In our latest UX Insider interview, Burberry’s Ulrich Boulon talked to us about the future of UX for luxury fashion brands, as well as the opportunities and challenges chatbots present for brands and UXers. Please note, in the time between interviewing Ulrich and editing and publishing it he has moved on from Burberry.
Can you start by telling me your job title and what your responsibilities are?
I am a UX Designer. For this role I have to develop empathy with our customers to understand their needs, but it’s also important to develop and lead the user experience from a business perspective. That means looking at the strategic aspects of the discipline and ensuring others understand the value of UX. I predominantly work on the Burberry.com platform (desktop and mobile), particularly with any new features. I am also involved with the development of the messenger bot for Burberry, which is an area we’re leading in our industry. It’s my job to always look at how our digital platform can improve our customer experience, whilst still thinking of the omnichannel experience.
Burberry is obviously an aspirational place to work, what is it like working here?
Working here has always meant something bigger than myself, in terms of where I can take my thinking. The mindset here is all about growth and it’s pioneering and innovative. When I talk about innovation I don’t mean in terms of spending more, but in terms of how we can achieve something that is creatively led and I think that’s probably what sets it apart. The creativity is so rich here, and so challenging, and I adore that because I’m constantly adapting to new directions.
I also like the systemic side of things. As a UX designer I’m working closely with strategy and it’s great to be so involved at those decision points. We’re tackling omnichannel experiences, making sure customers can move from online to offline seamlessly, and vice-versa, and tweaking new features to ensure they answer the business strategy as well as our customers’ needs.
What I love is this combination of having a creative mindset and working in an experimental environment, while balancing a very systemic mindset, where you actually have to focus on strategy and drive the business to growth or scale. Learning how my input as a UX designer could help the business grow, or move it in a certain direction, was new for me when I came to Burberry. Developing empathy has also been really important to get insight from our ultra high-standing customers. We don’t believe they should tell us what to do because they’re embracing our way of telling them what to wear, but to be that forward as a brand and still satisfy customer needs and motivation is a complex balance.
What I love is this combination of having a creative mindset and working in an experimental environment, while balancing a very systemic mindset, where you actually have to focus on strategy and drive the business to growth or scale.
You did a talk recently about chatbots and AI. Where does that interest come from and how did it start?
I started to think about AI about two years ago when some friends and I created an app called Reroo, which we designed to help students find cheaper last-minute train tickets. During its development we were thinking about how to anticipate customer needs and AI was a way of doing that. The idea really matured when we started to think about the Android version of the app.
This was back in 2016 when bots were still in their early stages. IBM in particular was doing a lot of work in this area, so to learn more about it we went to an IBM Watson Hackathon where we developed a new app called Holmes, which is a way for ladies to feel safe at night while walking home. We developed an AI brain that could suggest the safest routes, and listen out for any incidents that might happen to make a route unsafe and then notify the women with the app. Exploring how to link all the information, derive insight from the data and trigger an SMS – the connective aspect of the data – was what really got me interested in AI and chatbots. I’ve been able to bring my experience in this area to my current role.
Burberry has the ambition to have bots, but there were a lot of questions about where to start and what to do with them. We had to think about what the actual need for a bot would be. Initially it was led by supporting content for social marketing interest — you’d have the runway show and then the campaigns — and how we could use that platform to generate new traffic and get engagement from it.
There’s quite a big mindshift away from a graphical user interface to designing a conversation, what would you say were the biggest challenges?
I think the biggest challenge is to design for a non-visual layer. Facebook is a good example of something that’s in between a graphical user interface and a conversation, where you have a UI based on the conversation with the text as an element. Designing in this way requires a mindset shift because the highest level strategy is still the same. We have sources and have to find goals for each user. They don’t change whether you’re designing a landing page for Burberry.com or a conversation.
Conversational commerce needs to be a parallel route and it’s in this non-visual layer where you still have to design that journey. But in some ways it’s more straightforward to understand this because with bots you literally have a tree with different branches and dead ends. That means designing the constraints for a very clear and synthesised outcome is something new. The only place we currently do this is at the checkout, where you have one, two, three, four steps, and if three doesn’t work you reload the page. Only with bots you don’t have a reload, so you have to create that extra branch to either satisfy the user by helping them complete the task or explain that it’s not working.
But you also have to think about things from a taxonomy point of view. We started going back to that design thinking, where you really understand the needs and motivations of users on that type of platform. Understanding the user motivations to go onto that platform and interact with an assistant was one of our biggest challenges. We know that our customers are using messaging platforms, but we have to think carefully about why they need us to be there too. We all use messaging platforms for those one-to-one conversations with friends. They aren’t bots so we need to think about how we can humanise that technology and how we can create a taxonomy within a conversation. Then we have to look at how we orientate users through a conversation or text-based experience. I think those criteria are pretty hard to interpret.
Understanding the user motivations to go onto that platform and interact with an assistant was one of our biggest challenges. We know that our customers are using messaging platforms, but we have to think carefully about why they need us to be there too.
The other thing that is difficult for luxury brands is that you need a tone of voice to have a conversation with someone. There is a clear personality. We found translating our brand voice into a tone of voice pretty difficult as well.
And finally, the other part is service. How can we still be the best and deliver the luxury service that our customers are expecting? We’ve collaborated closely with the customer service department to understand not only the primary needs of our customers, but also the needs of the customer service team and how they work. For example, after shadowing online associates we discovered that one of the problems they face is a lot of spammers in terms of chat. The solution we came up with was to switch to a live chat experience instead of diving into a dead-end bot. That also brings back that brand voice and tone of voice that humanised the service, which worked because for a customer their primary motivation was to speak to somebody.
If the primary motivation for a user is to speak to somebody, is there a danger that people are then expecting too much of the intelligence they are getting?
Yes of course. I think we were guilty of this at the beginning to be honest, of thinking, ‘great we can do everything and it is going to be able to answer anything’. But in actual fact you have someone who is actually creating the copy and the answers, so this is why we are not using an AI, because we cannot, for example, contextualise an answer or create and train a brain.
After probably our fifth iteration, we created an FAQ bot to deal with the most probable questions customers have and this satisfies the majority of those who come to chat to find an answer. We are also super clear about what is available, and we’ve included a specific question about what a chatbot is, which explains what it can do and that’s an improvement we made to manage users’ expectations.
In a talk you gave us, you mentioned that you maybe hadn’t anticipated the importance of the copywriting element and how much of a key player they’d be in the team. How’s that worked because UX and copywriters haven’t always worked together that much, even though there’s a need to?
From a copywriting perspective the main thing to consider here is storytelling – and we already have this in-house within our PR team for instance. The conversation is a story, I would say a customer-centric story, but what I think you are talking about is the UX copy, which is things like calls to action, and how can we translate those UI elements into copy. For example, being able to embrace imagery as a call to action and send an image back had to come from UX saying those are the behaviours, those are the trends. We need a call to action to convey the next step, or help users navigate through the different areas of the bot, and we can suggest the most appropriate option.
From a copywriting perspective the main thing to consider here is storytelling.
Today art direction leads this brand perception, but in the messaging app copy is still important. As UX designers we suggest the copy to fit in with what we want to achieve and if it comes to the call to action which is ‘Show me more’ the copy will work within a constraint. However, messenger allows for 18 characters and sometimes our text can be too long, so that might mean we go back to the copywriters and ask if they can think of a shorter version. Because they are involved in that storytelling and understand the brand perception, they can often find a solution.
Are there any chatbots and AIs out there that have really impressed you? Any that you can recommend other people go and have a look at?
Off the top of my head there are three that for me are striking, and there’s a fourth one which became a service.
The first one is 24/7, which is the messenger bot for LVMH capsule. I think they nailed the tone of voice and really embraced that whimsical and friendly way of talking to and interacting with the user. They use gifs as well to add to that playfulness. They have a very good way of narrowing down your needs, so it’s really trained to understand their audience first and comes back with recommendations or a personal assistant.
Then we have Epytom, which recommends the top three outfits for you based on your current wardrobe. I think it’s pretty fascinating to use all the brands in that way. Every morning, I received an Epytom suggestion. I can choose the time I want a recommendation so I make sure it’s before I leave and then I know exactly what to wear and how to wear it etc.
Next is Cleo, which is the banking app. I’ve found it really interesting because they cracked a very hard, complex area which is trust. How can you trust a bot with your bank details? Is this literally going to scrap your data and your bank information and play around with you and tell you what to do? But they’ve cleared this hurdle and have massive adoption. I think that designing for this must have been really challenging, but I think it is leading to real success.
I also want to mention a TechCrunch winner called Aiden, which is billed as the first AI-powered coworker for marketers. Essentially it’s a bot dashboard. Most marketers have multiple dashboards nowadays, but what’s really striking about this bot is that it’s able to analyse what’s going on across all of them. You can submit a request, an intent, and it will respond with an actual graph and the information that you need. So from a bot, they create insight for marketers and I think this is brilliant.
There are almost too many bots, you just need to know which ones to use, which to look at, because who’s got the time to look at all of them?
I think someone created a platform where you can link bots into bots, but I think we have to understand that bots should be ubiquitous, we shouldn’t know that we are chatting to a bot. I mean we will know, but we shouldn’t go on the platform specifically to use one. It should just be a part of a product or a part of your journey; it could be like a specialist. If you need to change your address for example, it can dedicate a bot to this and tell you ‘I am now going to switch you to the bot, the assistant, and then you do this and then you come back into the real interaction’. If you need help on the e-commerce website, a bot can assist you for instance with on-boardings or tips. They could be conversational, or be a companion at the checkout. I want to create bots that are embedded as another element of the customer experience as a whole.
I think we have to understand that bots should be ubiquitous, we shouldn’t know that we are chatting to a bot. I mean we will know, but we shouldn’t go on the platform specifically to use one.
What’s the difference between a chatbot and AI?
I believe a chatbot is the output of AI. I don’t think there is a comparison. AI is data, while a chatbot interprets insight into text or a voice. So the brain is not the chatbot, the chatbot is the interface in front of the brain. Chatbots are a way of translating AI capabilities into the way we do things every day, such as messaging.
The AI – the brain – is what you train and augment with APIs and functionalities. You need a lot of data to create patterns, and from those patterns you extract insights. These insights are the output from a chatbot, and that’s the difference for me. The AI is processing and extracting the insights and the chatbot is simply delivering them.
Can you give me an example of a project you have worked on that you’re really proud of?
They’re all good because they’re all going live. There is not a lot of waste here, which is one of the reasons I like it; it’s not like an agency where you work crazy hours to do blue-sky thinking only to see just one thing out of this cloud of ideas get picked up. Here development is really conscious and valued.
One of the most exciting moments for me was seeing how the ‘find in-store’ feature became what’s probably our most adopted feature.
One of the most exciting moments for me was seeing how the ‘find in-store’ feature became what’s probably our most adopted feature. It allows you to check stock availability in other nearby stores, all over the world. What was interesting about this feature in particular is that it democratised a new behaviour. Sales associates actually use that feature in-store now to find items in other stores even though they already had their own system. I think that’s powerful design, when you design something for the customer, or the consumer, but it’s also used by a third party. I’m proud of it because it changed a game. Before, we just had the ‘add to bag’ button, but now customers have the ability to enjoy the experience of their purchase in-store; and god knows the experience is good at Burberry stores. From our perspective, instead of just having to sell online, it helps drive people to our stores where we can hopefully up-sell.
How did you get into UX?
I first discovered UX when I’d gone back to school to do a second Master’s degree in Engineering and Entrepreneurship, Innovation and Strategy. One of the things this school did was get everyone to find an internship over the summer and when you came back after the break you had to explain what you’d done, talk about your role, what was good and bad, and so on. The range of jobs was really broad – we had front-end guys, back-end engineers, marketing people, strategy, product managers.
I’d only just joined this school when one guy came and talked about a job that was new to me, one where you could be a designer, but also be involved in strategy and where you can also have a technical background. He was talking about UX design. That was my ‘wow’ moment. I spoke to him to learn more about it and from then on, I started to transform my whole workflow and mindset into UX design. I read all the articles and books I could find about initial design, interactional design, design thinking. So that was how I became a UX designer in my mind and then later I discovered information architecture (IA), which I started doing at my apprenticeship where I was the UX designer for the corporate site. As well as the IA, I was learning about the new web, how to do workshops and interviews to understand the business needs and how to find out who the users are. That was it and I was hooked.
I’d only just joined this school when one guy came and talked about a job that was new to me, one where you could be a designer, but also be involved in strategy and where you can also have a technical background. He was talking about UX design. That was my ‘wow’ moment.
What do you think separates a good UX designer from a great one?
I would say someone who is not reluctant to change. You can be really good at crafting, but often this tends to be driven by your own beliefs or assumptions, so being able to craft and adapt — so iterate on that craft — is what I’d say is the key and the difference between being good and great.
I also think you need to be obsessed, or passionate, about your product. You need to be obsessed with creating simple but great experiences and understand how that applies to the business strategy too. You need to be close to the strategy to fully understand the purpose of your design.
Being able to communicate that experience is also something that sets people who are great apart from people who are good. Being great isn’t just about saying ‘this is what I’ve done’, it’s about being able to influence. Sometimes that means you need to step back and watch. The key is understanding how to influence, because you’re not only influencing adoption, but a whole mindset and when you’re able to shift that mindset you become relevant.
Passion is important because that’s what will make you go beyond your understanding of things and ask questions as well as question yourself. I’m not even sure being good is enough anymore, because being great is becoming the norm in this competitive world where you have geniuses or other people shaping an environment. I think if you want to progress in your own field, and achieve greatness, you need that passion for your work.
How do you think we will be interacting with luxury fashion brands in the future? How do you think it will change?
I do believe the experience in-store will evolve in terms of having and creating an experience in-store as well as online. When you have the digital in between, that kind of physical environment is going to be key, either to skip the queue or to go directly to what you are looking for. Look at what Apple did for their store, where you experience the product, then you learn something, then you create that moment of pause for the customer. So, I think that from an ecommerce point of view it will probably be conversational, and in-store digital will personalise the experience.
I think we’ll see more personalisation, because today we create listeners – social listeners, bots, features etc. For example, you can select a style guide based on Hugo Boss to learn about what styles other people are wearing. Nike has an on-boarding screen where the first thing you do is select a size and then the whole product catalogue you see is based on this. Or Apple, which sells what’s available in stock in your nearest store and therefore all the navigation is based on your location.
Essentially the store will have to merge with digital and probably put more emphasis on the personalised experience, both online and in-store.
The conversational interface is something else that is well adopted. We had live chat before, now we have messaging. And in-store we’ll start to see smart screens. One of our competitors, Farfetch, is developing a service that is based on technology, so it’s going to be fantastic to see what is going on there as well. Essentially the store will have to merge with digital and probably put more emphasis on the personalised experience, both online and in-store.
Thinking outside of Burberry fashion ecommerce, in what other industries to you think chatbots will be most disruptive?
I’d say banking, finance, and other providers like telecoms and TV.
Thanks for reading. If you would like to be interviewed, or you’d like us to interview anyone in particular please get in touch.