By Borja Santoalla, Co-founder and Chief Experience Officer at

AI’s knack for providing quick, accurate answers is nothing short of impressive. It’s engineered to be the ultimate time-saver: Laser-focused on delivering results as quickly as it can. It’s seductively simple – and easy to get drawn into the hype.

The buzz around AI is well-deserved. But when it comes to the online shopping experience, we may need to hit the brakes a little. In our rush to deliver instant results that get customers across the finish line, we could forget about one key part of the shopping experience: The joy of discovery.

Rather than viewing AI as the enemy of exploration, let’s explore how AI can become our ally in creating delightful journeys of discovery.

AI’s efficiency: A mixed blessing

When it comes to online retail and product discovery, AI has a propensity to push shoppers towards the results it assumes they want to see. And while this form of personalisation may work in some cases, it leaves little to no room for chance discoveries. An AI-driven shopping experience that delivers results and recommendations based on past behaviours has the ability to feel predictable and boring.

I’m not saying we should avoid using AI, but by using it to streamline our shopping experiences, we risk creating a shopping landscape that lacks surprises. It’s like walking into your local supermarket only to find the shelves stocked with your most purchased items and nothing else.

To harness the true potential of AI, we can focus on blending efficiency with serendipity. AI can be an ally that enriches the shopping experience, surprising and inspiring shoppers with unexpected findings.

Building conversational, entertaining shopping experiences

One way is to leverage Generative AI and Large Language Models (LLMs) to design shopping experiences that aren’t just efficient, but feel human, conversational, and bring joy and entertainment. The key is to rethink how we use these technologies in a responsible way. We should be ready to create new experiences rather than just improving the existing ones.

That could be replacing predictable recommendations with narratives that engage shoppers in conversational journeys of exploration. Take inspiration from Spotify’s AI DJ ‘X,’ which enhances the listening experience by playing your favourite music while also giving you the opportunity to discover new genres and explore new artists. It’s a clever use of AI that retains the element of discovery.

So, what would something like this look like in the world of retail?

Taking the scenic route: How to make search a journey

In his book Alchemy, the behavioural economist Rory Sutherland offers a valuable insight into how what our tech thinks we should see and what we actually want can sometimes clash.

He gives the example of Google Maps, which can have a very narrow definition of what it determines to be ‘the best route’. Maps focuses on efficiency and will always prioritise the fastest route. But the fastest route isn’t necessarily the best.

Like Google Maps, AI can guide us efficiently, but let’s not forget the value of taking the scenic route. In delivering product results and recommendations, retailers should remember that unexpected findings and chance encounters add richness to our online shopping experiences.

What does a discovery driven approach look like for retailers?

For many online retailers, a move towards a discovery-driven approach to shopping may fundamentally change the way customers interact with brands.

Rather than bombarding shoppers with obvious product recommendations, retailers can create personalised narratives that balance efficiency with discovery.

A businessman using laptop with with AI icons displayed on the screen

It’s a way of innovating the retail space by fostering exploration and making delightful detours part of the shopping adventure.

This doesn’t mean completely abandoning product recommendations and the current system. It’s more about balancing recommendations and relevance with the joys of discovery.

Responsible innovation and ethical personalisation

AI is set to play an important role in reshaping the retail experience, and this new role brings with it an important discussion for retailers around ethical personalisation and discovery.

Ethical personalisation doesn’t question the effectiveness of personalisation, but instead, looks at ways of making it more transparent and welcomed. It focuses on creating a product discovery experience that also respects the customer’s privacy.

Take the analogy of a café: In a physical setting, customers appreciate when a barista recognises them and remembers their favourite order. But bringing this personalised touch to the digital world presents certain challenges. Current personalisation tactics can sometimes feel intrusive, and online shoppers can feel like products relentlessly follow them around, causing annoyance or suspicion.

Ethical personalisation centres on crafting digital experiences that mirror the real-world interactions we love, without evoking feelings of being constantly monitored. Ethical personalisation in AI aims to strike this balance. It promotes transparency and defaults to privacy, emphasising a mutual, trusting dialogue between retailers and customers.

The goal isn’t just to personalise, but to ensure that the process behind it is clear, consensual, and establishes a genuine connection between the two parties.

Redefining what success looks like

With its precision and efficiency, AI is giving retailers unparalleled opportunities for unique personalisation and recommendations. As we begin to navigate this new era, we shouldn’t overlook the value of exploration and discovery. Creating a balance between AI’s efficiency and the joys of discovery will be key moving forward.

AI can be a trusted navigator, leading shoppers towards exciting and diverse discoveries while ensuring efficiency and ethical personalisation.’s new approach to discovery challenges the belief that search is only about the destination. Through its Open Innovation methodology, Empathy launched Holons Search, which turns search into an engaging journey, rather than just a sprint to the finish line.

Published 24/08/2023




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