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Sharing and Scratching Itches Everywhere

SmartCart at Techfair

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On Feb 4th, 2012, SmartCart was presented at Techfair (a student-run “career fair” fused with student project exhibitions). 60 companies showed up along with 30 student project. SmartCart was fortunate enough to be one of the 30 student projects, also funded by Techfair+/StartLabs. Showcasing SmartCart was a blast, and exhausting as it can be. Students, alums, and company recruiters stopped by and experienced the shopping experience of the future 😉 We got lots of positive and useful feedbacks and ways to improve in v2.0!

So, here is the story, from past, present, to future. 

The ideation occurred over the summer 2012, around when I started taking real-world problem-solving more seriously. Constantly trying to figure out ways to improve life, in general. Something I had to do in order to feed myself over the summer was go shopping, for food… Shopping at Shaw’s, as well as other supermarkets, has always been a pain. The shopping experience itself should be enjoyable and productive. Instead, I had to wait around in line, waste time picking items, make irrational decisions, and deal with ridiculous people. So many itches to scratch. Something people hate but never do anything about? I think so.

The first ideation: Wouldn’t it be nice to have the cart display/know everything that is in the cart? (So that I don’t overspend mah $$.) Specially, I have to emphasize, is the Checkout@Cart feature. When I’m done shopping, why do I deserve to stand in line, to choose which line to go through, and watch myself making the wrong decision? I refuse. ) And the snowball started there. Then, much talking went into talking about this “shopping cart”.

Fall Semester came along, and I became more interested in entrepreneurship. Working at a startup definitely contributed. One of the first best-advice I got was: “if you already have an idea, why aren’t you doing something?” (Well, pause, because I… uh, has other things to do?) At the same time, Founder’s Journey (6.933) was being incredibly motivating. Still, with school going on, there was only more talking and no doing. At this point, the “shopping cart idea” has recommendations features, find, and fraud detections. We have even identified our competitors and similar historical attempts at improving the shitty shopping experience. (IDEO and some European project.)

When I got Techfair’s project funding email, I finally had the adrenaline to do SOMETHING. The process was “application”, “interview”, and “funding”. I remember the day when the funding email came in, I told myself that I’d either prototype SmartCart, or never speak of it ever again. Funding came in at $250, which also meant that I’d have to build this thing, at some point.

SmartCart is no rocket science. All the hardware I could either find, or get online. Everything just seemed like they should work together, almost naturally. So I procrastinated… lol. I started working around winter break — choosing a platform, collecting the parts, and setting up the software stuff. I spent a couple days learning how to Android and stack-overflowed everything else. My previous posts paint a partial picture of how SmartCart was made, especially the part where I realized the importance of UI and UX.

T-5 days till Techfair, jetlagged, I still wasn’t sure if the parts could come together… Will the square swipe, and the barcode scan? Well, worst case scenario, I thought, I’ll just enter the barcode, and have a button for swiping. Worst case. But then, everything just magically worked. MIT has made me work so well under pressure -__-.

And then, yesterday was here. Here is the list of functionalities presented at Techfair:

  • Scan to add.
  • Recommendations based on added items.
  • Find items, on Map, with Current location.
  • Coupons, and directly link to Map.
  • Checkout@Cart via Square, Signature.
  • Customer feedback (that I didn’t ask people to write)

Potential functionalities that can easily be implemented on top of existing infrastructure:

  • Improving Recommendation engine
  • Email Receipt + Display to exit
  • Membership + shopping list
  • Route-planning given shopping list
  • Product Ratings!

(Interesting enough, a number of people’s biggest problem with shopping is “not being able to carry things back”. Another business opportunity?)

I have to say, hearing people say “wow” when they see their items show up on the screen after scanning filled me up with incredible joy. Deep down, I could only say… “It’s not very hard to make… nbd.” Oh the joy that simple technologies can bring to people.

Lessons learned from showcasing:

  • Don’t expect something to work when it doesn’t have power, even when plugged into another thing, that doesn’t outsource power… (Wasted $30+ on a barcode scanner)
  • Users don’t know how a ‘fancy’ barcode scanner works, aka: Anything with more than 1-button, or symmetrical design for asymmetrical function is confusing. No no.
  • People don’t know how to use a Square, the first time around. Those who couldn’t find the slot, those who tried tapping (no, it’s not an RFID reader).
  • Hardware UX is as important, and even harder than software.
  • It’s not about the idea, but the execution.

Future of SmartCart: SmartCart is a strict improvement in the user’s experience of shopping. It re-organizes the unorganized. The hurdle is convincing stores, like Shaws, to adapt this improvement in their business. Another challenge is developing a prototype cheap enough to meet the store’s need — a prototype that doesn’t sabotage user experience, also one that can withstand time.

Now I will take a break from developing SmartCart, to talk to some people, and think more about the future of SmartCart. If you would like to know when and where SmartCart will be in your local store, let me know. If you are interested in working on this project, let me know as well. =)

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