Who said bricks and mortar would go the way of the dinosaur. Or that everything soon will be delivered by drones? TS458726171_edited_web

More than twenty years after Amazon was founded as an e-commerce retailer, the digital heavyweight opened Amazon Books, its first brick-and-mortar store, late last year in Seattle. Chinese e-commerce juggernaut Alibaba soon followed suit with its own physical store, offering imported products in North China.

Ironic, yes? But a shrewd move for companies to acknowledge and invest in the tangible. After all, we’re human. We live in a physical world. We love to see, touch, feel. (Need I mention Apple’s success with its retail stores?)

So when we talk about everything becoming digital, we need to remember that digital is most successful when the role of technology becomes invisible. As we think and design for a world that’s moving to a digital business model, we cannot forget that companies and consumers live in that physical world.

Benefits of Amazon’s brick-and-mortar stores? We’ll see. Shoppers certainly will eliminate shipping (both the time it takes and the increasing expense) and can physically inspect and touch products before buying them. But the brick-and-mortar retail experience is sure to be enhanced by the vast amounts of sales data Amazon gleans from its online presence. Store shoppers see books displayed next to Amazon.com reviews and in arrangements informed by online shoppers’ star ratings and shopping habits. Pricing is dynamic, changing by the minute to reflect the latest price on Amazon.com.

Many of us in the technology industry are enamored of the possibilities of the digital age—from wearables to mobile devices, applications to analytics. And rightly so. We’re good at developing code, processing data, and designing interfaces. But we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that life is lived in the physical world and that the most compelling experiences are those where technology is working for us invisibly.

Recently, a major U.S. transportation-logistics company approached us about an Internet of Things (IoT) project involving its shipping containers. We were able to offer innovative digital solutions to help the company manage location data, routing information, and product spoilage through a network of sensors.

But we couldn’t overlook the critical physical and practical aspects of the project either—even if these feel a lot less than completely digital. For example, how can you keep sensor batteries fresh on thousands of containers moving through a global supply chain? How can you place those sensors so that they won’t be damaged by forklifts? What about operating in humid conditions? In high temperatures? Storage and standby? Receiving signals?

And in case you think some places will always be immune to the changes implied by IoT, consider this: A company in the hotel/leisure/dining industry asked us to help develop a plan for rolling out smart soap dispensers to its washrooms. And they have thousands.

Why? Think automated reporting for the level of soap and supplies. An all-important network operation to monitor dispensers in need of a refill. Alerts for malfunctions (really important, in the hospitality and food sectors …  Please: Wash your hands!). Immediate, automatic orders for new supplies–aggregated across region by geography and with alerts for low levels.

Beyond the technology aspects of the project, there are necessary physical considerations. How to ship supplies or parts safely? How to test in place and manage the companies hired to install the units, for quality work?

Key lesson: You cannot deliver digital without being deeply familiar with the physical. As Ol’ Blue Eyes sings, “You can’t have one without the other.”

That leads to the other key point: Technology works best and digital transformations best succeed when they’re invisible. Technology enables; digital informs. Understanding what businesses are trying to achieve—not just coding according to a set of requirements—is the first step in developing smart digital solutions that integrate online and offline experiences—working for businesses and people, invisibly, behind the scenes.

How does digital interact with the physical world in your business? What are you doing to make digital invisible? Let me know.

Sean Middleton

Sean Middleton

Sean Middleton is the Founder and President of Cognizant Accelerator. Accelerator is the company’s innovation engine responsible for working inside and out... Read more