DX Leader Katrina Taylor of Armoire. Quote: "An experience without personalization is better than an experience with inaccurate personalization"

Over the course of her career, Katrina Taylor has seen the paramount role carefully crafted digital experiences play in ensuring continued customer engagement, loyalty and retention.

The different types of recurring, subscription experiences she’s developed range from Men’s Health magazine while at Rodale, through child sponsorship at World Vision, and now clothing rental at Armoire. “At their core, these are all things that help people become the best version of themselves — be it through getting healthier, giving back, or showing up to work in a dress that makes you feel like a million bucks,” Taylor said. “At the end of the day, my job is to create digital experiences that make people feel good.”

Taylor is currently head of user experience and product design for Armoire, a data-driven fashion rental service, which she joined in July. She describes her role as representing the voice of the Armoire customer, “translating her needs, pain points, and aspiration into a curated, unlimited closet.” She’s keenly aware of those requirements, having already been an Armoire customer prior to coming onboard the organization.

Harnessing Qualitative User Research

Taylor fell into the digital world by accident, after studying creative writing and art at Dana College, with no solid plan for how to translate those long-held passions into a career. Her way into technology was via her art department’s brand-new interactive media design program.

“I had never owned a computer. I didn’t even have an email address,” Taylor said. “But I decided to give digital a try, and was instantly hooked.” In graduate school at Syracuse University, she then supplemented her design and storytelling expertise with technical skills.

Taylor also had her first experience with user interviews in a qualitative research class. “I remember thinking to myself, ‘This is fun, but when am I ever going to actually use this?’” she said. “Little did I know that qualitative user research would become a cornerstone of my career in digital experience.”

Taylor is a speaker at CMSWire’s DX Summit taking place Nov. 4–6 at the Marriott Marquis hotel in Chicago. She will be giving a session at the conference titled “Live Tour: Machine Learning + Human Empathy” on Tuesday, Nov. 5.

We spoke with Taylor to get her thoughts on personalization and contextualization; why it’s so important that organizations draw on both data and human-sourced insights to create optimal digital experiences; and some best practices digital experience advice for organizations.

Best-in-Class Digital Experiences Are Owned by Everyone

CMSWire: Where do you see the primary gaps today in the kinds of digital experiences that organizations are delivering to their customers and the kinds of digital experiences that those customers are expecting? 

Taylor: I see the primary gaps in providing meaningful personalization and contextualization. Life is chaotic, and we gravitate toward experiences that can streamline our daily routine by serving up the exact content, product or service we’re looking for in that moment. There’s nothing better than when Spotify recommends the perfect song you never knew existed!

But personalization is difficult to do, and even more challenging to do well. I recently visited an online retailer who offered me personalized recommendations for several pieces of maternity clothing. Being that I’m not pregnant, this was a huge turn-off. No personalization is better than inaccurate personalization.

I also think transparency is imperative. This was especially important during my tenure in the non-profit sector, and is quickly becoming expected across industries. Customers are tired of being overly marketed to and crave raw authenticity from brands they engage and identify with. Trust is priceless, and candor trumps perfection every day of the week.

CMSWire: What advice would you have for organizations who may be overly eager to take a purely data-driven approach to digital customer experience through the harnessing of AI and machine learning?

Taylor: I have a good friend who recently dined at a restaurant completely run by robots. When I asked her how the food was, she responded with “Terrible! It tasted like it was made by robots!” It’s a prime example of using technology purely for the sake of novelty. While the experience might be interesting, it isn’t sustainable if the quality isn’t there.

AI, machine learning, and automation can do some pretty amazing things, but it’s vital to remember that certain experiences — like dinner at a nice restaurant — are an art form that still require an element of human touch.

We’re still in the very early days of AI and machine learning. When organizations jump into a purely automated experience, they risk losing the human element that machine learning is still mastering. 

CMSWire: Why is it so important that companies don’t neglect the human element and customer empathy as they use data to create more personalized experiences?

Taylor: At Armoire, we understand that the way women choose clothing is incredibly complex. Our members make decisions around fashion based on hard and fast rules like fit, color and pattern, but there are also several subjective and even emotional factors that come into play.

Rental also introduces different behaviors — a customer may be compelled to select something they would never consider purchasing, because the commitment and risk are so much lower.  

We solve for this complexity by leveraging both data and people to service our members through curation. Our recommendation algorithm uses customer data and item attributes to serve up a personalized virtual closet. Our remote and in-person stylists also do this, using active listening, emotional intelligence, and human instinct.

This hybrid approach offers reciprocal benefits — our stylists and merchandising team are able to use data from the algorithm to deliver a better experience and make strategic inventory decisions. On the tech side, we leverage human insights from our stylists — who interface with customers daily — to improve the algorithm. Each side makes the other stronger.

CMSWire: What best practices would you share about how organizations can translate active listening to their customers into building new digital experiences which target individual consumers?

Taylor: It’s absolutely critical to build experiences based on both quantitative and qualitative data. Most organizations can look at their analytics and have a solid understanding of what is going on in their digital experience. But all too often, I see teams making dangerous assumptions about why these things are happening, because they aren’t listening to customers.

The first thing I recommend is implementing a simple feedback system to collect customer input at a macro level. It’s impossible to listen to your customers if they don’t have an easy way to get in touch with you. An ongoing feedback loop provides a valuable bird’s-eye view of customer needs and pain points, and can be easily aggregated to show trends and critical issues. 

The next step is getting a micro view of your customers. In other words, sitting down and having a face-to-face conversation. It’s amazing how many companies fail to do this! If there’s one thing I’ve learned in the past 12 years, it’s that something as simple as lunch with a customer can be just as valuable as millions of data points.

CMSWire: How should companies think about combining quantitative and qualitative data to deliver more compelling digital customer experiences?

Taylor: The real magic happens when the quantitative and qualitative data merge.

Unfortunately, this is often where the breakdown happens. Insights are handled by different departments who rarely communicate. Important information from feedback loops are channeled to the wrong teams. Leadership makes uninformed decisions because they don’t have all the data. Quantitative and qualitative feedback are evaluated in isolation. 

The best digital experiences come from collaborative teams who harness the power of analytics and human insights in tandem. They communicate findings frequently, and in a way that is easily digestible to all levels of their organization.

Best-in-class experiences are owned by everyone — from CEOs to entry-level employees. You want a compelling digital experience? Have your people talk to each other. It’s as simple as that.

CMSWire: Which other industries do you see as ripe for the rental subscription-based services model embraced by Armoire and other retailers? How do these models benefit companies and their customers?

Taylor: Subscription rental is the future, and it’s exciting to see it opening up so many new possibilities for consumers across industries. We’re realizing that experiencing more while owning less makes financial sense, supports sustainability, and is just more fun! The model also benefits retailers as ongoing revenue is generated using fewer, shared items — it’s a much more efficient merchandising strategy.

I definitely see children’s products as a huge opportunity for subscription rental, primarily because clothing, toys, and other items have such a short window of usage. Selfishly, I’d also love to see fine art move into the space — imagine having a new original painting to hang in your home each month!

CMSWire: As AI and personalization technologies become more sophisticated, what kind of additional experiences would you expect organizations to be able to offer customers in the next three to five years?

Taylor: As AI and personalization advance, I look forward to seeing contextualization used in new and exciting ways.

We’re currently seeing experiences account for attributes like weather, time and location. I believe this is just the beginning of truly leveraging a user’s context.

The challenge will be furthering contextualization in meaningful ways, while respecting growing concerns around privacy and data protection.

CMSWire: If you were putting together the perfect outfit for the work week, what would it consist of and why? What parallels do you see between the tailor-made worlds of fashion design and user experience design? What useful lessons might designers in those two different spheres learn from each other?

Taylor: The beauty of renting from Armoire is that my perfect outfit can (and does) change on a daily basis! But if I had to choose, it would be one of our Diane von Furstenberg wrap dresses. Her pieces are the perfect combination of flattering and comfortable, and I love standing out in her signature bold prints. And — if I’m being totally honest — there’s something very satisfying about wearing a $500 dress without having to spend $500!

There’s absolutely a crossover between fashion design and UX design — perhaps the most obvious is that a beautiful garment and a stellar digital experience are both ultimately created to surprise and delight.

A great UX designer walks the fine line of enhancing the experience without overdesigning. We stay out of the user’s way, making it as simple as possible for them to complete the task they are focused on.

A strong fashion designer should do the same: crafting a piece that is beautiful and special without being distracting. I don’t care how gorgeous a dress is, if it’s so uncomfortable or impractical that it steals focus from whatever I’m working on, I’m not wearing it again!

Learn more about the Digital Customer Experience (DX) Summit here.