That was easy: Staples shows us what Alexa would be like at work: NRF’s Big Show

January 17, 2017 / by Mike Cassidy

NRF Round-Up Day 3. Check out other blog posts in our NRF series.

Ryan Bartley, the guy charting the future of Staples’ iconic Easy Button, took to the stage at NRF’s Big Show on Tuesday, to tell the story of how the one-time novelty item is now at the center of the office supply giant’s voice-ordering initiative.

It’s a great story, because who doesn’t love the Easy Button? And who doesn’t love gee-whiz technology? But buried in his story were tips for those who want to drive change in their companies. And, again, who doesn’t?

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So, from Bartley’s narrative about transforming the button into a voice-ordering device for the office (think of an Alexa that is all business), we took the liberty of extracting a few tips.

Listen to your customers: Sure, you can make a device that listens to your customers, but there is more to it. Bartley and the rest of the humans on his team spent thousands of hours talking to customers that would be the target market for the new button, which is currently in Beta.

And meet them on their own turf.

“You’ll never be able to deliver something of significant value sitting in your office with your desk and your team,” Bartley said. “You have to go out and interact with your customers.”

He said customers open up in a time of need. They’ll give you ideas far beyond the one product you’re trying to imagine or the one problem you’re trying to solve.

Act like a startup: Where have we heard this before? It’s one of those things that can’t be stressed enough. Bartley said when he became Staples’ head of growth and applied innovation, he didn’t want to oversee a traditional research and development team.

“The innovation team, what we do is a service function, to offer resources for any group within Staples to move fast and try to transform their end of the business. We’ve essentially set up a platform for the internal company to try out new things and really try to disrupt their own businesses.”

So, go for it and be ready for some of your ideas to flop. Sure, Bartley said, the Easy Button looks pretty cool, but: “There’s plenty we’ve struck out on.”

Increase your clock speed: Maybe it’s related to acting like a startup, with all their frenetic activity, but Bartley uses a computer analogy to rally the troops. Look for ways to increase the velocity of your innovation.

“We’ve always worked at really quick paces,” he said. “If you look at how fast a computer runs, that’s clock speed. And so, our developers, what we always tell them is, ‘We need to increase our clock speed and move fast. We try to apply the same methodologies and the same thinking throughout any part of the enterprise.”

In retail, he said, big initiatives have typically taken months or years to implement.

“There is nothing in my world that has ever been months and years,” he said. “It’s always days and weeks.”

Come up with something a 6 year old can understand: Bartley has twin daughters who are 6 years old. As he worked at home on the easy button, one of his daughters asked what he was doing. “You mean you just push it and you get things?” (Or talk to it and get things.)

She immediately began asking it for unicorns and bicycles, Bartley said.

What was great about it was, if a 6 ½ year old can comprehend this and the simplicity of what we’re building, you’ve got some magic in there.”

So, OK, maybe it doesn’t always have to be a 6 year old who gets it. The point is, make sure you’re selling something or working on something that your customers can understand. And not just understand, of course, but also see how what you’re offering is something of value to them.

Our list is not the end-all-be-all of designing and launching a new product or new idea. Innovation is hard work and as Bartley pointed out, sometimes that work is all for naught.

After all, it’s not like you can just push a button and be done with it.

Photo by Mike Cassidy.

Mike Cassidy is BloomReach’s storyteller. Contact him at mike.cassidy@bloomreach.com; follow him on Twitter at @mikecassidy.

 

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Read more takeaways from “NRF’s BIG Show” on the BloomReach blog. And tell us what you think in the comment section below.