In conversation with Prof. Barry Smyth

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“It’s been the first time in a long time that I’ve seen a startup put together those solutions in the right way – making it simple, but very effective. And that’s what drew me to the guys.”

Barry Smyth, esteemed professor and researcher in the field of Conversational Recommender systems, joined the Traverz advisory board in October. Agnayee, from our marketing team, sat down with Barry to learn more about his rich background in academia and business, what drew him to Traverz, and how he sees the future of online search transforming in the coming years. Read the full interview below.


Agnayee

Barry, I’d like to begin our session by asking you what you believe are some of the biggest challenges facing online stores and online retailers today?

Barry

It’s bringing the experience we’ve come to expect and like from a physical store, into an online setting. So you know, sometimes it’s just very convenient to use an online service, and you don’t care that you’re not getting the level of personal service that you might get in another store in the real world. But increasingly, then, as more and more of our transactions take place online, there is an increasing subset of those transactions where we do need help, and where it is useful to get the informed wisdom and have a well informed sales assistant, for example, to help us. By and large, we’re not getting that at the moment. And that makes our online experiences less appealing. It’s okay when you’re buying a book or music. But if you move up to larger strategic purchases, then then we need more help.

Agnayee

Would you say the biggest challenge in not being able to achieve this is because technologically, we’re not there yet? Because technologically stores don’t have solutions to implement that can deliver this level of assistance?

Barry

I think that technologically, we’re closer than we think. But I think a lot of stores are still using e-commerce platforms that are over a decade old – they’ve focused on inventory and payment systems and maybe a little bit of recommendation to try and upsell products, but they haven’t focused on the user experience. And that’s not because the technology doesn’t exist, it’s because they have been busy. And so I think what we’ll find now is that increasingly, stores will start to take advantage of technology that is out there, such as the technology that Traverz has developed, which will allow them to move to that next level.

Agnayee

Got it. Can you think of any brand at all that’s been able to get close and has maybe invested in technology to bridge that gap?

Barry

It’s a difficult one. I’m struggling to think of any online experience that goes far enough these days. The big players like Amazon certainly do a good job. But the onus is still very much on the end user or shopper, for them to find what they are looking for. And they have to do a lot of the hard work when they want to find out answers to questions! To be fair, Amazon, and TripAdvisor, and others, they provide you with reviews. They sometimes even provide questions and answers that I can review. But it’s still work on my part. I think that they should know the sort of questions that are relevant to me. And they probably do know the questions that are relevant, and they could prioritise those, but they haven’t yet. But certainly those big players Amazon, TripAdvisor and booking.com, they’re getting close, but they still have some distance to go.

Agnayee

I think I just saw recently that Amazon added an “Alexa join the conversation” feature and are trying to do something where Alexa can be more conversational. I don’t know if you’ve seen that yet.

Barry

I haven’t actually seen that, but I’d be interested to take a look at that. That must be quite new, and I think it’s a good start. My instinct is that it will probably still retro caged what is largely available online – “tell me the price of this”, “what is its average review rating”, etc – rather than more insightful answers. The way I look at it is that oftentimes, especially when we’re making a new type of purchase, part of what we’re doing online is educating ourselves. So we don’t really have a fully formed picture of what we’re looking for, and we use an e-commerce site as part of our education. It would be nice for the service to partner with us in that.

Agnayee

And that segues nicely into the next question. So, we know conversational recommendation could be improved, and we can start bringing in new contextual experiences. How else can developments in AI, ML, smart connected devices lead to an evolution? Do you think we are lagging behind when it comes to the product search experience?

Barry

I think there’s certainly a lag, certainly it takes time for new innovations to find their way into what are now reasonably mature markets. And no doubt you’ll find that some stores don’t yet recognise that it’s broken, so they don’t want to fix something that they don’t think is broken.

The sort of thing that I expect to see more and more of in the next few years is Voice. As you said, Alexa now has a “shopping skill” as the Alexa people call it. But I think the next step after that will be to move beyond superficial interactions. For a long time, I’ve been able to search for movies using my voice. But what if I try to form complicated queries with my voice – that requires a fundamentally different shopping engine? You need to be able to provide users with new ways to express their queries, rather than just saying “show me movies that are recommended to me tonight”. I want to be able to say “show me movies that are like this one, but maybe a little more lighthearted, that are less than 90 minutes in duration”. I want to form those complicated queries.

Agnayee

That’s interesting. Do you think adopting new technology can be overwhelming for an e-commerce brand, besides large players like Amazon? Could they be thinking “Oh, these are really big problems to solve”? Or are they actually trying to already solve these problems based on your experience?

Barry

Lots of the big players are actively trying to solve these problems in a way. My instinct is that it’s not so much that it’s overwhelming – because certainly, for those organisations that have been in retail for many, many decades, long before the internet, these were the sort of interactions that they understood were important to their end users. So I think it should be quite natural for them to think about and engage their customers in these deeper, more meaningful conversations. I think what’s hard is ramping up the technology putting the skillsets in place that can take advantage of that right now. It’s the larger companies that have their own machine learning and natural language processing divisions that can do a good job. And it takes a few years for the technology to be commoditized. I’m seeing now that the technology that Traverz has developed is the first step to commoditising that, so that other e-commerce players can take advantage of it even though they don’t have the in-house skills to build a system like that.

Agnayee

What are the factors that will play a dominant role in defining the search experience for evolving online consumers? As you said, voice is important, and as we can see, more and more people are using voice as preferred communication method. Then there’s personalization, which may manifest in many different forms. What are some other things that say Gen Z and the new age of consumers expect? I read that while Gen Z wants personalized experiences, there’s that privacy concern. It is a thin line where they want you to know what they want and have all information on them. But then they also want you to be careful about privacy and data security. So, what are some of these nuances that we need to be mindful of?

Barry

I think that’s an important thing to get right, that balance between privacy and personalization. So on the one hand, I want the stores I trust to pay attention to what they know about me and to use that information to serve me well. On the other hand, I only want that information available to the brands that I trust. So I think we’re going to see how that will play out over the coming years, because there’s increased regulation, which is going to insist that more care is taken when it comes to user data. But I think the other side of this is that these stores will have to understand their products better. I think that’s lost in most e-commerce settings at the moment. They all focus on here’s a picture of the product, here’s its price. And here’s some reviews for it. And the stores don’t really understand what that product is. Now, all the information is contained within the data that they have on that product. But they haven’t developed the engine that allows them to recognise that there are some important features of this product that will matter to one customer, and that there are different features that matter to a different customer. So now, I want to prioritise those features, and choose. Surfacing that type of deeper product information, and making it available to the end user and allowing the product search to be personalised based on what you’ve learned about the user – all of that is part and parcel of what’s going to be important in the next experience. It will make shopping appear a lot more fluid and a lot more responsive. I think that there will be a sort of magic to the shopping engines that we will see. Because they will be much better able to adapt to our needs, even within a single session, they will realise Oh, look, they seem to be heading in this direction. Let me get it out of them. And let me present them with some answers.

Agnayee

We see that consumers are saying that they want that in-store human experience. Do you think we can get to a stage where they’re happy enough with just the online experience and wouldn’t crave the human experience anymore?

Barry

I think the pandemic has suggested that might actually be the case – people have probably been pleasantly surprised at how they’ve been able to survive using online stores. I suspect clothes buying has skyrocketed. And people have been surprised at how good that has been. The physical stores are still there, especially your local stores. But I suspect a lot of it will move online, yes.

Agnayee

Now, lets dive into the technicalities. We understand that conversational recommendation is going play a key role in product search. Are there similar new technologies that can improve the product search experience?

Barry

I can’t talk too much about the Traverz engine and the technology, but I think in general AI and machine learning are going to be the big enabler there. The deep ability of systems to learn about you and to predict what you’re going to want before you might even though it yourself, that’s the big weigh-in here. Increasingly, you’re going to find a kind of hyper personalisation, that allows these stores to reconfigure themselves for each individual user, and much more than we see today.

Agnayee

So prediction is going to be a big thing, being able to predict beforehand what people might want.

Barry

I think so. And, you know, we’ve seen examples of that for many years, Amazon does this routinely. But I think it will be a lot deeper. Other interesting innovations that are relevant to niche product spaces are things like clothing and automatically determining the size of your clothes using your camera. For example, there are now services that allow you to do that, or at least experiment with that.

Agnayee

You’re saying that companies like Amazon, they’re able to predict what you want, and that’s the goal. Is this really possible for everyone? I mean, Amazon can do it, because they are serving us across so many different verticals, we’re buying, maybe my groceries, my household items, gifting items, all of that. But for a standalone e-commerce store that is serving one vertical, is it possible to build that kind of loyalty? And because, you know, you have so many options as a consumer? So how do you then, from that competitive standpoint, how do you build that loyalty?

Barry

I think that’s a good question. In order to personalise, you need to know a lot about your customers –  they have to be returning customers, and they have to trust you. And so there has to be that level of loyalty. In order to build that level of loyalty, you need to focus on the experience, and you need to offer them an experience that they can’t get somewhere else. Many of these technologies we’re talking about, begin by offering consumers a better experience even before they’ve learned much about them. One of the things that has impressed me about the Traverz technology is that it can support a brand new user, a user that you’re seeing for the first time. And so there are benefits even before you know a lot about that user.

So to answer your question, I think that it will be possible to attract users to increase loyalty and then to begin to personalise even within niche market verticals.

Agnayee

Okay, that makes a lot of sense. From your research and published papers, is there an interesting finding that has stuck with you and might be relevant for, say, our readers and for the product search experience, something that you can share from your past work?

Barry

One of the things I’m best known for in this space, I suppose, is the importance of diversity. So in the first generation of recommender systems, we very much focused on finding the best products for the user. So you would identify a set of relevant products and you would give them to the user as recommendations. And that worked well. Then we realized that a lot of these products could be very like each other. So there’s no point in recommending 10 products that are all variations on the same theme, you would be better off using the available space to recommend maybe four or five different categories of products. So that was a very novel way of looking at things in the recommender space. My research group was among the first to describe algorithms for how you could increase the diversity of recommendations, while still preserving the relevance to the end user. And since then, most recommender researchers followed suit and diversity is today an important constraint on recommendation.

As an example, let’s say you’re talking about TripAdvisor and their recommendation list. They might all be different rooms in the same hotel. Instead, maybe you’d be better off recommending three rooms in different hotels, to give them an option. So in that context, diversity there is not only about how relevant the product is to the user, but also about similarities to other things that could be recommended.

Agnayee

Understood. So we have covered technology and product, and your experience in this domain. Now we’d also like to understand your thoughts and vision as a leader. How would you describe yourself as a leader in just one word?

Barry

I’d say vision, because it’s an easy first word. I tend to have a good instinct about where things are going. So I tend, in the past, to have seen opportunities that are just around the corner. Like the importance of diversity, for instance, and recommendation. And so I tend to have a good foresight for what’s happening.

Agnayee

Other than innovation, having the right technology and analytical skills, what are some other important elements that can drive competitiveness of technology? When we are trying to bring something so disruptive into the market, what are some things that we have to have as an organisation?

Barry

I think it can be easy to get caught up in the algorithmic details. Their importance and having the technology is important, but how you put it all together is really, really important. Like the ability to present a very intuitive experience to the user, that’s what people would have called the user interface and in the past, but the general user experience has to be simple and intuitive. So there are lots of examples of really good technologies, but they haven’t taken off because they’ve been presented in the wrong way, or it’s been too complicated to use. Instead the technology should be almost invisible to the end user, they shouldn’t have to worry about what’s happening behind the scenes. And they should just be able to go about their business in a way that’s very natural to them.

Agnayee

I was just wondering if you can share some highlights from your experiences at ChangingWorlds and Haystacks?

Barry

I suppose looking at those companies and other companies that I have been involved in, one of the experiences that I’ve had is, it’s less about the technology, and much more about how you put the technology to use. Again, it’s back to that last point I made about how you put these things together, to figure out the right way to present it to the user. Oftentimes, you’ll find that innovative companies are too early, they’re ahead of their time. So in my experience, even though you know how to do something, it might not be the right time to do that. And you may have to develop a plan for how you can incrementally roll out your technology, rather than just trying to give too much to the customer or too much to your clients too early on. And so we saw a lot of that in ChangingWorlds, we were starting a little bit ahead of time when there was no mobile on the internet, for example. And we were developing mobile internet solutions. So many of the techniques that we developed wouldn’t really find a home for two or three years from when we started. So we have to figure out what is appropriate, given the current state of the art at a given time, and work from there. So I think you have to resist the urge to try and show everything all at once.

Agnayee

And did you have a process for doing this kind sanity check? To understand what do we take to the user – what are they ready for?

Barry

From my experience, it’s about working closely with a couple of early trusted customers. At ChangingWorlds it was very much a b2b play, wo we were working with enterprise clients. And it’s similar in many e-commerce scenarios, you’re working with large online retailers. So it’s about having a trusted customer like that, that you can go to that will be willing to partner with you as you try to develop these new technologies and figure out the right way to roll them out. And not every early client is a good fit for that sort of task. But if you have one or two of those clients, they can be really valuable.

Agnayee

Can you share a message for the team at Traverz?

Barry

Oh, let me see. Well, I think most one of the most important qualities in my experience is to stick with it. Stick with it. There are lots of bumps along the road, and you need to be determined and you need to trust in your instincts. I think trusting in your own instincts and having the belief to stay the course that those instincts take you.

Agnayee

That’s great. Any final thoughts or anything that you want to share about joining the Traverz team?

Barry

No, I think that covered everything very well. I guess I would just say that the reason that I was drawn to the team is that I liked what I saw, I could recognise some of the challenges that I felt existed in the e-commerce space, and some really interesting solutions to those challenges. And it’s been the first time in a long time that I’ve seen a startup put together those solutions in the right way, you know, making it simple, but very effective. And that’s what drew me to the guys. They were able to demonstrate how they thought about the space and where that led them. So I think they’re on the right track.

 

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