Microsoft's Mobile <i>Catch-22</i> Is Getting Consumers To Not Give Up

In the evolving world of mobile and barcodes, one of the most daunting challenges is training consumers to use the technology properly. Of course, you can't really train consumers on Near-Field Communication (NFC), 2D barcodes and Microsoft's Tag Reader. What retailers need is an interface that is so intuitive consumers simply guess how to use these tools correctly.

But therein lies a delicious Catch-22: Once consumers use a technology four or five times, they typically master it and can then proceed effortlessly. The first one or two times, of course, will likely be rough. And when a consumer tries a new technology once and it doesn't work, it's quite difficult to get that person to try again. If you somehow succeed in getting consumers to try again and their efforts fail yet again, chances are those folks will conclude the technology doesn't work and they won't ever try it again. That's the problem: How do you help consumers get the hang of your technology immediately?

With Microsoft's Tag Reader, engineers thought they had that problem addressed early on when they made the huge move from requiring users to snap a photo of the barcode to simply pointing the phone at the barcode. It was quick and automatic. But nobody clued in the consumers, so they continued to try and position the barcode in the exact middle of the screen. Consumers didn't need to do this, but they kept trying and got frustrated, said Aaron Getz, the general manager for Microsoft Tag.

Tag this month moved out of its 18-month-long beta period, and Getz looked back on the lessons learned. Among those lessons was one Microsoft needed to relearn from its desktop and Web launches: Consumers will blame Microsoft for an application that doesn't completely work, even if the problem has nothing to do with Microsoft. In the Web world, this truism came down to: "The Web is overly congested right now due to major breaking news and that's somehow Internet Explorer's fault?"

In mobile, the number of players is greater, but the essence of the problem is identical. "Mobile just makes it worse. On some of the Android phones, it would be a disaster. The phone would take two minutes to launch the browser," Getz said, adding that that particular phone apparently needed a more substantial confirmation that the barcode had been properly read.

With the various handset manufacturers and the different operating systems and carrier connections, maintaining a consistent experience across all phones in the U.S.—let alone globally—is next to impossible. "APIs are supposed to be consistent," but they're often not, and then the apps "just don't do what they're supposed to do."

One of the more creative deployments Getz recalls a group of retailers—including Best Buy, Wal-Mart and ToysRUs—that were trying to promote an upcoming video game. It announced a contest where consumers had to search in the real world to find five hidden barcode tags. Each tag gave a hint as to the location of one other tag. Any customer who found all five tags got an early preview of the video game. If nothing else, it motivated consumers to get good at scanning those barcode tags.

A garden center chain tagged its plants and encoded the tags with extensive information on each plant, including watering instructions and climate suggestions.

But perhaps the most interesting potential is from one of the large warehouse membership chains, where one possibility being explored is to tag the membership card itself. Products could also be tagged, and when consumers scan their membership cards—for identification—they would then get customized discounts on various products.

To see the incentives, a product's tag must be scanned. That approach could prove to be a CRM bonanza for the chain, which will be able to compile every product customers even consider buying and record their actions (ignore it, put it in the cart and later put it back on a shelf, purchase it, etc.) in their individual profiles.

Each customer doing these scans would be a commercial for every other customer. Theoretically, this approach increases the number of users—and the resultant CRM data—with almost no marketing efforts. Curiosity is the best promotion. Let consumers discover the tags and the system on their own, and ask for for the applicaton for their own, and true adoption will likely be much higher.

As a nice bonus, membership card tags could also be placed on a consumer's phone, acting as a temporary (or not so temporary) backup for the membership card in case it's lost or forgotten.