What do ice axes and usability testing have in common? One is a tool for scaling mountains, the other a tool for improving websites—and both can be found at Recreational Equipment Inc., better known as REI.
Professional opportunities in the information field are numerous and varied, as any UW iSchool grad can tell you. Library, software and high tech are obvious career paths. Less obvious to some, however, are the myriad opportunities in retail.
REI was founded in Seattle in 1938 and is now headquartered in Kent, WA. The purveyor of outdoor recreational gear now boasts 128 retail stores nationwide. Named to FORTUNE magazine’s “100 Best Companies to Work For” every year since the rankings began, the company has attracted a high number of iSchool alumni.
REI is renowned not just for the quality of its merchandise, but also the quality of the environment in which that merchandise is sold. Expert staff and in-store features like climbing rocks and hiking trails provide customers a thorough and immersive shopping experience. Today, like many major retailers, REI is eager to bring its progressive shopping experience online.
We asked a key group of iSchool alumni working at REI to tell us about their roles in developing the multi-channel retail experience, and share some thoughts on how their time at the iSchool helped pave the way. Here are their stories.
Erin Hawk, Manager, Customer Experience Strategy
“I lead a small team focused on helping plan, design and build services that address our customers’ needs across all of the channels. Customers want to interact with REI. They don’t think about REI.com as being different from an REI store or the call center. In a large organization with a long retail history, it can be challenging to bring all of these sales channels into harmony.
“The iSchool helped me learn how to understand and focus on human information behavior. Technology can’t be the sole focus; it’s just one tool of many. Learning how to research and observe human information behavior and how to gain empathy for customers/users of our services is the most critical skill. Oftentimes it’s the ecosystem/environment in which we’ve placed the technology that causes the problems.
“When I started at the iSchool, what interested me most was how to bring technology to bear to augment human interactions in the physical space. Luckily, I met up with some great people in my class who had the same interests. I guess it’s not surprising that we all ended up working together at REI!
“The iSchool showed us the value of diverse points of view and interests, and how to work on a team. The challenges of working cross-divisionally, cross-functionally and in a cross-channel manner aren’t unique to REI. The iSchool definitely helped me learn how to navigate those waters.”
David Ballantine, Senior User Experience Designer
“Most of my work is customer-facing, but I’ve also worked quite a bit on applications that our employees use. Both are satisfying; customer research, usability testing and contextual studies result in better brand/site experiences and increased sales, while internal applications and tools result in happy co-workers.
“We spend a lot of time thinking about what makes the in-store experience special and how we can make the online experience special as well. Simply trying to duplicate the in-store experience online would be a miss. We think about how users cross back and forth between channels as they interact with REI and try to build experiences that reinforce customer needs within a specific channel. I think there’s a correlation between the challenges libraries went through as more information became digital and how retail continues to become more and digitally enabled.
“For me, much of the iSchool’s message is about information literacy and service. It’s not just preparing you for a job, but preparing you to handle the ever-changing landscape that the Internet created. You have to stay current. The single most influential course for me was the knowledge management course I took with Harry Kim. It helped me understand how information is created, shared, and stored within organizations. To this day I still reference Nonaka’s SECI model (Socialization, Externalization, Combination, Internalization).”
Elishema Fishman, User Experience Designer
“I work on an agile team to create digital experiences for our mobile offerings—our snow-report apps, shopping apps, and mobile website. Bringing the REI in-store experience online is something I think about on a regular basis in my role.
“My education at the iSchool prepared me to understand the way that developers, information architects and designers all work together. The eco-system of all these disciplines is intrinsically tied together and my iSchool classes helped teach me how all of the pieces fit. REI has an extremely complex system when it comes to all of the various systems that keep the site and stores running, and even more complexity involved in integrating product data from all of our various vendors. For that reason, an understanding of metadata/content structure and system architecture were invaluable to me.”
John Efta, Information Management Program Manager
“I am a program manager on the relatively new Information Management team that sits within the Digital Retail division at REI. My area of focus is web content management, particularly the systems and tools that are used to publish content on REI.com.
“I believe everyone at REI is in some way trying to bridge the gap between the online and in-store experience. We are known for having a fantastic in-store experience. Store employees are encouraged share their product and outdoor expertise with customers to educate and inspire. Our Information Management Team is looking for ways to bring that same expertise online and make it visible, and useful, to customers during their online shopping sessions.
“Developing a multi-channel retail experience presents a challenge that needs the attention of resources from multiple disciplines. The iSchool has produced user experience designers and experience architects that can lead the charge and help organize the technical and marketing teams in delivering a response. Graduates from the iSchool have a unique, multidisciplinary skill set that is tough to find.”
Stuart Maxwell, Experience Architect
Mid-Career MSIM, 2011
“Currently, in addition to working with developers to implement the product taxonomy, I'm mapping REI's customer-facing information domain and analyzing our non-product content for a possible restructuring effort. As an experience architect, my job is to craft better information experiences for our customers, particularly online, in ways that also improve REI's bottom line.
“The iSchool taught me to think about how people form and satisfy their information needs. The kind of one-on-one communication you get in-store is a highly efficient way to transfer information. However, seen holistically, the experience of a website is very different from the experience of a brick-and-mortar store. I look at user behavior on the site, and look for ways to seamlessly introduce useful information into the digital shopping experience.
“I always say that the iSchool gave me a way of seeing the world, a framework for conceiving information problems. I draw on my iSchool training constantly. Some classes had a direct impact: I use taxonomy, metadata design, and information architecture on a daily basis. Others helped form the approach I bring to solving problems. The relationships I formed at the iSchool have been lasting and significant, allowing me to continue to develop my thoughts about information in the company of people with similar expertise.”
Isaac Pattis, Taxonomist - Digital Retail
Watch a video of Isaac at REI
“I work with a small team to manage browsing experiences of product and related content online. This involves competitive research, analytical review, and a lot of communication.
“I am tangentially involved in bringing the REI in store experience online. Work that I do with product specifications and attributes is informed by many sources. Retail employees are a wealth of knowledge concerning how REI patrons search and browse for products. It is important that the information and groupings of information presented in stores are similar and/or related to what patrons find on line. Research methods learned at the iSchool are essential for these day-to-day activities. Overall perspective is the priceless part. Especially around info ethics and nuances.”
Jonathon Colman, former Principle Experience Architect, now working as a Content Strategist for Facebook
Mid-Career MSIM, 2013
“Broadly, what I do for REI is a mix of information architecture, content management, content strategy, and business analysis/forecasting. When it comes to improving the cross-channel experience for our customers (i.e. offline-to-online and vice-versa), I’m helping to structure our content and information with semantic structures and metadata for richer, more efficient re-use across all of our channels.
“The iSchool helped me develop skills in information structuring, organization and identification that I’ll need to overcome these challenges. But, more importantly, the iSchool helped me develop a balanced approach, taking into account not just technology and information, but also people—the folks whom we’re ultimately serving with this work.”