team must anticipate variations in how consumers might be looking for certain things; for instance, they can type “two piece bathing suit”, “2-piece bathing suit”, or “2 piece bathing suit” (without the hyphen). Unless search dictionaries or tools accommodate such “correct misspellings” (in addition to commonly misspelt terms and synonyms), the potential buyers might be disappointed with search results.

Choose your e-commerce platform carefully: With hundreds of tools that let you set up an online shop, it’s a crowded market out there. For those who wish to play safe and do not have too much time researching or experimenting with options, going with an established platform such as Shopify, Magento or ZenCart makes ample sense. For the more adventurous, there are plenty of tools to fiddle with. The site has even put up a comparison chart of some such tools available in the market. Among the things one should look out for in an e-com platform: availability of hosted/self-hosted environments, payment options supported, stock size (for which you want to build the e-store), credible case studies in a given industry segment, etc.

Look out for mobile-best customer experience: In this age of ubiquitous mobility, it would be foolhardy to ignore the significance of an optimum mobile user experience. Whether it is achieved through a mobile app or responsive web design (in which the same code can cater to multiple device types), a less-than-superlative experience that can be delivered on a majority of popular mobile handsets just wouldn’t do.

Test, test, test, and then test some more: We are living in a connected, socially hyperactive age. One in which customers go all out to tweet, post, share and shriek bad customer experiences from the rooftops. So it is always better to thoroughly test any new piece of code or feature before rolling it out to a million potential customers who will be exposed to it within minutes. The DevOps movement can indeed meet its full potential in the fast-paced world of e-commerce.

Ignore shipping and fulfillment at your own peril: In the nascent but burgeoning e-com market in India, it is not uncommon to find so many negative tales of shipments gone wrong. According to Richard Lazazzera, a leading e-commerce expert who runs an online e-commerce incubator deliciously named A Better Lemonade Stand, “Many new ecommerce entrepreneurs either don’t give much thought to shipping their products, or rightfully so, don’t understand the confusing and complex world of shipping and fulfillment.” (Read this blog post of his that talks about packaging, resources such as courier services, tracking & insurance, and apps to help make the whole process easier. The scenario in India may not be as mature as the advanced markets of USA or Canada, but some useful inferences can be drawn or lessons learned from e-com ecosystem players operating there.)

In the next couple of years, e-commerce will have come into its own as an established segment of industry in India. While the broadest market may turn out to be a case of the proverbial three-horse race (or four horses, perhaps), scores of mid-size and niche players in e-tailing will prove their mettle. Soon, the fight would stop being about funds and customer acquisitions; instead, the attention would shift to technology-led differentiation, profitability and customer retention.

And that’s where the players that implement the best practices and treat customers as the center of their universe will stand out from the crowd.

(This blog post first appeared on 

Friday, September 18, 2015

5 Ways CIOs Can Transform Their Companies into Data-Driven Enterprises

Data, data everywhere—not just the right kind to make effective decisions! It wouldn’t be wrong to assume that this is the common lament in most enterprise decision-making circles today.

On the one hand, companies are drowning in an unprecedented flood of data, structured as well as unstructured. And, on the other, CIOs, CMOs and other CXOs are struggling to get a handle on all that data, put it into the right perspective, extract and massage it into a usable form and take quick, effective decisions. The ones that can earn their firm the much-prized moniker of an agile business or a data-driven enterprise.

While making decisions in any enterprise involves a whole battalion of executives, LOB heads, managers, supervisors and many others, I think the job of enabling the whole organization to take decisions based on analytics rather than hunches (and perhaps, lunches) is most suited to the CIO. The reason is simple: who else has an across-the-board view of the data ecosystem of the company? And that too with the additional knowhow of how the information systems work (or can be made to work)?

So, without further ado, here are five ways CIOs can enable an environment for adaptive, data-led decision making in their organizations:

Making speed count: I know one thing for sure: organizations of all stripes today collect all sorts of data. Through all sorts of forms. By making innumerable number of calls to customers and prospects. And by sources such as the usual enterprise data captured through ERP and other operational systems. But how fast are you with the data you collect? Does it lie buried into file cabinets or dusty disks? Simply putting the data to quick use can make a huge difference to the organization. Following up on a hot lead in quick succession of the data collection process, for instance, will translate into revenue; too much delay, on the other hand, will make the prospect turn to your competitors.

Knowing your data from your metrics: This may sound simple to some and unnecessarily complicated to others. Yet this article on the Harvard Business Review site illustrates the difference and the significance of the difference quite clearly. Authors Jeff Bladt and Bob Filbin cite in the article the example of a YouTube video, asking the reader to guess as to how many views would qualify a video as a success. Now, the particular video in question had garnered 1.5 million views but it failed to do what it was supposed to do: encourage young people to donate their used sports goods. So, despite the impressive views, only eight viewers signed up for donation—with zero finally making the donation!

Not all results (or metrics) will turn out to be in such low extremes. But the point is well-made: you need to specify clear metrics in any data collection or numbers related exercise that will reliably give the true measure of success for the initiative.

Data is data is data, right? Wrong: When data is to be put at the heart of decision-making in an enterprise, it matters all the more that the data be accurate, consistent and timely. So, one may be under the impression that all the data required for a project, say, a marketing campaign, is available, if the data quality is not up to the mark, the results of the campaign would certainly be below expectations.

According to a data quality study by Experian Information Solutions, 32% of U.S. organizations believe their data to be inaccurate and further, 91% of respondents believe that revenue is affected by inaccurate data in terms of wasted resources, lost productivity, or wasted marketing and communications spend. If that’s the case with such a data-rich economy, one could imagine how bad the shape of things would be in a country like India, where data collection and research are relatively new fields and far from being mature scientific disciplines. In this context, the need for best practices as well as tech tools in maintaining high data quality cannot be over-emphasized.

Democratization of analytics: How many of you can remember the era of generating sporadic MIS reports for the consumption of the privileged few? Well, that era is long gone. However, most companies are still chary of sharing key statistics or analytics data beyond the confines of top or senior mid-management. But gradually, this state of affairs, too, is set for a bold change. Some call the coming wave as the democratization of data or analytics, in which actionable data percolates to the lowest links in the organizational hierarchy.

Having said that, democratizing data does not mean dropping a huge spreadsheet on everyone’s desk and saying, “good luck,” as Kris Hammond, Chief Scientist at Narrative Science points out in this article. On the contrary, he explains what it involves simply and emphatically: “Democratization requires that we provide people with an easy way to understand the data. It requires sharing information in a form that everyone can read and understand. It requires timely communication about what is happening in a relevant and personal way. It means giving people the stories that are trapped in the data so they can do something with the information.”

Point well made: unless people can take “informative action,” the analytics tools or the extracted data will have little value for the people or the organization.

Analyzed this, have ya? Now visualize that, too: I’m not sure if you noticed but the Internet has been flooded with a new tool of information dissemination in the past couple of years. It’s called the infographic. For most of your searches on Google, there are now an eye-load of infographics, those illustrative diagrams that give you the needed information with icons, pictures, graphs and anything non-text.

Much less noticeable but equally important, a similar movement is underway within enterprises in the context of data analytics. Vendors such as Tableau Software and Qlik Technologies are leading the charge in this emerging segment, referred to as the visual analytics market

According to specialist consulting firm Atheon Analytics, visual analytics “brings together computer science, information visualization, cognitive and perceptual sciences, interactive design, graphic design, and social sciences.” (To see the power of visualized data in action, watch this slightly old but enormously impactful video, the Joy of Stats, of Swedish statistician Hans Rosling, who is often referred to as the “Jedi master of data visualization.”)

The above are only a few of the multiple ways in which CIOs can bring the hidden power of data to the forefront of organizational ability and agility. There are plenty of tools and technologies available but each organization must find its own best-fit path to data-driven success. The key is to start the data journey as early as possible and do so in right earnest.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Can You Imagine How the Buddha Played the Flute?

We all know that Lord Krishna played the flute and held the entire world in the sway of its music. One of his several names is Bansidhar, which means the holder of the flute. So it came as a pleasant surprise to me that Buddha, the enlightened one, too, played this divine musical instrument made from the bamboo plant. And oh boy, did he play it beautifully!

The revelation came through the book Old Path White Clouds by revered Vietnamese monk and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh. The book is a majestic retelling of Buddha’s eighty years of life built on multiple sources and accounts in several languages.

While Nhat Hanh mentions a young Siddhartha (Buddha’s given name) playing the flute serenely under a moonlit sky in the early chapters of the book, to me the real magic and melody of Buddha’s flute came alive in Chapter Twenty-Five, aptly titled Music’s Lofty Peaks.

In the episode, Buddha is said to have met a group of young people in a forest between Varanasi and Rajagriha (written Rajagaha in the book, now the city of Rajgir in Bihar). As the story goes, one of them asked the Buddha to play the flute for them just as some of them burst out laughing, dismissing the idea of a monk playing the flute.

Never the one to be perturbed, the Buddha just smiled.

Now, as the Buddha took a few deep breaths and put the flute to his lips, can you imagine how those young men felt? Can you imagine the music that wafted magically in the wind of that forest? Before he touched the first note, the Buddha reflected on how many, many years ago he played the flute as the Sakya prince in the capital city of Kapilvastu.

I believe it must take the spiritual depth and simplistic genius of a true monk to put forth the description that follows. This is how Thich Nhat describes the Buddha playing the flute in his book:

“The sound was as delicate as a thin strand of smoke curling gently from the roof of a simple dwelling outside Kapilavatthu at the hour of the evening meal. Slowly the thin strand expanded across space like a gathering of clouds which in turn transformed into a thousand-petalled lotus, each petal a different shimmering color. It seemed that one flutist suddenly had become ten thousand flutists, and all the wonders of the universe had been transformed into sounds—sounds of a thousand colors and forms, sounds as light as a breeze and quick as the pattering of rain, clear as a crane flying overhead, intimate as a lullaby, bright as a shining jewel, and subtle as the smile of one who has transcended all thoughts of gain and loss. The birds of the forest stopped singing in order to listen to this sublime music, and even the breezes ceased rustling the leaves. The forest was enveloped in an atmosphere of total peace, serenity, and wonder.”

Can you imagine how the Buddha played the flute?

As I read those lyrical words, I could feel a certain peace within my own self. It is as if you are being transported into another realm of existence on the wings of a swan. As if the gentle embrace of a child is holding you in its inexplicable delight. As if your heart has become so much full of love and divine grace that it is overflowing with joy…As if all the pain of thousands of years buried deep in the multiple births of your existence is melting away into a single note of relief…

Can you, can you imagine how the Buddha played the flute!