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A service that rehumanizes shopping

This is the MHCI capstone project at Carnegie Mellon University, which spanned eight months and covered the entire design process from research to final prototype. Our client, Google, asked us to reimagine a future where sales associates remain at the heart of brick-and-mortar shopping experience. Our challenge is to leverage Google Shopping data to empower retail associates and help them guide their customers towards well-made choices.

This project ran through spring and summer semesters. In the spring semester, my team completed the research phase of the project. In the summer semester, we used this research to inform our process as we designed prototypes of increasing fidelity. 

My Role: UX Research Lead | UX Designer

Process: Research | Analysis | Ideation | Prototyping |Final Presentation

Tools: Illustrator | Axure | Photoshop

The Concept

We crafted an in-store experience with Google's deep data that enriches interactions between shoppers and sales associates, helping customers build relationship with their favorite stores.


We spent the spring semester (four months) deep in research to seek out design opportunities in the retail environment. We started by studying psychology and retail trends in books and research papers, and then moved into the field to observe shopping interactions in person. 

The spring semester consisted of extensive domain research and field research. Our domain research consisted of literature review, territory analyses and interviews with domain experts and retail executives. Each team member needed to finish a certain amount of literature relevant to the space and share back what they learned to the team on a daily basis. 


Our field research consisted of Guerrilla observations, contextual interviews, and diary study. We visited a total of 42 stores over the course of our field research phase, and spoke to 37 sales associates and 16 customers. We used a combination of Guerrilla research, contextual inquiry and diary studies to gather field observations. And then we consolidated our findings and gathered insights from our research to make sense of our observations. 

Analysis & Synthesis

We consolidated our research by building flow models, sequence models and affinity diagramming. Using this process, we identified the key breakdowns and design opportunities that shaped our solution. A theme emerged as we synthesize - while customers increasingly migrated to online shopping due to technology improvements, they still valued the tactile, personalized service and human interactions that only a brick-and-mortar store and a sales associate could offer. 

The customer’s shopping journey map identifies the actions, motivation and thoughts of a customer as he or she goes through all the steps involved in making a purchase.

Research Findings

After an extensive process of research, we captured over a thousand data points that led us to some key insights that informed our ideation.  

The Third Aisle

Retailers are trying to increase their in-store selection without increasing their physical footprint. Sales associate use the point of sale terminal to sell products available online or in other stores. This process is not collaborative as the screens are made for single users. Shoppers often felt left alone when the sales associate was actually busy helping them find the product they want. 

"I feel weird and don't know what to do when the salesperson do things on the POS. I mean, sometimes I wonder if they are actually checking their Facebook..."

- Mona, Sales associate

Omni-Channel Retail

Retailers are trying to seamlessly integrate their customers' shopping experience across all retail channels - in-store, online and mobile. However, they are not able to leverage customers' online shopping profiles in-store, and provide personalized services.

"Our goal is to get a single view of the data, whether they buy online or in-store" 

- James, National apparel chain executive

Sales Associate Build Long-Lasting Relationship with Customers

Through repeated interactions with customers, sales associates develop a knowledge base of personal details that can't be captured online. However, current relationship management system exist on single screen terminals that face the sales associate. Manipulating these system to enter customer information requires sales associate to shift her attention away from the customer. 

"I used to have a book in which I wrote down tips about my customers. Like, her daughter is getting married, she only like small sized things..." 

- Mona, Sales associate

Shoppers Do their Homework

Our research showed that shoppers spent a considerable amount of time researching products online before making a purchase in a brick-and-motar store, and vice versa. However, when they come into the store, they have no way to share these research with the store, other than telling the associates verbally.

"A lot of people come in and say 'I don't know what I want,' but they really do. I have to play 20 questions with them. They don't know how to verbalize that." 

- Dorothy, Personal shopper


We filtered a initial set of fifty ideas into eight final visions. We generated storyboards to validate our concept and tested them with customers, sales associates and retail executives. 

The Opus Experience

We mapped out the shopping journey with the solutions for each opportunity. The service blueprint helped us to show when each solution would come into play and provided a holistic view for everyone in the team to align on the same page. 

We designed a unique way to take advantage of all the above opportunities we found in our research to produce a single end-to-end shopping experience. This service blueprint shows how Opus experience extends and covers through the entire shopping journey, from the moment a customer enters the store to their post-purchase interactions.

The most visible component of the experience is the Opus Countertop - a collaborative platform for sales associates and shoppers to browse and compare products. We focus our prototype testing on Opus Countertop because it was something that hasn't been done before and we wanted to make sure we put our resources and time into the most important part of the experience. We designed the countertop in a way that it enables the sales associate and shopper to operate the interface at the same time, using precise swipes to move product cards and flicks to transport them across the screen without having to drag their arms too far.

Iterative Prototyping

We developed Opus through an iterative process. After validating our idea by creating storyboard and showing them to the shoppers and sales associates, we started to create prototypes to constantly refine our design and better the experience with increasing fidelity. 

Low-Fidelity Prototype

In the low-fidelity prototype phase, we created a paper prototype to test the physical form factor of the Opus Countertop and the arrangement of the sales associate and shopper as they use it. This low-fidelity prototype underwent two iterations, each testing a different scenario and retail vertical.

Results from our tests indicated that the optimum configuration would be to have the shopper and the sales associate stand across the counter from each other. This meant that the interface would need to have two orientations in order to be legible by both, the associate and the shopper.

I kind of like being across rather than side by side; I feel a little pressured when the sales associate is right next to me. 

- Tiffany, shopper

Mid-Fidelity Prototype

We created a mid-fidelity Axure prototype on a 39" non-interact television screen and simulated the interactions using Wizard-of-Oz technique and having a operator behind the scene to move the element around during the testing. 

This technique allowed us to experiment with various task flows without devoting budget to expensive equipment such as touch screen overlays we weren't sure we would need. We tested for physical interactions as well as taps and swipes. During testing, sales associates would frequently reach over to manipulate the shopper's side of the screen, which some shoppers considered an invasion of personal space. So we decided to solve this issue with a larger screen, and add a shared area in the middle of the interface that both the sales associate and the shopper could manipulate.

I like how it shows everything in one place. And I like being able to touch it. However, I wouldn’t like just the counter or just the product but the combination.

- Jeff, shopper

High-Fidelity Prototype

In the high fidelity prototype phase, we built an interactive web prototype and tested it using a 55" multitouch display, which we took into an actual department store. Placing our prototype in a real store allow us to ensure that the device would fit into the existing workflow of the sales associates. The sales associates (even those in their 50s and 60s) were able to use this brand-new technology to help their customers and enhance their sales pitch after a five minute orientation. 

This is such a good tool for my sales pitch! I like the technology. For us, I think it's very cool!

- Linda, sales associate

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