Sunday, November 18, 2012

On Fit and Emotional Problem Solving

One of the biggest challenges Rent the Runway has is the challenge of getting women comfortable with the idea of renting. That means a lot of things. There's questions of timing, questions of quality. But the biggest question by far is the question of fit. Our business model, if you are unfamiliar, is that you order a dress typically for a 4 day rental period, which means that the dress comes very close to the date of your event, possibly even the day of that event. If it does not fit, or you don't like the way it looks on you, you may not have time to get something else for the occasion. As a woman, this uncertainty can be terrifying. Getting an unfamiliar item of clothing, even in 2 sizes, right before an event important enough to merit wearing something fancy and new is enough to rattle the nerves of even the least fussy women out there. This keeps many women from trying us at all, and presents a major business obstacle.

Given this obstacle, how would you proceed? When I describe my job to fellow (usually male) engineers, and give them this problem in particular, their first instinct is always to jump to a "fit algorithm". I've heard many different takes on how to do 3D modeling, take measurements, use computer vision techniques on photographs in order to perfect an algorithm that will tell you what fits and what doesn't.

Sites have been trying to create "fit algorithms" and virtual fit models for years now, and none has really gained much traction. Check this blog post from 2011, about that year being the year of the  "Virtual Fit Assistant". Have you heard of these companies? Maybe, but have you or anyone you know actually USED them?

I would guess that the answer is no. I know that for myself, I find the virtual fit model incredibly off-putting. I trust the fit even less seeing it stretched over that smooth polygon sim that is supposed to be like me. Where are the lumps going to be? Is it really going to fit across my broad shoulders? The current state of 3D technology looks ugly and fake and I'm more likely to gamble on ordering something from a site with nothing but a few measurements or a model picture than one where I can make this fake demo. The demo doesn't sell me, and worse, it undermines my fit confidence, because it doesn't look enough like me or any real person and it makes me wonder how those failures in capturing detail will translate into failures in recommending fit.

I've come to realize in my time at this job that what engineers often forget when faced with a problem is the emotional element of that problem. Fit seems like an algorithmic problem, but for many women, there is a huge emotional component to trying things on. The feel of the fabric. The thrill of something that fits perfectly. The considerations and adjustments for things that don't. Turning fit into a cheesy 3D model strips all emotion from the experience, and puts it into the uncanny valley of not-quite-realness. I do think that someday technology will be able to get through the valley and provide beautiful, aspirational 3D models with which to try on clothes, but we aren't there yet. So what can we do?

At Rent the Runway, we've discovered through data that when you can't try something on, photos of real women in a dress are the next best thing. Don't forget that the human brain is still much more powerful than computers at visual tasks, and it is much easier for us to imagine ourselves in an item of clothing when we see it on many other women. This also triggers the emotional response much more than a computer-generated image. Real women rent our dresses for major, fun, events. They are usually smiling, posing with friends or significant others, looking happy and radiant, and that emotion rubs off on the viewer. It's not the same as trying something on in a dressing room, but it is like seeing a dress on your girlfriend and predicting that the same thing would look fabulous on you.

This insight led us to launch a major new subsite for Rent the Runway called Our Runway. This is a view of our inventory that allows women to shop by photos of other women wearing our dresses. It is driven by data but the selling point is emotional interaction. Learning to use emotional reasoning was a revelation to me, and it might be the most valuable engineering insight I've picked up in the last year.

9 comments:

  1. I am disappointed this didn't end with some sort of new scheme to circulate motion-capture suits among an ever-shifting 1% sample of the women in New York.

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    1. Actually your nerd comment made me think about how someday you could probably use Google Glasses to gather enough data to feed into some giant map reduce that perfects the sizes for every woman in the world that gets seen by enough Google Glasses. Or something.

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  2. Why not give new renters a period where they can rent a number of dresses for "free" - merely to get a sense of the proper fit? I would assume there are a (finite) set of "locations" where a person knows she's traditionally had difficulty getting the right fit. Then use those dimensions as a baseline for fitting algos.

    For example, by now I feel confident ordering a shirt 15.5" neck and 32" sleeve length, slim fit will always work. Trousers 34 waist and 29 inseam will work.

    Recognizing this won't always work (Size 9 shoes are all the same!), it's better than not being able to be at a store and trying clothes on in RT.

    But perhaps, I thinking like a typical man.

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    1. It's an interesting idea. I think that something around this could work to some degree, after all, you don't have to build 3D models to recommend a size to a person. But it's very labor intensive to measure dresses that have no uniformity. I wish it were even as simple as shoes, let alone neck, sleeve, inseam! Women's designer dresses are all sized at random, as far as I can tell, even between styles from the same designer they are so varying that it's hard to extrapolate unless you have ALL the data.

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  3. Awesome insight! That is how I picked a Halloween costume online....I even found a video of someone moving around in it. You could add videos too to give customers even more info.

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  4. My first thought was that you needed to take multiple photos of each item as worn by different body type models. Obviously, encouraging people to send in their own photos is a great idea, though you might have to start with models or folks working at your company.

    Then again, I've done enough clothes shopping with the women in my life to know what an ordeal it can be. It's impossible to tell much just by looking at an item on its hanger which is why outfits like LLBean, REI and JCrew tend to choose models who look like the people whom they imagine will shop with them.

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  5. I had a similar thought as Kaleberg, though I was also wondering if it was practical to let people see how something fits on a specific named model. e.g. learn through measurements or just trial/error that model K is a good proxy for fit (maybe a little broader across shoulders, etc.). Maybe request fit photos on demand, e.g. I like this outfit, but I need to see it on K to be sure.

    Funny enough, I suppose by examining request frequency for specific models, one could indirectly determine each consumer's approximate body type/measurements.

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  6. "Our Runway" sort of looks like Ravelry (http://www.ravelry.com/) for fashion. Interesting, as it is a similar problem - knitted thing will come out totally different with slight variances in yarn, needle sizes, etc. Having the community post those variances/feedback on a pattern makes it much easier to pick a project that turns out how one would expect.

    Well done though.

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    1. Thanks. My mom actually is a big Ravelry user and also mentioned the similarity. Fairly different user bases but similar problems.

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