For many of us, robots seem to be more of a concept than a reality. We may receive a shipment from Amazon that was picked from the shelf by a robot, and we may drive a car with electronics and mechanical parts built by robots. Yet, with just a few exceptions, these robots labor behind the scenes where we are largely unaware of their impact and the role they play in our lives.

Enter Walmart, which has begun to test “shelf-scanning robots” in 50 of its stores. Designed to move up and down aisles and determine the stocking status and needs of each shelf, these robots have the potential to reduce labor costs and increase revenues through improved shelf maintenance. Not surprisingly, Walmart feels these robots could add millions of dollars of profit to its bottom line.

The Opportunities & Risks of Walmart’s Shelf-Scanning Robots

While the opportunities for Walmart may be real, the risks to Walmart and its brand may be equally real. The “shelf scanning robots” will not be operating behind the scenes, but will instead be out front in the store, moving up and down the same aisles as its customers. Recognizing that there might be some sensitivity about the potential impact of these robots on its workers, Walmart has been careful to position the robots as tools to assist employees rather than replace them.

The Walmart experiment is a great example of how even the most promising ideas need to be evaluated and scrutinized for unintended consequences. While the Walmart robots might provide productivity gains and cost efficiencies, what other impacts might there be?

  • How will consumers feel about sharing aisles with these robots? Will consumers worry about robots as obstacles to get around? What safety concerns might consumers have?
  • How will employees feel about working alongside these machines?
  • Will customers perceive these robots as a threat to jobs in their communities or a means to a better shopping experience?
  • As a result of this initiative, will Walmart and its brand be perceived as technologically innovative, or will its customers see this as a way to gain profits at the expense of employees?

A Research Plan to Avoid Robotic Evaluation

Walmart is obviously interested in testing these robots in a pilot setting to understand whether the technology will perform as advertised and can really deliver on its promise. Yet, Walmart also needs to consider the impact that these innovations might have on its larger ecosystem of employees and community at large. How might it do so? A thoughtful, multi-phase research plan.

Step 1: Engage employees and customers at project kick-off
The initial stage of any product development research cycle involves researching and understanding the needs of the organization and its customers. However, in the case of technology implementation, it is critical that organizations do not consider the capabilities and functionality of technology in isolation. Rather, firms must recognize that the technology’s success will largely depend on how compatible and acceptable it is to all who come in contact with it.

In a project such as Walmart’s, employees and customers need to be engaged early in the development cycle to determine how they feel about the technology’s potential benefits and pitfalls. Through focus groups and in-depth interviews, a firm can note any fears or concerns that are raised and factor those into design decisions, as well as how they should ultimately market and position the technology.

Step 2: Internalize and build upon insights within the organization
While gaining initial insights from employees and customers is important, those insights are useless unless the organization:

  • Recognizes and understands the insights
  • Informs all relevant departments and decision makers
  • Incorporates these insights into the design and development of the technology

One means of achieving this goal is to have the research provider conduct a facilitated workshop with the development team that reviews the key insights while also providing an opportunity for brainstorming how these insights could be best leveraged.

Step 3: Evaluate responses during a trial phase
When an organization is ready to pilot its new technology, most of the focus will obviously be on how the technology performs. However, this is also the time to evaluate how others in the ecosystem are reacting to this technology. Observational techniques such as ethnography and facilitated discussions with both employees and customers would all be valuable in assessing how the innovation is being received and how it could be improved.

Step 4: Refine implementation based on insights
Regardless of how successfully the technology performs, there are likely to be areas where the human-technology interactions could be improved. Rather than rush implementation, organizations are well served when they use their employee and customer research findings to make final adjustments to their technology and implementation plans. A facilitated workshop could once again help with this process.

Step 5: Engage employees and customers after implementation
The need for feedback does not end once a technology innovation is introduced. Once in place and all parties have had a sufficient period of time to become familiar with the technology, additional evaluation is advisable. Again through qualitative research, organizations can determine the overall impact of the innovation and what adjustments, if any, might be warranted.

Research and Planning is Key to Smooth Adoption
When considering the implementation of any technology, it’s important that firms avoid a “robotic” evaluation that focuses only on the technology and its capabilities. Rather, firms need to take a more holistic approach throughout the development process by researching and understanding how the entire ecosystem will be affected by the technology in question. In so doing, these organizations will be taking the steps necessary to improve acceptance, adoption and the potential for long-term success.