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Experimentation in an age of risk

(Image credit: Image Credit: Rawpixel / Pixabay)

Risk mitigation is a central tenet to business success, but it has reached a new level of importance since the Covid-19 pandemic emerged. It comes as no surprise as to why business leaders are taking a particularly risk-averse approach under the current climate, but this does not mean they can’t experiment.

Businesses are having to try completely new things to adapt to current restrictions and regulations, while also facing the reality that failure to get it right could be fatal for their business. Look at hospitality for example. In late September, the UK government announced that table service was mandatory for all hospitality venues, meaning those without the technology or infrastructure to allow for table order payment processes were immediately in trouble.

Restaurants, bars and cafes needed to adapt quickly, producing mobile applications and rolling them out rapidly. As these pieces of technology are developed, they need to be customer ready to avoid the entire operation falling apart. Like dominos falling, an error in the ordering system can lead to the kitchen getting the wrong instructions, causing a backlog of orders, angry customers, and increased waiting times across the board.

This isn’t just isolated to the hospitality sector. Across retail, traditionally in-store focused businesses such as Aldi are having to adapt and create digital offerings for customers, as the future of high-street retail looks to be in jeopardy. For example, Lidl recently pushed forward the launch of its app as part of wider expansion plans to meet demand. However, if this fails to perform, shoppers will quickly look to other grocers who are able to offer a more streamlined digital experience.

When time is no longer a luxury businesses can afford, and customers demand better digital experiences, it can look like you are stuck between a rock and a hard place. How can you try new things quickly while also minimizing risk? By embracing experimentation. With experimentation, businesses can continually test and find ways to adapt to the fast-changing needs of customers, and better secure their position in the long-term.

Dip your toe in before you take the plunge

Launching a new application or digital offering is a risky proposition. Even the most well designed and researched features can potentially harm an applications’ performance and business metrics. Rolling back a poor-performing feature can be time consuming and costly, as Snapchat and Instagram have both found out in the past, when redesigns missed the mark. However, it doesn’t have to be. Teams that implement feature management and experimentation into their development lifecycle can reduce risk, limit blast radius if there are issues or rollbacks needed, and prove impact when launching new features.

Let’s look back to our restaurant example to see this in action. With street food venues such as Boxpark and StreetFeast migrating all ordering to apps, there are countless things which could go wrong. As dishes go out of stock, kitchens need to be able to quickly communicate that to an app in the same way they would communicate to waiting staff during normal service. If this isn’t clear enough for the end user, or not an easy enough process for a busy chef to handle, customer experience will ultimately suffer. What if, as service is ongoing, an issue appears? The people in charge of technology will need to be able to make changes quickly and minimize the number of customers impacted.

This is where experimentation comes in. Being able to test different variables and experiences with an initial portion of customers, means you can learn what resonates well and invest in rolling that out more widely. Whilst anything that doesn’t hit the mark can be adapted, quickly fixed, or stopped completely, without needing to take down the entire site or app. Using the real time user feedback generated through ‘test and learn’ experimentation can allow any issues to be minor inconveniences, rather than huge, costly, mistakes.

Changing times, changing demands

Experimentation is also helping businesses keep up with consumer demands, which is changing faster than ever before. Ongoing uncertainty related to the pandemic makes it nearly impossible for brands to guess how customers will behave in a few months and how many more changes we will see in customer behavior in the years to follow.

We are seeing leading businesses experimenting now more than ever before. Take Marks & Spencers for example. M&S recently made its click-and-collect strategy a key focus of its accelerated digital transformation program, ‘Never the Same Again.’ It announced it would provide in-store contactless collection, and a ‘drive-through’ click-and-collect. This is a completely novel move for the retailer, and as it is rolled out across the country, they will need to be agile in their delivery. By paying close attention to customer engagement and any pain points as it is being engaged with, M&S can make smart decisions around how it can continue to enhance the program and delight customers further.

Since economic forecasts have shown that a rapid return to "normal" is unlikely for nearly every industry, it's vital for brands to remain agile to changing customer behaviors and market conditions. The only way that organizations will successfully navigate this period of uncertainty is if they embrace an iterative test and learn approach.

With experimentation at the core as a business compass, businesses can truly adapt to anything.

Jil Maassen, Lead Strategy Consultant, Optimizely (opens in new tab)

Through her daily work Jil facilitates transformation of mindsets, drives cultural shift of leadership & product teams, and encourages replacement of digital guesswork with evidence-based optimization. With an extensive background in the startup world as well as management consulting, Jil is originally from Germany and has lived and/or worked in 16 countries. She is currently based in Amsterdam and works as a Senior Strategy Consultant with Optimizely's global client base.