I love to shop for groceries. I know, sounds weird, but I do. There is something incredibly “relaxing” (more on that in a moment) about just browsing shelves and shelves of pretty boxes and imagining the incredible dishes one might concoct after leaving the market. For those of you that think I’m a little strange (particularly women), is there any difference between that and shoe shopping? Basically, aside from the product in question, the shopping experience is universal given the right items.
I began to question what it is that I love so much about it. OK, yes, I like to cook. In fact, my other favorite thing to do is to cook for my wife and try to astound her with each meal. So it’s the result of my shopping that leads to cooking that leads to eating that leads to a smile on her face. Long way to get to a goal isn’t it? And an awful lot of effort just to end with a smile. So there must be more to it than that. I started to dissect each part of the process in an attempt to figure out why I would bother to go through such extremes.
I live on the Upper East Side in Manhattan, but I haven’t always. Grocery shopping in Manhattan can be exhilirating and frustrating all at once. On the one hand, I have the sheer fortune of being near Fairway Market on 86th Street. Fairway, billed as “a store like no other” is an incredible practical shopping oasis for the neighborhood. Yes, to be sure, there are many incredible food shopping venues around – Chelsea Market, Union Square Market, several good Whole Foods – but purely on price and breadth of product, Fairway has everyone beat hands down. So basically, I save money, and I get a lot of foods in a very small space.
The experience of shopping at Fairway is something in and of itself that is hard to describe other than “ordered pandemonium.” Much like the bustling city sidewalks, the aisles are literally full from end-to-end with people, carts, children, stockers. All stopping, checking, reaching, bending, lifting and moving together in concert, yet aimlessly disconnected.
The summation of my meandering thought is this…it is the entire user experience that is called into question here, and particularly because it is a long chain of events, it can’t be viewed as a singular thing. In fact, it has to be viewed as a series of interrelated, intertwined user experiences.
Package design is much like web design. Grocery shopping is much like surfing.
Fairway is a local supermarket, billed as “a market like no other.” For weeks they were advertising a product – “Figs and Satongo Chocolate” – and for weeks my wife spent hunting the shelves for it. And when she found it she bought six jars of it.
Product placement is SEO. Yes, the big companies will swallow up the smaller ones simply because they can spend more to “advertise” their value proposition. But every once in a while, a product will break out of the mold.
But then, so is the Web. In the ether, our requests and responses traverse the digital aisles with incredible precision, relatively low rates of error, and manage to make it to the checkout counter unscathed. This whole exercise is user experience in and of itself, and as a digital society we’ve highly atuned ourselves to the entire process – how fast is a site on desktop versus mobile, how does RWD improve or degrade the content delivery, how does browser rendering mess with design? And does it really matter in the end? At the end of the day, do you remember the pixels that make up the sites you visit or do you remember the content inside it? Do you remember the shades of colors in the background or the overall experience of the visit? Do you keep the box your pasta came in or do you discard it?
The point is that user experience over time persists, but design in general does not. It doesn’t mean we hate the design, but maybe we are inundated with too much of it. I’m a weird guy – I love to grocery shop. I love the experience of it, I love combing the aisles for little food finds, yet I actually hate surfing the Web. At one point a few years back, the rocket-rise of Flickr was attributed to a phenomenon called serendipitous browsing and if anything, that’s what my food shopping experience is like (I can’t say that for my regular shopping, which I can do without altogether). But I still can’t do it on the Web. I get bored.