How Potion is shaping retail’s interactive future

Interaction is good right? We all like to use our senses, to share, to be involved with things. It helps us to learn. It helps us to forge deeper connections. It creates memories. It brightens our day.

Retail also wants to be doing all those things. It’s why interaction has always been an important component of physical stores. Today, technology is opening all sorts of brand-new ways for customers to interact with and experience brands.

Leading that charge is design technology studio Potion. It gets the need for interaction in the shared spaces where we live our lives – including retail stores. And it’s creating fantastic, immersive experiences that enable us to do just that.

Potion Managing Director Gabriel Marquez talks us through how to create a successful interactive installation, why you need to put experience over tech and what the interactive experiences of the future might entail:


Gabriel Marquez, Managing Director, Potion


Can you explain what Potion does in a nutshell?

Potion is a design technology studio focused on interactive experiences for physical space. Those can be any number of spaces – sometimes they’re public, sometimes they’re private. We tend to focus on spaces where people converge, such as retail, hospitality, museums, arts and culture, health care, offices etc.

Interactivity is pretty well established in our private spaces. People have interactive devices in their pockets 24 hours a day. They have conversational UI in their home nowadays. They have desktop computers and smart TVs. I think the expectation is that our shared spaces need to provide some of the same capacities that we’ve come to expect in our private spaces.



Can you tell us about some of your recent retail projects?

The Innit project for Pirch’s SoHo store is representative of a lot of the ways that interactivity is valuable in a retail setting. Increasingly the actual transaction or purchase doesn’t have to happen in person. There’s an efficiency to online purchasing that is hard to compete with. But what I think the in-store experience can do really well is get you to understand and connect with the product or the brand and carry that with you beyond.

You tend to have a pretty transactional relationship with Amazon products, and it tends to ultimately become more of a relationship with Amazon. The in-store experience for the retailer can really create that relationship and that understanding. I think in the case of Innit it’s a particular benefit.

If you have an easily understood product that’s common and familiar to the average consumer, such as shoes or refrigerators, people kind of know what shoes and refigerators are about. If you’re selling a product that is really innovative or genre-defining or a new category, there’s a lot more legwork. You can’t just do that all through a website as it’s very hard to create an emotional connection.

For Pirch the experience is really around creating a vision for how this product could be transformative for you as a person. The Innit product is various components of a smart kitchen. In some ways it has the same challenge as Intel in your computer – it’s doing a lot of the work, but you don’t necessarily see it. In order to create an emotional connection, we had to create a narrative and experience. It’s all about ‘if I had this product in my home how does it change my home?’ ‘How does it change the experience of being in my kitchen?’

We literally built a studio apartment in the retail environment with an elegant home kitchen and prep stations and a table around which a family could sit using their technology. It could analyse the contents of your refrigerator and make suggestions for recipes. It could also adjust those elements based on your preferences – be they dietary restrictions, time constraints, ingredients that are about to expire etc.

Or you can place an ingredient on the prep station and the computer vision tool can identify it and pull up all the related recipes. The prep station is all gesture controlled. Once it pulls up that recipe, I make whatever selections I want and it goes into step-by-step instructions on how to do that without me having to touch anything. I can navigate through that with gestures so that I can continue to cook and don’t have to get raw chicken or whatever on my phone or my computer if trying to do this through more conventional means.

The approach was borne out of the experience of watching people use it. Rather than me giving a long-winded explanation of the computational power of this technology or all of the things that it could do, we just let people do those things and let the experience speak for itself. I think generally speaking we find that experiential learning is more impactful than dictated lectures.


How do these sorts of interactive experiences improve conversions?

There are different categories of data. A lot of our cultural institution clients have evaluation teams that will do a qualitative analysis with their visitors. A project that we did for the Cleveland Museum of Art revealed that people who used our experience didn’t just record a positive response to the experience, but a more positive response and a higher likelihood of visiting again for the museum as a whole.

If you’ve done your job the experience is really fun to use, but the next level is having it not end when they stop using your experience but have it catalyse their relationship to the broader experience. Our experience was designed to teach people the principles of art and how to evaluate and understand the different elements from composition to purpose for objects in antiquity to emotional content etc. By giving people those tools and then connecting it with the experience that they take out into the museum, they liked the other galleries more as they could take what they’d learnt with them.

On the retail side, it’s the case that even if I’m going to make my purchases online, the in-person experience can have an impact on the purchasing decisions I’m making elsewhere.


Potion retail store technology


How do you decide what technology to use on a project?

It varies a lot. We tend to start experience first and technology second. Some clients come to us with a space and a very open-ended brief. Other may have already done some work on what it’s going to be and have a specific vision. They might bring preliminary sketches or have other tools that it needs to integrate with, and they may even have a rendering or something that they have in mind, but they don’t really know how to do. It’s more of a tactical problem-solving exercise whereas with the open-ended brief it’s more of a strategic problem-solving exercise first.

We try to be technology agnostic. A scenario that often comes up is the client wants to be innovative and they have heard of certain new technologies as having the word innovative attached to them – a common one these days is VR. Sometimes though that technology isn’t the right thing for their context. Sometimes the innovation is not necessarily in the underlying tech, it’s in the execution and the utilisation of technology. A classic example would be when virtual Tupac performed at Coachella. The underlying technology, Pepper’s ghost, is almost a century old, but it was about the execution.

The other consideration is that sometimes the newest technology is not the most robust. It’s one thing to design something that has to last one to three days for a pop-up shop or for a weekend event. It’s another thing to build something that has to measure its lifespan in years. Most people replace their phone every 18 to 24 months. They update their apps every couple of months.

When you build something for the physical environment, even if it’s a software tool or technology, I think the mental model is that it should perform the way that built environments do. Buildings are expected to last 10 years plus. You have to figure out how to design things that can last and can stand up to ongoing and continuous scrutiny. We’ve built experiences for environments that get millions of visitors a year. If one out of every 10,000 people kicked it, for example, that’s 100 people kicking it. If I kicked your computer 100 times it would probably start to show some wear and tear. In terms of design, you have to sort of design for that kind of performance benchmark.



Do you have any thoughts on what might come next regarding interactive experiences in stores?

I think conversational UI is an interesting one that’s in its infancy. There are some technical challenges there, such as how you differentiate between speakers when it’s not in a closed environment like a home. But there are also challenges around contextual awareness – what is appropriate in different contexts.

You need to think of it as a type of interface rather than a technology to be delivered. It’s really a means of getting you somewhere else. For example, in a music store you could say ‘show me how to play this’ and they can pull up a film with someone playing a particular song showing the fingering. Or it could be something in a home goods store where you are describing your home and what might fit with that.

I also think there’s really interesting things potentially with mixed reality. There are a lot of retailers doing really fun interesting things with personalisation and customisation at the moment in apparel like designing your own shoes. I think that is very much version 1.0. You don’t look at your clothes on a screen, you wear them on your body.

I think there will be an interesting future application for augmented reality where you can actually design the shoe on your foot or the clothing on your body. Right now the technical challenges on that are hard because fitting clothing is really nuanced depending on the fabric and the cut and stitching and the texture, but I think looking to the future that’s a really interesting application.

I think computer vision is another really interesting one. There was a lot of buzz with the Amazon Go store because it just breaks with so many of your expectations of retailing. IKEA is doing some really interesting work on this with being able to take their product catalogue and put it in your home virtually to see how it will look before you buy. That’s really smart and really tied to their offering. I think there are a million applications.

A lot of people are doing interesting things and some of it is not super high tech. It’s just smartly executed. The other thing is that some of the tech is in its early stages but you can see how it’s going to be really transformative. I think the IKEA thing works reasonably well because most of the products people are buying from IKEA are rigid, like a chair or a couch or a table. That would be a much harder application for a clothing retailer. How does this skirt fall if it’s silk versus if it’s wool? In reality, they look quite different. But right now, they tend to not feel as different in an augmented reality setting.

I think VR is tricky for public spaces because in a lot of senses people go to public spaces because they want to be around other people and VR definitionally takes you out of that environment. One of the things it’s really good for is previewing spaces. A lot of people buy real estate before it’s actually built. Being able to put on a headset and see your home before it’s built and make those choices rather than looking at swatches or sketches is a real benefit.

This is something that we have found very useful for projects where we’re dealing with large elements where you can’t build a prototype at scale without spending a tremendous amount of money because it might be $300,000 worth of display hardware. Before we buy all that stuff we want to get people to understand some of the decisions they’re making. If we’re building a large interactive table for 14 people, the interface may look a certain way when we’re showing it in a PDF. But it looks really different when you put on the headset and you walk around the table at scale. Those design decisions really feel different when you’re doing them at scale or in a more realistic context.


Gabriel Marquez retail tech strategy



How receptive are retailers to these sort of technologies?

We’ve had a lot of projects where people have expressed interest and there is a cost challenge. I think in the technology space the marginal cost of a mobile app is almost zero in the sense that I can build a mobile app and theoretically an infinite number of people can download it. When you’re building a custom thing for an in-store experience the marginal cost is a lot higher. If you want to do it in one store and then you want to do it in a second store, the second store doesn’t cost as much as the first store but you still have to buy all that hardware again. I think that is a challenge for retail.

Coming up with a value proposition for the bricks and mortar environment is one of the challenges. I think people do crave the shared experience. I used to have an office around the corner from a sneaker place and they would have events for sneaker heads all the time and there would be 500 people lined up outside the store. Could they buy those sneakers online? Probably. But there’s something about that experience and connecting with other people and interest networks that’s qualitatively not as compelling online as it is in person.

A lot of the inquiries we’ve gotten recently for retail are not about transacting. A lot of the stores don’t actually sell any product. They’re really trying to build a relationship. They’re trying to explain a new and innovative product. They’re trying to provide connections among the community and deepen connections with existing customers. They’re trying to be a gathering place for shared experiences and I think that’s something that we can contribute to.


Do you have any tips on how to make an interactive installation successful?

The first one is to think long-term, because hopefully if it’s successful it’s going to be there long-term. You also need to think about flexibility. Thinking long-term doesn’t mean it can’t change. Is it something that you can make updates to? Maybe content updates or maybe experiential updates.

In an environment where you hope people are returning, it’s important to make it feel like it’s changing. You want to build with durability in mind but also plan with the intent of making updates.

You should also try to focus on the experience rather than on the tech. Cutting-edge is definitionally short-term. Whatever is cutting edge now will not be cutting edge in 18 months, but you still want your store to be compelling and interesting in 18 months. I think if you start with the experience first, you’ll always design something that’s going to be cool and interesting. There are a million things that are really fun and low tech but people love to do again and again.


Images courtesy of Potion


Has any technology changed the way we shop like the smartphone? 

Want to quickly and easily connect with the players kick-starting trends and inventing the future of retail? Find out how you can transform your team’s thinking using Insider Trends’ little black book here.