5 customer experience insights for retailers using augmented reality apps

Augmented reality (AR) is cutting-edge technology that allows for a digitally enhanced view of the real world, often overlaying information, such as video, sound and audio onto products and services, using the inbuilt camera, sensors, microphones and GPS systems in a smartphone or tablet.  This brief article gives some best practice UX guidelines to consider to retailers who are developing an app in this space to help ensure it is a success.

Background: Examples of Augmented Reality

The popularity of AR apps has taken off significantly in the last 18 months, with some really great examples of successful campaigns including the Halifax homefinder app in 2012, or the 2014 IKEA catalogue, which lets customers place furniture items in their homes, determining if the fit is the right one for their space.

IKEA 2014 Augmented reality app screenshot

Augmented Reality in Retail

For retailers mobile devices are a vital element of the sales and decision-making processes e.g. both in pre-sales research, price comparison in-store, and transacting on the device itself.

We now have mobile devices that have the capability of working in very context-aware computing environments and things have come a long way since early examples of Augmented reality in the film The Terminator (1984). Augmented reality apps can help create a much deeper relationship with the customer and these can be used at home, in store or out in the wild. These can greatly benefit the retailer, improving the online conversion rate and reducing returns.

AR apps will continue to grow and evolve into something that will play a major part in our daily interactions with technology.  According to Juniper Research, mobile augmented reality apps will generate nearly $300 million in revenues and reach $5.2 billion in 2017.

1. Discoverability

Not all users will know that they can interact with your product or service with their mobile device or smartphone, so clear thought must be given to how they will discover that additional content is available. We have seen several examples of companies, who provide a physical marker on a product, which the user often does not know is there, or does not know they need a companion app to download and access the additional content. Just because you have added a graphical icon to a physical product does not mean a user will discover and understand what they need to do. Will they be willing to install the app?

2. Safety and Privacy

Will the user still be able to navigate the onscreen activity and also remain safe in their environment, particularly if they are walking or driving and following a mapping service with an overlay. In the Halifax homefinder app example, when using this and looking at houses is there a potential risk to their safety? If an augmented reality app connects with social networking accounts such as Facebook and Twitter, does this bring the user more into harms way? The AR app needs to consider implications around ethics, privacy and the ability for the user to control what or how much of their information is broadcast in a social context.

3. Simple Intuitive Interaction

Not all users will know how they can interact with your product or service with their mobile device or smartphone. How easy are the actions, gestures or interactions to complete using the phone? Are they socially acceptable norms that work in the local culture or context? Some interactions or gestures work well in one culture, but do not translate, or have different meanings internationally. How will they need to hold the device in context of their task e.g. holding shopping bags, or trying on an item of clothing. Will this interaction be socially acceptable in the space or context the user is in?

4. Inclusive Design

Whilst AR apps can appeal to a broad range of customers, it is important to remember that not all users have full use of their senses. AR apps should address Inclusive Design and not rely on users being able to see, hear or feel the interface in isolation.

5. Prototype the Service

With AR apps its really important to understand the context of use, the task context and user goals. We propose that you prototype the service in a low-fidelity way with sketches, acting and observations to help you understand if the idea is feasible and works in the chosen context. Just because you can technically make an app using the features of the phone, it does not mean users will be prepared to actually use it.  For example if the interaction takes a long period of time to complete, would holding up a tablet be appropriate? You can run the session using techniques such as experience prototyping, or the ‘Wizard of Oz’ to gain early feedback on how all the component parts hang together.


Augmented reality apps on smartphones are an increasingly vital part of defining and improving your customer experience strategy, and are going to be used more and more over the coming years.  The successful implementations will consider things like the context of use and customer interactions in more detail, as well as balancing this with the technical features of the smartphones, that will be released in the years to come.


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