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How to offer customers a frictionless online experience

(BUSINESS MARKETING) Companies of all sizes still have clunky, hard to use websites – here’s how to fix that and offer a quality online experience.

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The internet has clearly done wonders for retailers and businesses that sell physical products. Ecommerce is exploding and the evolution of various platforms makes it possible for even the smallest of companies to create their own global supply chains with very little upfront investment or cost. But don’t forget about service-based businesses – such as beauty salons, yoga studios, gyms, chiropractors, and massage centers. These types of businesses have benefited tremendously as well.

The internet has given service businesses the opportunity to increase exposure, drive leads, and better engage modern customers in a convenient manner. However, with great opportunities come incredible responsibilities.

If you want your business to be competitive in today’s landscape, you have to offer customers and clients frictionless online experiences, or so-called omni channel solution.

Smooth user experience (UX) is what separates successful businesses from average ones when it comes to online marketing and lead generation. If you want to offer frictionless UX to your customers, here’s where you need to start:

1. Understand buyer journeys
“Today, customer interactions are continuous, contextual, highly personalized and ever-changing, no matter if the customer is on an iPad, talking to Alexa, or entering a subway station,” digital marketing expert David Aponovich points out.

The problem a lot of businesses encounter is a misunderstanding of the customer buyer journey. They view it in isolation, instead of as a long-term play.

“When you start to build digital experiences around your consumers’ actual lives, and stop thinking in one-time purchases, you’ll be one step ahead of your competitors,” Aponovich continues. “Removing friction? It starts by being where your customers want you and need you to be.”

2. Offer convenient scheduling
No more asking customers to call the office or send an email in order to schedule an appointment. Rarely will a customer remember to do this. And if they do, it creates an unnecessary hitch in the buying process. You need to offer more convenient scheduling options.

An online appointment scheduling resource will help tremendously with this aspect of UX. A tool like SimplyBook.me makes it easy for smaller businesses (with minimal resources) to streamline the scheduling process for customers and clients. Customers can seamlessly move from interest to purchase/scheduling in the same step.

3. Present plenty of visuals
Nobody likes clutter. As you know, minimalism is the best policy in modern web design. If you want to give your visitors what they’re looking for, ditch the superfluous elements and meaty paragraphs. Instead, opt for high-quality visuals that say more with less.

4. Increase website functionality
Your website should be more than a receptacle for content – or even a platform for scheduling appointments. While these are important aspects, the site itself needs to be functional. This could look like selling physical products directly from the site (if you have them) or offering interactive content that addresses key customer pain points.

5. Make yourself discoverable
It’s easy to believe that UX is all about your website experience, but it actually encompasses a lot more than that. If you want to keep your customers happy, they need to be able to find you. Today, leading brands are putting a huge emphasis on social media, online word of mouth, SEO, and PPC advertising. Prioritize discoverability and you give yourself a pretty big head start.

The internet gives your business an opportunity to reach your target market in a manner that few who went before you would have ever dreamt possible. But it’s not enough to simply reach your audience. Once you engage them, you have to expose them to frictionless online experiences in order to drive conversions and grow your brand. Take some time to think about how you’re doing in this area.

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Larry Alton is an independent business consultant specializing in social media trends, business, and entrepreneurship. When he's not consulting, glued to a headset, he's working on one of his many business projects. Follow him on Twitter and LinkedIn.

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Silicon Valley created tech for your family that’s too addictive for theirs

(TECHNOLOGY) Tech inventors are big on innovating and advancing tools, but a growing parenting trend in tech circles seems hypocritical.

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I consider myself an older Millennial. I was slowly but surely introduced to technologies as they became mass-marketable, but they didn’t affect every moment of my day-to-day life. I learned how to use computers in elementary school, I chatted on AOL as a preteen, and when I was 16, my parents gave me my own cell phone “for emergencies.” I promptly dropped it under the car seat, where it remained for a year, before I or my parents even noticed that it was missing.

In less than a generation, our relationship to cell phones has transformed completely. For one thing, my first cell phone didn’t have a touch screen. It didn’t have an internet connection. Hell, for an entire year, I didn’t even use the damn thing.

Fast forward to 2018, when your children can learn to use an iPad at the same time that they learn to use a toilet.

Interestingly, the tech whizzes who designed much of the technology that now pervades nearly every moment of our lives seem wariest of the negative impact screen time might have on kids. The NYT reports that the trend amongst Silicon Valley parents is to severely limit or even ban cell phone use by their children.

Parents in all echelons of the tech industry are limiting their kids’ exposure. Steve Jobs kept iPads out of the hands of his young children. The Gates offspring didn’t receive cell phones until high school (just like me, in 2001), and Tim Cook discourages his nephew from using social networks.

These concerned parents describe the addictive potential and negative consequences of screen time in increasingly pessimistic terms.

Athena Chavarria, a former Facebook employee, believes that “the devil lives in our phones and is wreaking havoc on our children.”

Chris Anderson (yes that Chris Anderson), former editor of Wired and founder of GeekDad, says that when it comes to screens, “On a scale between candy and crack cocaine, it’s closer to crack cocaine.”

Parents are even making contractual agreements to make sure their kids don’t use screens while under the supervision of their nanny or babysitter.

Like basically every human idea or invention ever, connected, screened devices reveal that our ability to create new technologies far outpaces our ability to understand the consequences – positive or negative – of that tech.

Those closest to the situation – the inventors themselves – are often the first ones to sound the alarm when they realize that their hard-won advancements may not have been such a great idea after all.

Said Chris Anderson of the addictive nature of cell phones, “We thought we could control it. And this is beyond our power to control.”

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Amazingly fun tech toys that are secretly educational

(TECHNOLOGY) STEM toys for children are fun *and* educational – here are some that have caught our eye.

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There’s a new trend amongst startups – and amongst kids’ toys: educational playthings that teach your little ones STEM skills like programming and coding.

Toys that double as learning tools are nothing new, but digital, connected technology still is, and so is the idea that your toddler can get a leg up in the tech industry by getting an early start.

Parents, universities, and economists seem concerned that acquiring STEM skills will soon be the only way to guarantee a good job, despite reports from the U.S. Census Bureau that 3 out of 4 STEM majors end up in non-STEM fields anyway.

So if your kid is more into, say, baseball or dancing than computers, you might be wasting the pretty pennies these high-powered educational toys will cost you.

Kids, with their alarmingly short attention spans, are as likely to toss these toys back into the toybox as any other. But if your wee one seems to have a knack for all things technical – or if you’d just rather see them learn how to build a device than passively stare at one all day – then check out TC’s guide to STEM toys.

Even though these toys are marketed towards the younger set, I found myself a little envious, wishing I could take a few for a test drive – especially since many of them are modern, high-tech reboots on old standbys from my childhood.

Lego’s Boost Creative Toolbox uses the same classic Lego blocks, but allows you to animate and program your creations.

Several products cross-market with some of my childhood favorites; Dash Robotics has teamed up with Mattel to make Jurassic World robots, and Kano makes a Harry Potter Coding Kit that teaches kids to program a wand that can interact with digital content. There’s even Electro Dough which is basically electrically-conductive Play-Doh that can light up and make sounds. I want!

In fact, a lot of the toys combine arts ‘n’ crafts with STEM lessons. Adafruits makes a marker with electronically conductive ink that can light up circuits and interact with computer programs, and an electronic pencil that synthesizes music. Root Robotic’s little bot can draw pictures and compose songs.

For the more straightforward tech nerds, Makeblock, Evo, Robo Wunderkind, and Wonder Workshop all make programmable robots – a big step up from the “artificially intelligent” Furby’s of my childhood. Sphero’s Bolt is a ball-shaped robot, while Airblock makes a programmable hovercraft.

There’s the Pi-top Modular Laptop that teaching kids coding, and there are even opportunities for kids to build their own electronics; Kano offers a build-it-yourself computer.

The holidays are just around the corner – but whether STEM educational toys will be the next Tickle Me Elmo remains to be seen.

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A deepfakes creator for text so realistic it can’t be made public yet

(TECHNOLOGY) You know about video deepfakes, but the technology exists for doing convincing deepfakes for text. It’s so good that they aren’t ready to release it to the public yet…

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Artificial intelligence is being used to complete more and more human tasks. But as of right now, news stories you read online – including all the articles here on American Genius – have been written by real human beings.

Until recently, even the most intelligent computers couldn’t be trained to recreate the complex rules and stylistic subtleties of language. AI-generated text would often wander off topic or mix up the syntax and lack context or analysis.

However, a non-profit called OpenAI says they have developed a text generator that can simulate human writing with remarkable accuracy.

The program is called GPT2. When fed any amount of text, from a few words to a page, it can complete the story, whether it be a news story or a fictional one.

You already know about video deepfakes, but these “deepfakes for text” stay on subject and match the style of the original text. For example, when fed the first line of George Orwell’s 1984, GPT2 created a science-fiction story set in a futuristic China.

This improved text generator is much better at simulating human writing because it has learned from a dataset that is “15 times bigger and broader” than its predecessor, according to OpenAI research director, Dario Amodei.

Usually researchers are eager to share their creations with the world – but in the case, the Elon Musk-backed organization has, at least of the time being, withheld GPT2 from the public out of fear of what criminals and other malicious users might do with it.

Jack Clark, OpenAI’s head of policy, says that the organization needs more time to experiment with GPT2’s capabilities so that they can anticipate malicious uses. “If you can’t anticipate all the abilities of a model, you have to prod it to see what it can do,” he says. “There are many more people than us who are better at thinking what it can do maliciously.”

Some potential malicious uses of GPT2 could include generating fake positive reviews for products (or fake negative reviews of competitors’ products); generating SPAM messages; writing fake news stories that would be indistinguishable from real news stories; and spreading conspiracy theories.

Furthermore, because GPT2 learns from the internet, it wouldn’t be hard to program GPT2 to produce hate speech and other offensive messages.

As a writer, I can’t think of very many good reasons to use an AI story generator that doesn’t put me out of job. So I appreciate that the researchers at OpenAI are taking time to fully think through the implications before making this Pandora’s box of technology available to the general public.

Says Clark, “We are trying to develop more rigorous thinking here. We’re trying to build the road as we travel across it.”

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