AIAIO: Our Blog

AIAIO: Our Blog

The pulse and reviews of Alexander Interactive

GetTaxi Brings Israeli Startups to Ai Offices

GetTaxiConference

Ai’s office was proud to play host to GetTaxi’s Israeli tech startup gathering and Ron Huldai, the Mayor of Tel Aviv, this afternoon. A wide array of Isael-based tech companies met in our uber-comfy Sofaplex to discuss technologies ranging from mobile payment systems to personalized video advertisements their firms have developed.

Host GetTaxi is an Israel-based smartphone app whose New York location is managed out of Ai’s NYC office. Their app, which is currently live in Tel Aviv, London, Moscow and St. Petersburg, digitally hails taxis for 10,000 rides per day. GetTaxi is planning on launching its New York City service this year.

Other companies that displayed their wares at today’s meeting included: Wix, Pango, BillGuard, ADagoo, Mobil, LoyalBlocks, and Eyeview.

“Tel Aviv is home to 700 startups,” said Huldai ,”and we are excited by those that spread their branches to include the Big Apple.”

Ai

Usability & Design: When Does One Trump the Other?

Josh Levine, Ai’s Chief Experience Officer, presented his session: “UX & Design: When Does One Trump the Other?” with Jordan Lustig, Director of Product Management for Saks Fifth Avenue.

Josh Levine, Ai’s Chief Experience Officer, presented his session: “UX & Design: When Does One Trump the Other?” with Jordan Lustig, Director of Product Management for Saks Fifth Avenue.

The presentation explored the delicate balance and interplay between User Experience and Design in e-commerce website production from both a designer and retailer’s point of view.

Check out Josh’s presentation below or download the full presentation.

Ai

Technical Debt and The Planning Fallacy

Construction of the Gatun lock, Panama Canal, 1912.

If you ask me how long it will take to do a familiar but substantial task, chances are I’ll give you a wrong answer. I will tell you, “That will take me two days,” when in fact it has never taken me two days. Perhaps it has always taken at least three, and usually four. But I’m unable to think accurately enough about the past to reach this conclusion, especially if you ask me directly. This is a rough explanation of the Planning Fallacy, one of the most fascinating and pervasive cognitive biases. We all suffer from it when we make estimates, and it is especially acute with off-the-cuff estimates intended for an audience. We feel the pressure of judgment on our estimates, and unconsciously seek approval by providing optimistic and incorrect numbers.

Hofstadter’s Law formulates the cognitive puzzle embedded in this fallacy:

It always takes longer than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter’s Law.

Knowing about the Planning Fallacy isn’t enough to escape its influence.

Multiply this estimation inaccuracy by a large number—a factor determined by the complexity of the project—and this accounts for the primary reason that most projects fail to deliver on time. The “padding” that individuals, their managers, and their managers’ managers regularly add to work estimates is often whittled away during the piecemeal negotiation that falls between the estimation and commitment phases, leaving the original, overly optimistic estimates.

The bottom line is, and always has been, that estimates we make at the beginning of a project, because they are made in ignorance of the future, and because the Planning Fallacy distorts our thinking, all too often range from Pollyannaish to tragically mistaken. See Jim Benson’s Why Plans Fail for a concise and revelatory spelunking into the depths of the planning mind.

When we allow a project to be bound by our initial estimates, whether they were constructed with the best of intentions but subject to the Planning Fallacy, hampered by a misunderstanding of the requirements, distorted to meet the demands of the client, or simply doomed to irrelevance by the inevitable array of exigencies that befall every project, we force reality into an inappropriate container.

But we still need to execute on the project plan, whatever its condition. Content strategy, UX, information architecture, conceptual design, applied design, rounds of approval and review: these initial phases may expand as they attempt to capture the entirety of emerging requirements, and subsequent phases become necessarily further compressed.

The technology team deals with this compressed time frame by (a) being galactic geniuses (I am not biased) and (b) making compromises. Compromises can be deliberative and explicit, panicked and hidden, or half-heartedly considered and partially documented by inline code comments.

Some compromises are driven by a clear-eyed assessment of the border between Minimally Sufficient and Fancy. Although programmers are famously lazy, they are just as often driven (by Larry Wall’s #3, Hubris) to engineer the perfect solution where an adequate one is the optimal path. Choosing adequate over perfect means that we can reserve precious engineering time for the hairier tasks, or the unexpected but inevitable road bumps that put further pressure on development schedules: bugs in the platform or a crucial module, foibles of the programming language, unexpected complexity in meeting a functional requirement, iterations between UI design and software implementation, and so on.

We can expect road bumps, but we can’t plan for them. If we start a development cycle with an unrealistic schedule estimate, then we can just expect to be late from the start. In an atmosphere like this, ill-considered compromises are almost inevitable. These compromises constitute the primary source of technical debt introduced to a new code base. We can only hope that the developers at least take the time to add TODO-style comments to mark the code they’d like to refactor in the future.

You can find these later:

$ find . -type f -exec grep -i todo {} \;

(Try that in Magento Enterprise 1.12’s app/code directory: 171 of them. It happens to the best of us.)

There are basically two strategies here:

  1. Minimize bad technical debt* and stress by renegotiating the release schedule
  2. Plan to address bad debt in a subsequent release

#1 is vastly preferable. #2 is only possible if you can isolate and track the debt, and push off developing new features in favor of addressing old problems. This often requires a heightened level of transparency between the technical and business teams. Otherwise, building new features on top of crufty, debt-ladened code will hinder progress on the features, slow your development velocity, increase the overall error rate, and reduce your ROI by alarming numbers.

How to minimize contact with this Planning-to-Debt problem: Plan to revise your estimates. Regardless of your project methodology and how it incorporates estimates, educate all project stakeholders as to the reality of estimation, if it’s not already abundantly clear. Help the team to understand that the process of estimation is more valuable than the estimates it produces.

* “Bad technical debt”: Not all technical debt is bad. Another useful distinction is short-term versus long-term debt.

Technology

Come See Ai at IRWD

Design vs. Usability

Ai is back in Orlando, Florida, and we want to see you!

We are at the Internet Retailer Web Design and Usability Conference at the Omni Orlando Resort at ChampionsGate. Our booth is #400 in the Conference Exhibit Hall, and we are discussing the latest and greatest in web design through tomorrow, Wednesday, February 13.

IRWD focuses on the latest strategies to communicate product quality, brand identity and increase conversion rates on the web.

Josh Levine, Ai’s Chief Experience Officer, will be presenting a session titled “UX & Design: When Does One Trump the Other?” tomorrow at 1:30pm with Jordan Lustig, Director of Product Management for Saks Fifth Avenue. We would love to see you there. The presentation will discuss how to balance the best of user experience and design from both a designer and retailer’s point of view.

IRWD Booth 400

Ai

Magento core bug: Unable to save config changes

In the latest releases of Magento Community and Enterprise Editions (1.7.0.2 and 1.12.0.2), there’s a core bug that throws a PHP Notice when you try to save certain configuration screens. For instance, when saving from the Advanced tab:

The code in question is this:

<?php

/**
 * Get field backend model
 */
$backendClass = $fieldConfig->backend_model;
if (!$backendClass) {
    $backendClass = 'core/config_data';
}

?>

The bug report on Magento is here (registration required).

It’s curious that both the bug report and this discussion suggest you add

<?php

unset($backendClass);

?>

before this code block. Strange, since this code block explicitly assigns new values to $backendClass one way or the other.

This solution has worked for us — just some additional value-checking:

<?php

/**
 * Get field backend model
 */
if (!is_object($fieldConfig) || empty($fieldConfig->backend_model)) {
    $backendClass = 'core/config_data';
}
else {
    $backendClass = $fieldConfig->backend_model;
}

?>

I’d be curious to hear any arguments about what memory-management magic the explicit unset() call would invoke here.

Gist file here: https://gist.github.com/4664829

Technology

Technical debt in your bug tracker

Special thanks to Dan Pasette for his insights into how an engineering team like 10gen’s manages technical debt in their issue tracker.

If you work on software, you most likely use a bug tracker to track defects, manage development tasks, and plan releases. The collection of tickets, open and closed, is a data set that doubles as a repository of institutional memory about your software: what components have been the most complex (i.e., have spawned the most bugs)? Who worked on what, when? What issues did the developers grapple with over the course of delivering on a requirement or resolving a defect? What compromises did the team decide to make (or, worse, what were they forced to make) to hit a deadline? What’s never been fixed, left to fester in a dark corner?

You may have other documentation sources for your software: end-user docs, developer handoff docs, long and tortuous email chains, wiki pages, and inline documentation in the code base itself. But, if consistently used, a bug tracker can show the underbelly of the development process in remarkable detail. It is here where teams can probe their work history to uncover decisions and issues that we can categorize as technical debt. (Example: Open the longest-active project in your issue tracker, and find the oldest unresolved bug. Behold.)

And once we have classified bugs as technical debt, that can be its own component—a component we should consider as first-class, along with mission-critical and user-facing components. Unlike other components, which must be maintained and improved, technical debt must be managed. It is an emergent component that we should assume will always be present in a system.

This kind of emergent debt is what happens when we gain insight into the longstanding problems in a system, when we start to trace one problem back to a past decision, well-considered or otherwise. We can find the areas where we have built workarounds over the compromise and complexity we originally injected into the system.

And the status of these issues as bugs means that we have already filtered out most non-harmful technical debt (I am squarely in the “not all technical debt is bad” camp): if the team implemented a shortcut that never caused or registered as a problem, it’s not in the bug tracker to begin with.

Just as importantly, in some situations we can choose to split these bugs into actionable sub-tickets, and cast off the rest. If, for instance, an old bug has to do with a component that has architectural flaws, but which is used more and more rarely, we can choose just to address the surface problems, knowing that the underlying debt in this instance will get zeroed out when we finally sunset this component completely (this must be a real plan, of course, such as a replatforming project in the not-too-distant future). So we break out the surface problems into discrete bugs, and then we can close the hairy old bug and pat ourselves on the back.

For example: an e-commerce system has a year-old bug on the books concerning user feedback in the checkout flow. The underlying problem has to do with the poor integration of the payment gateway. You, the tech lead, are fresh from a meeting where the business owners agreed to a payment processor with a much cleaner integration. The transition is a few months away still, but all the bug-spawning cruft of the old integration is now scheduled to disappear. You can now split this bug into some constituent sub-bugs that make cosmetic changes sufficient to address the symptoms of the original bug report. You can also close out the year-old bug with references to the cosmetic bugs and the impending payment system change. Were a new payment system not in the works, this band-aid approach might seem an irresponsible way to manage the technical debt underlying the original bug; in the new reality, though, you’ve decided to acquire short-term debt that has a definite lifespan.

(Side note: this example highlights the breakdown in the strict financial debt analogy. Technical debt can, in some cases, just magically disappear. Don’t try this with your credit card.)

We can also use the bug tracker explicitly to expose and track technical debt as we take it on or discover it in a system. This is especially useful when a developer needs to surface and memorialize decisions, shortcuts, quandaries, and TODOs in order to implement a feature. Being able to enter bugs related to the development process, and to categorize them as debt and not feature bugs, allows the developer to stay focused on the implementation, while making the process more transparent and contributing to institutional memory.

I’ll explain by example. Let’s posit a developer: Cold cup of coffee perched dangerously on the edge of the desk, sitting back in an office chair, wearing overpriced headphones, perhaps sweating a bit, wrestling with the latest in a series of hairy performance problems near the end of a development cycle. The task at hand is to deal with a slow page load. In the process of tracing the execution chain, the developer runs into a run-on sentence of a method that cries out for refactoring. It’s also probable that some of this logic will be useful elsewhere, once it’s extracted from the monolithic method. It’s also clear, however, that this method is not impacting load time—for the purposes of the task at hand, it’s more of an itch to scratch.

Thanks to the GTD methodology, we know how to deal with these itches. The answer is not to lose focus on the task at hand, but rather to record the unrelated task and file it in a place where we can address it later. To do this, we need a simple filing method that allows us to categorize the new task efficiently, so that task creation is not itself a distracting activity.

Clearly, our developer needs to get this into the bug tracker. It takes thirty seconds to create a task called “Refactor Ai_Checkout_Helper::doThings().” The tech lead should provide a single, simple tag (or label, depending on your issue tracker’s terminology) for these debt-repaying tasks: shouldfix, refactor, or technicaldebt will work. The goal is to create a two-step method for recording technical debt-related bugs that developers find in the course of doing other work:

1. Enter minimal notes, including file and line reference.

2. Label as technical debt.

It would be fun to monitor activity logged against this label in the heat of a project (e.g., an RSS feed attached to the label), as you’d have an equivalent of the fantastic “WTFs per minute” quantification of technical debt.

Technology

The Power of Video as a Selling Tool

Video is a powerful tool to help retailers merchandise more effectively. The bottom line is that video, done right, boosts conversion. Let’s look at some quick data and case studies that are out there to back this up:

  • Zappos reported conversion rates from 6% to 30% higher for products featuring video product descriptions (demos).
  • Internet Retailer reports that OnlineGolf.com customers were 85% more likely to buy than customers who didn’t view video.
  • Ice.com found that customers who viewed video on their site converted 400% more than customers that did not.

These numbers are just the tip of the iceberg. Retailers all over the web are finding that video increases customer engagement, leading to increased email opens, more time on site, more viral marketing activity, and ultimately more sales.

Ways Video Aids Retailers

  • Video Promotes Engagement – Customers who watch video spend more time at your site exploring, learning more about your products, and ultimately purchasing. Comscore has reported an average 2-minute longer stay at a site for users who watch video. Users want to engage with video – one study by Implix reports a 96% higher click-through rate for video email vs. text.
  • Video Boosts SEO – Google rewards sites that produce original video, generally boosting overall site rankings. According to Forrester, videos have a 53x higher likelihood of being on the first page of Google results, versus pages. YouTube videos are almost completely indexed. Bottom line – produce video and you are much more likely to be found on Google, and ranked highly.
  • Video is Social – People love watching video, and love sharing video with their friends. Retailers that publish videos to their Facebook pages often find that the number of video likes far outstrips likes for other types of postings.

Using Video to Increase Sales

There are a number of ways retailers can use video to increase sales. Broadly, these fall into the following categories:

  • Product Merchandising – Video product descriptions can be used to call out key product features and benefits, and tout differentiators. Showing the product in use and in context is something that text and photos can’t accomplish nearly as well. Illustrating a novel product use or difficult to explain feature can make the difference in a sale. Don’t have the resources to create your own product video? Link out to YouTube, industry, or manufacturer videos that feature the product in question.
  • Category / Brand Merchandising – Videos for a category of products will tout customer benefits, lifestyle vignettes, and comparative product reviews. If a product is technical in nature, a category video can highlight and compare product features and specifications, and provide useful comparisons. Videos for a brand of products can highlight lifestyle attributes that embody the brand and that the customer will identify with. Showing contexts in which a category of products are in use can give the customer confidence that they have identified the correct solution for their needs.
  • Global Value Proposition – Have free shipping both ways? Do you provide a 110% money back guarantee? Have a trusted industry professional endorsing your company or brand? Providing a video that speaks to the values your site or brand embodies can be a good way of giving consumers confidence that they should purchase from you.
  • Video Reviews – Video reviews and other user-generated content can be a powerful and economical way to capture customer enthusiasm and criticism. They provide a trusted 3rd party perspective to other customers, who generally view these types of reviews as highly credible.
  • How To / Support – If your product has to be set up, configured, cared for, or otherwise maintained, support videos can help both you and the customer. This type of video can help you reduce customer support costs, but can also lead to increased sales as customers are more confident that there is a reputable, caring company standing behind the purchase.

Making Your Video Stand Out

To make sure the video you produce is the best it can be, keep the following tips in mind:

  • Have a Personality – dry, emotionless video is the worst. Keep it interesting, lively, fun, engaging. Or geeky, spacey, and chintzy. Just choose a direction that has some personality, and employ it consistently.
  • Keep it Brand-Consistent – decide what your brand stands for, and keep the presentation consistent. Zappos found that employees, rather than models, worked better, and customers trusted them more. Look at what your brand stands for and shoot video accordingly.
  • Make it Work – Sounds simple enough, but your video should work across channels (desktop / tablet / mobile), load quickly, and allow good controls for playback and sharing.
  • Test It – Before you decide to put out your video, put it away for a few days, then watch it. Show it to a few friends and family. Ask their opinions, ask how they would improve it. Your little gem of an idea may not be all it could be, and it’s better to realize that earlier rather than later.

On Another Note – Video Is a Killer App for T-Commerce

Tablet users are particularly susceptible to video merchandising. A survey by Forrester Research showed that watching video was one of the top daily activities of tablet users. Research shows that tablet users prefer a “lean back” browsing experience where they can watch and learn in the comfort of their living room and bedroom. Video provides an ideal delivery medium in this lean back world – users simply click once and can be fully engaged for several minutes. T-commerce initiatives should always include a nod to video as a preferred method of consuming information, as opposed to reading and parsing dense textual information.  As tablet penetration increases in the coming years, video is going to be a key strategy for all retailers.

To sum up – video works. It has been proven to be a powerful selling tool that boosts conversion rates, engages customers, and promotes viral marketing. You can start right away by looking at what competitors are doing in your space. If no one is doing video, congratulations, you have an instant competitive advantage. If your competitors are using video, time to catch up and do it better.

Ecommerce

Everyone is “the business”

For technologists who spend much of their time eyes-deep in the tools, platforms, and architectural drivers that great solutions require, it can be easy to feel isolated from the surrounding business. The business goals of the project and the financial context that surrounds and constrains it become, through the necessary processes of business analysis and project planning, several layers removed from the technology team’s internal representation of the project. Components to be built, system and application architectures, UML diagrams, task tickets, and burn down lists may be necessary constructs to run a development project, but they retain little to no understanding of the business context.

Just as the syntax of programming languages by and large lacks the ability to communicate the system architecture, the artifacts of project management and development planning lack the crucial ability to communicate the business context.

This is why the business and technology teams so often feel like separate factions, each harboring gripes about how the other lacks the context to understand the decisions that need to be made. (One beautiful and refreshing aspect of Ai’s culture is that it has the opposite character: we are pretty cozy here, despite our spacious office, and our size helps us to manage and minimize these divides.)

And here’s one big reason why “technical debt” has become a hot topic: it’s a concept that can do wonders to bridge the communication gap that often develops between technology and business teams over the course of a project.

This gap is itself a project risk, and as with all risks, we need to find the right tools to understand and mitigate it. Thus the (justified) popularity of “technical debt”.

But just as “technical debt” is a useful term for mitigating this risk, other terms can broaden or enforce the border around an IT team. One, a term more pervasive in larger organizations, is “the business”. This is how IT project managers often refer to that shadowy side of the organization that issues commands from its isolated realm, dictates that the IT group must translate into actions and project plans.

“The business” will place constraints of budget, schedule, platform on the project. (All too often, these get delivered to us via another unfortunate neologism: “the ask”. “Ask” is a verb. It just is. It’s a verb. When someone drops “the ask” on the meeting table, they’re presenting a hard object with no creator: “the ask” has arrived, ineluctable and undebatable.)

“The business” will make midstream decisions seemingly ignorant of implications to the project’s technological commitments. “The business” also, of course, writes the checks, so we feel we have no absolute leverage.

It is in dealing with these constraints from “the business” that we regularly incur technical debt: to meet a deadline, or to facilitate a sudden change in requirements, we commit to compromises in the code or architecture that we know we’ll need to fix someday. (“Someday”: as with financial debt, technical debt is a tool at your disposal; but you have to fix a date to this payment to keep your debt from ballooning.)

The key lesson here is that we can’t conceive of these decisions as technology decisions. As Steve McConnell notes, “At the end of the day, all [technical] decisions made in this context are business decisions.” The business and technology teams are partners in the success of a project. Business decisions must take technology into account, and vice versa.

We can take it a step further, in fact: there is no “the business”. Each one of us is The Business.

Considering ourselves, the technologists, to be The Business means internalizing that each line of code we write, each component we build, each compromise we make affects the business context of the project, and ultimately the success of the wider organization. What’s the business value of documenting this code? What’s the business value of building this test script? There’s no reason why QA engineers and developers should labor in the absence of this notion of business value. Knowing the business context helps us make intelligent decisions, spend our time and energy wisely to focus on value, not problems or minutiae.

If we erase this construct of a separate “business”, we give the project a huge leg up: now, project direction needs to include business and technological context. Now, we are forced to have cross-disciplinary conversation around difficult decisions. Now, when a high-value and very difficult requirement becomes an architectural driver for the technology team, we can understand and plan around this big hurdle in the context of its overall importance.

The interest in recent years in managing technical debt is just this: an increasing interest in fostering common understanding around difficult technical decisions, and in providing institutional memory of debt incurred so that the organization can agree, and remember, to pay down that debt in the future.

Business

Adding more security to your Pound and Varnish configuration

I recently needed a way to add SSL to varnish and decided to give Pound a try. There are some great howtos available on the web, but there is one thing I don’t like about the suggested configurations. The general suggestion is to add this to your pound config

HeadRemove "X-Forwarded-Proto"
AddHeader "X-Forwarded-Proto: https"

and then to check for that header in your application, varnish, or whereever you need to check for SSL. However, by manually sending an “X-Forwarded-Proto: https” header directly to varnish on port 80, you can trick your backend application into thinking you are requesting information over HTTPS when you aren’t. While I don’t think this is exploitable by itself, I certainly don’t want to leave any room for hacker mischief.

My suggestion is to add one additional secret header in your pound config, and then sanitize the headers in varnish if that secret header is missing. For example, in my pound config, I added this:

HeadRemove "X-Forwarded-Proto"
AddHeader "X-Forwarded-Proto: https"
AddHeader "X-Pound: PUTARANDOMSTRINGHERE"

And in my varnish vcl_recv:

if (req.http.X-Pound == "PUTARANDOMSTRINGHERE" && req.http.X-Forwarded-Proto == "https") {
    unset req.http.X-Pound;
    #take any extra needed actions for SSL here
} else {
    unset req.http.X-Pound;
    unset req.http.X-Forwarded-Proto;
}

Now when I check for the X-Forwarded-Proto header in my application, I can be sure that the client really is making the request over HTTPS. Notice that I always remove the X-Pound header after I’ve checked for it, even if it is valid. There is no need for the application to ever see that header – no need to risk any potential leakage of my secret header, which could potentially happen if a debug setting is ever left on in the application.

Technology

What’s Next for Ecommerce?

Michael Zeisser of Libery Media delivered an engaging presentation at the 2012 Shop.org conference on the history of the Internet.  He outlined five primary phases of the industry in a concise and informative manner.  His offer that each phase or shift has generally lasted about 3 to 5 years was presented thoughtfully and supported by data.  If the theory is to be believed, we are soon approaching the next fundamental shift.

Briefly, Zeisser’s history lesson follows shifts from the days of the dial-up ISPs to the mobile device expansion of today:

  1. ISP as Content – AOL, Prodigy, Compuserve
  2. Web Portals – Yahoo, Lycos
  3. Search – Google
  4. User Generated – Social, Facebook, Twitter
  5. Mobile – apps, mobile web, we walk around with the Internet in our pockets

Ziesser stopped short of offering a prediction or opinion on what might be the next phase of the industry, but postulated that it is imminently upon us.  My focus is on how the next shift in the industry will impact (or in many cases be directly impact by) the world of digital commerce.  I am similarly avoiding predictions, but have contemplated those technologies that are certain to be at the center of it all.

So what will the next fundamental shift in ecommerce be?

Big Data

Beyond the hype and buzzword, when we finally get around to analyzing and making use of the petabytes of data that we as online merchants collect on our shoppers the experience of finding products will forever be changed.  This concept goes way beyond “you may also like” recommendations.  The data exists and the statistical techniques are already invented that can quite accurately predict exactly what I’m looking for based on a number of things that a website knows about me: my location, the keywords I typed at a search engine, my past shopping history, the time of the day.  Now we have to fully deploy this knowledge in the form of a consumer experience that “just knows.”  It’s a weeknight at 9pm in the summer, I’m likely watching the Yankee game on TV, surfing Amazon on my iPad, and just saw a commercial for a product.  The site should just know.  Play the odds and guess what i’m doing based on everything it knows about me.  It will take a few years to hone the algorithms, but I fully expect we’ll get there.  Scary.

Voice

Checking sports scores on Siri is just the beginning.  Combine Big Data with a semantically aware assistant who really understands what you want and the concept of browsing a website and clicking or smudging around will forever change.  As craftsmen of the visual user experience for online retail, the notion that our beautiful and highly-converting designs may one day join the annals of Internet phases past is terrifying.  But I believe it’s true.  And designing ecommerce experiences around voice will the next frontier.

Alex: Siri, my wife said we need diapers.

Siri: You probably mean the Size 3 Swaddlers for Nina.  Lesters.com can have them to you tomorrow for $20.  Shall I order them?

Alex: Yes, and have them send a gift for my wife.

Siri: They recommend this bracelet to go along with the earrings you bought her last year for your anniversary.  Shall I add them to the order?

Alex: Yes, thanks.

Siri: Forever in your service, Alex.

Same-Day Delivery

The retail industry continues to evolve to one of on-demand fulfillment.  The majority of American populace will soon live close enough to a major distribution center (DC) capable of trucking an item to your front door the same day you order it.  Amazon’s finally getting around to deploying the shiny robots they bought when they acquired Kiva, and it’s estimated that robot automation will increase the items a single warehouse picker can gather from 160 an hour to 600 an hour.  If free 2-day shipping is the norm for 2012, will consumers expect free 2-hour shipping by 2014?  (I know many CFOs that sure hope not.)

3D Printing

For less than $3,000 you can now buy a high quality 3D printer capable of creating intricate products out of plastic.  More materials, larger sizes, and decreasing prices are coming soon.  Forget same-day delivery–you want that new case for your iWhatever?  Order it (by voice) from Apple.com and it will spit out of your 3D printer.  Marketplaces of interested designers have already started to grow and it’s just a matter of time before major consumer brands get into this space.

These are but 4 areas–Data, Voice, Delivery, and Printing–that are sure to play a major role in the future of ecommerce.  Admittedly, it’s awfully shortsighted to not consider the impact of global ecommerce growth on the next fundamental Internet shift.  China should overtake the US online retail market by 2013 or 2014.  And what’s to keep the Chinese manufacturers of most of the products we buy from building their own DCs all over the US and Europe and selling direct to consumers?  (Answer: nothing, they’re going to do it and cut out the American/European middleman some day.)

Wherever it happens, I endorse Zeisser’s model and there’s no question that we’re sitting on the precipice of the next fundamental shift in our industry.

Ecommerce