A software programme developed by an innovative French firm draws on the psycho-cognitive ‘serendipity’ principle to enable firms to make unexpected, but highly relevant, recommendations for product purchases in line with Internet users’ interests.

[ST. ASSEMBLY] Using Serendipity to Boost E-Commerce

Browsing an e-commerce website does not always end in a purchase. However, the ideal outcome for every online merchant would be to capture the attention of the visitor and persuade him/her to fill up the online basket. Current recommendation systems, which base themselves on related searches, make proposals to online visitors which often do not correspond to their main interests. So consumers find themselves browsing items they are not particularly interested in, sometimes stray away from their initial search to other sites, where they may occasionally find something they do like. This semi-random stumbling upon an item of interest is known as ‘serendipity’. Search’XPR, based in Clermont-Ferrand, France, was founded in July 2011 with the goal of modelling serendipity. As part of the Startup Assembly event, held on 12-14 June at venues across France, the company opened its doors to the public. The two founders, Jean-Luc Marini and Olivier Figon, both with strong backgrounds in mathematics, psycho-cognitive sciences and artificial intelligence, have been working to apply the psycho-cognitive serendipity principle to information systems. Executive Chairman Figon defines the concept as “a fortuitous encounter with a piece of information, which you weren’t looking for initially, but which in the end gives you more satisfaction than your initial search.”

Optimising serendipiditous browsing

Search’XPR’s invention has been channelled into its trademark Oorace software, so named with a nod to Horace Walpole, an eighteenth century British politician who originally coined the term ‘serendipity’. It is an application programming interface (API) for information access which enables Search’XPR’s customers – i.e. online retailers – to give purchasing recommendations to their site visitors based not on a semantic correspondence with key words but on an analysis of user behaviour, drawing on past search experiences. “The right stuff at the right time in the right way” is how Olivier Figon describes Search’XPR’s goal.  The approach presupposes that the e-tailer’s aim is to promote products that are infrequently selected for users’ baskets. Recommendations appear as alerts, depending on their users’ choices. The software works especially well for e-commerce websites that have a wide range of products on offer. Incorporating the software into the merchant’s website is straightforward and takes less than a day. Upstream, Search’XPR first of all carries out an analysis to understand how the navigation functionality works on the merchant’s website. It then takes about three weeks before an individual consumer’s profile has sufficient feed for the software to be able to generate recommendations. Results have demonstrated that ‘unexpected’ recommendations can increase the value of a user’s basket by as much as 27%.

A disruptive system

“This is not a ‘rational’ system and has strictly no relation to semantics. That’s why the technology is disruptive compared with other systems currently in use,” explains Olivier Figon. The professor-entrepreneur points out that no-one has previously worked to bring together traditional science and psycho-cognitive research to model impulse buying in this way. “Suggesting something unexpected which is really compelling is like tugging a person’s arm as we know that nine times out of ten, when a user is browsing aimlessly, s/he leaves the site without buying anything.” The company received State financing – from French investment agency Oséo (now bpiFrance) plus regional funding – to support its prototype phase. However, private investors in France were not keen to bet on such a disruptive idea and Olivier Figon had to call on his professional network to obtain Chinese investment to enable Search’XPR to launch its product on the market in January this year. The firm has so far signed two contracts in France, one with leading online fishing gear and outdoor leisure activity specialist Pêcheur.com, the other with a company in the entertainment sector. Meanwhile in China, Shanghai Airport has also decided to use the Oorace software. 

By Eliane HONG