Why Businesses Should Start Blending Digital with Physical 2

Why Businesses Should Start Blending Digital with Physical

Digital has certainly held the spotlight when it comes to innovative design in recent decades. But a major shift is occurring as brands are looking towards blending physical products with digital capabilities. There’s one big advantage to this from a user’s perspective. The combination of both tangible products and ubiquitous digital creates a marriage between sensory experiences. One prime example is wearable technology, that links both data-driven functionality with the physical experience of interacting by touch with something you can carry with you, wherever you are.

These advancements in technology are one driving force behind the trend of what’s being coined “phygital” products. We not only have the capability to extend the touchpoints of digital beyond the traditional PC or mobile, it’s also becoming cheaper to make products that do this. This is opening up the doors to possibility when it comes to digitising physical devices to streamline the experience and give users new ways of shopping, gaming, and accessing entertainment.

What the user wants

There’s another big reason behind the movement towards combining physical and digital. User experience has been on the lips of designers for some time, and there’s been an increased clamour from industry experts to focus on UX when designing digital products. But through listening to what people want, it’s becoming clear that physical still holds an important place in the picture when it comes to user experiences.

The worry over increased screen time and the effects this has on us isn’t a new concept. Ultimately, people are trying to find ways of managing increased screen addition. But that’s not all that’s going on here. When you consider what the user actually wants from a product, physical or digital, you’ll find that people want simplistic, streamlined, high functioning user experiences.

As impressive as the tech we now have is, from Blockchain to AI and the Internet of Things, people generally don’t care. All they want to see is something that’s intuitive and that makes their lives easier. This, combined with an appetite for less screen time and more sensory experiences is adding fuel to the fire, encouraging more companies to develop products that bridge the gap between physical and digital.

The brands leading the way

You only have to look at the number of digital brands exploring the idea of creating a physical presence to see how pervasive the phygital trend is becoming. Industry giants like Airbnb and Deliveroo are among them, while other smaller brands are focussing on designs that enhance user experiences through combining the two worlds.

Over at Microsoft, they’ve developed Project Zanzibar, an initiative that explores the blending of both physical and digital in new ways. With a physical mat to work from, people are able to play with tangible objects, like cards and blocks and watch them come alive on screen. Simple yes, but the innovative part is that every object has its own unique identifier. This allows people to use the mat for gaming with others, collecting points and create stories for each object. The potential for a product like this is seemingly endless.

Elsewhere, or should we say specifically in Seattle, ubiquitous retail giant Amazon has been busy creating a physical platform to enhance their online services. The Amazon Go shop uses cameras to monitor items taken from its shelves, and the customer is charged automatically as they exit. Users simply need to download an app before they enter the store to purchase. This seamless shopping experience completely eliminates checkouts, but doesn’t get rid of store staff, who are on hand prepping sandwiches for lunchtime shoppers and advising on choices.

Making designs customer-focussed

Innovations like these certainly are inspiring, and it’s easy to get carried away with the possibilities technology now presents to combine these two worlds. The danger, is forgetting the user in the excitement. Experts argue that there is a gap to be bridged between producers and consumers. After all, user experience and keeping what people want front of mind is what’s fuelling the phygital trend in the first place.

Perhaps the biggest hurdle is getting over the innate idea that physical and digital are separate. Considering them as part of the same picture will free designers up to consider the real possibilities we now have at our fingertips. Being able to provide solutions for people that create links between the two worlds is what’s important. Products that answer a need and offer an invisible connected solution for day-to-day life. This, however, will require a major attitude shift at many organisations as they restructure teams to fit this mindset and create the products people are demanding.

Convenience and functionality

Digital and physical touchpoints have long been considered as two separate entities. Now, thanks to new technologies and lower production costs, it’s possible to create connected devices that live in both worlds. The reason why this is so relevant, is that users are expecting more of sophisticated, connected solutions that streamline the way they live their lives. Less concerned with the clever tech behind these advancements, like anything in the UX sphere, this is all about convenience and functionality.

But companies have a long way to go to meet consumer’s expectations for phygital products. But by putting UX at the heart of their designs and evolving the way they operate to manage client and customer demand; the future really is there for taking.

Andrew Machin
Andrew Machin

With over 25 years’ experience in UX and digital strategy, Andrew has helped many national and global brands such as John Lewis, Harley Davidson, Johnson & Johnson, and Interflora create exceptional digital product experiences.

Through the success of such projects Andrew has received high-profile accolades that span innovation, strategy, and design, such as the Dadi Grand Prix Award and the Digital Impact Award for Innovation.

This experience has led to Andrew judging digital design awards, been featured in .net magazine, lecturing at Leeds university, and speaking at seminars and conferences across the UK.

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