Why emotionally intelligent technology could transform how you give gifts

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What are you and the technology team at Photobox Group currently working on?

We have a hugely exciting proposition here at the Photobox Group that is the main reason why most people come to work here. As Europe’s leading digital consumer service for personalised products and gifts, and the parent company of four well loved household brands such as Moonpig, Photobox, Hofmann and posterXXL, we are all about making someone’s day brilliant.

But as we are creating over 20 million completely unique products yearly, there are no solutions available for us to buy off the shelf, we have to build all of our technology in-house. Which is challenging but at the same time, very exciting.

But the technology isn’t just thinking about our online, consumer facing platforms. We’re also building technology for our production sites, as we manufacture 90 per cent of the products we sell. Imagine anything from photobooks, to unique artwork, to the very latest personalised apparel, gifts and greeting cards. These things enable our customers across 15 countries to share memories, celebrate great moments and inject personal expression into their everyday lives.

The latest thing we are working on is what we call ‘Emotionally Intelligent Technology’. The majority of products purchased on our brands’ sites are gifts, and gifting is a strong indicator of emotional intelligence as it helps build stronger relationships. Every time we make a moment real for our customers, we show emotional intelligence and release an emotional reaction in others.

This is why we are rolling out a series of new AI-enabled services to help consumers create even more thoughtful personalised gifts and help them use their pictures to tell more powerful stories.

Have there been any stand-out achievements or serious challenges over the past year?

We are the guardians of Europe’s largest consumer photo database and we add around one billion photographs every year. That’s a phenomenal amount of data, and we were starting to hit the edge of what we could physically store. Additionally all that hardware requires maintenance which ties the team up when they should be focusing on innovating and improving the customer experience.

This is why we moved Photobox’s 9 petabytes of data onto the cloud. Moving such large amounts of data was an epic undertaking and required our teams to work around the clock to find solutions. However, AWS has been a great partner for us. While we found some constraints with the hardware devices initially, the hurdles were quickly overcome and the result was phenomenal, enabling us to finish the migration project five months ahead of schedule.

But that’s not all. Last year we also replatformed the Photobox website, and our new architecture now enables us to evolve our user journeys, our business process and our product lines rapidly and independently to drive innovation and growth for our brands.

This means that our technology can now finally keep pace with our imaginations, and that’s crucial, as we’re quite a creative bunch. Amongst other projects, we’re looking at how we can improve the customer experience through AI.

What will be a major project for you in the coming year?

Now that we’ve replatformed Photobox and moved all its data onto the cloud, we are looking to use those learnings to streamline a revolutionary new platform project for Moonpig, built completely in the cloud. Watch this space, as there’s more to come on this soon.

What are your future ambitions for working in the AI and big data space?

Currently I see the biggest opportunity for AI is to help build photobooks. We know that it takes our customers an average 2 weeks to build a book so we built a highly specialised AI and machine learning team in our Paris office to help out.

However, we have found that our customers don’t want technology to take over as they enjoy the creative process and living through their most cherished memories. So we started working with psychologists to map out the emotional journey of this process and where users want AI assistance. This is why we say our AI is emotionally intelligent.

We are in the process of rolling out the first iterations of these AI-powered photobooks, but it will be a longer process, improving our technology as people start to use it for smarter and more personalised recommendations.

For Moonpig there is also a huge potential in using AI for smarter recommendations for gifting as it’s an area no-one in the industry has cracked yet.

What are the organisational challenges of managing a 270+ strong tech team across different brands and how do you overcome them?

A major priority for us this year has been to create a work environment for our teams in which they can thrive. We moved our Paris Tech Hub into a fantastic new office in the centre of the city and we also just opened our Group HQ in London in Herbal House.

The moves have been part of a broader cultural transformation. We have built the office designs from the ground-up, around a full analysis of the company culture and ethos to create an environment that supports collaborative and agile ways of working. In Herbal House the space moves beyond a traditional desk environment, and is clustered around numerous cross-functional squads that work autonomously across the brands. The four-storey, completely open-plan office provides every squad a variety of flexible work, daily stand-up and collaboration spaces. The benefits are already clear - our employees are more engaged and are already smashing their targets.

What do you think will be the next technology breakthrough in personalisation?

The next  breakthrough will be in redefining our relationship with personalisation technology, understanding the purposes it can serve in helping us connect emotionally with one another in ways that do not detract from the human experience. Ultimately, personalisation technology is something of a misnomer because, in the future, when it works best, the focus will only be on the personal relationships it’s boosting rather than the technology itself.

Richard Orme, CTO, Photobox Group
Image source: Shutterstock/everything possible