Although you may not have heard of them by name, Otto Group are a huge retail conglomerate with €9b of revenues in 2005/6; they own retail outlets like Crate and Barrel in the US as well as catalog companies like Grattan and Freemans in the UK and the eponymous OTTO in Germany.
As the second largest online retailer in the world, when OTTO decided they needed a fresh new retail experience, they wanted to set a benchmark for online shopping. The result was their next generation OTTO store application, built using WPF, WCF and CardSpace and available for download today from their website using ClickOnce technologies. I'm so impressed with what they've built: it's a really attractive experience that will undoubtedly result in increased sales and improved customer satisfaction.
The first time you load the application, there's a brief wait while it downloads the product catalog and all the image assets. Rather than making you sit and wait while it all comes down, they integrate a short training video into the download screen so that you're not twiddling your thumbs and you're ready to hit the ground running when it comes up. The main screen looks something like an animated wallboard: you can scroll back and forth to see different collections in the catalog. When you click on an item, it pops to the foreground along with a stack of related items. So far, so cool.
What makes this application really stand out from anything you could easily do on the web is that if you like a couple of products but want to see how they go together, you can drag them to a "mix and match" icon on the bottom of the screen, and then you can dress a model with the items and see whether they go together in ensemble. I think even my daughter is going to enjoy this - it's the online equivalent of "dress up Barbie", even if that's not quite what they intended.
It only takes a brief glimpse at the screenshots for this application to realize that its success comes from a cross-disciplinary team of developers, designers and retail specialists. In this new world, it's going to be increasingly important for developer teams to think from the start about design in all forms. You can read a great blog post from the designer behind the OTTO application, who talks about this in more detail.
Even though I don't buy a lot of women's clothing (!), I'm excited about the vision for the future that this application demonstrates. If you're in the retail sector, you should be looking at this application and figuring out how you build something similar so that you don't wind up the last company to give your customers a high-end retail experience.
I've got to close this post by crediting Jaime Rodriguez. He's been working with OTTO as the Microsoft liaison since the start of this application, and he is one of the most underrated guys I know in the community. Subscribe to his blog: he's a smart guy who thinks hard about the real technical challenges behind implementing WPF and WPF/E and has great real-world feedback. He's going to post a follow-up entry to this blog that talks in greater detail about the technical challenges and advantages of using WPF - I'll update this entry when it becomes available.