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.