As one of the original architects of – and now its head of research and development – Nick Lansley is charged with tapping technology to help consumers. He talks to Simon Creasey about apps, Facebook, iPads... and robots

Q: Tesco was one of the first major UK retailers to get into apps. What did you feel they offered the business?
A: Our journey into 'apps' started a couple of years ago when we worked with a group of several dozen customers to understand in detail how they went about putting an online grocery order together. We could see that for some customers, placing a grocery order took a long time. We wanted to create 'tools' to make this activity easier for our customers.

This coincided with mobile phones beginning to get their 'app' capability, giving us the opportunity to create the tools we needed to help the ­customer and their household on mobile phones. So customers could build up their basket 'little and often' for example, by using the barcode scanner. The challenge for us is to keep innovating for customers, making use of the latest technology so that customers can shop in store, at home or while they are out and about.

Q: What difference does having someone like Philip Clarke the 'former IT guy' at the helm make?
A: It's great having someone with such good knowledge of IT at the top. Philip ­understands how efficient IT makes our business. He wants IT to help serve the customer, whether directly through the website, or indirectly by arming staff with product knowledge to help the customer, getting them through the checkouts quicker, and ensuring that shelves are ­always fully stocked.

Q: The vision for the business is to become a truly multi-channel retailer how will technology facilitate this?
A: Tesco has a multi-channel approach so that people can shop how they want to, be that at home, in store, through their mobile, from the Tesco Direct catalogue, and so on. We have different shop formats to suit customer needs.

Long term, we continue to focus on building this multi-channel offer, to continue to serve customer needs as shopping habits change and make shopping even more convenient for them. For example, new innovations to help our customers shop more easily include the transactional Tesco Grocery App for iPhone, which includes a barcode reader.

We are also trialling a grocery Click & Collect service, which enables customers to order groceries online but opt to pick them up from the store car park any time within the two-hour time slot they have booked. We have a mobile web for Tesco Direct to make it easier for people to browse and ­order from our non-food range from their mobile. Each channel supports the others, and creates more 'places' where customers can interact with us and we can support them with their purchases.

Q: How do you see Tesco using channels such as Facebook and Twitter in the future?
A: The launch of the official Tesco Facebook page was in April. Social media gives us the opportunity to build further links and positive relationships with our customers. It's a great way to talk to customers. For example, we posted a video about how Tesco cheese is made from farm to store.

Q: Sainsbury's is understood to be considering offering consumers coupons via their mobile phones. Is this something Tesco is also interested in?
A: We are always looking for new ways to reward our customers, but it's important that we try and get this into the hands of all of our customers, not just those who can afford smartphones. That's why our coupons tend to appear on our checkout receipts or, more recently, through Tesco Bank cashpoint machines coupons at our ATMs is something unique that no other retailer is proactively providing.

Q: I know you're a big fan of the iPad and Tesco has big hopes for sales of the iPad 2. What scope is there for use of tablet devices in the grocery industry?
A: We use tablet computers for grocery picking and have done so since 1998. Tablet devices are so portable and easy to use that they would make perfect companions for all kinds of tasks. For example, staff could use them to help a customer making a product choice by having product/comparison details to hand. Tablets might offer kiosk-style capabilities. They offer big-screen, touch-screen, hard-to-break experiences for anyone to use.

Q: I also understand you're a strong advocate of visual searching.
A: Visual searching is what we do as humans. My argument is that, if your brain can identify objects in a scene when you look around, then so should a search ­engine. Point your phone's camera at a bunch of carrots and it should just 'know' it is looking at carrots. Point the camera at your kitchen sink and it might suggest Tesco products that could clean it! My quest is, in R&D, to make visual searching that can easily be used by Tesco shoppers.

Q: Where do you see it working best?
A: There are two great scenarios: pointing the camera-phone around the kitchen and a whole list of products it can see start popping up in a list and the products 'missing' compared with your 'favourites' are recommended for ordering. This would make grocery shopping ordering much quicker. And 'moments of inspiration' "do Tesco sell that?" as you see an interesting object. You could, for example, photograph a bar stool in your friend's kitchen and get Tesco to instantly reveal bar stools for sale in the catalogue.

Q: In a blog entry you outlined your vision for the widespread use of robotics in the industry. Were you serious?
A: I use the 'Robot' project as a mental ­device that makes me think far into the ­future rather than just getting consumed by immediate projects on the R&D backlog. I regard R&D as the team who sit in the crows nest of our 'ship', looking far enough ahead to spot opportunities and deliver resulting projects that may make the management team perform a steering adjustment.

The 'Robot' project simply ­ensures that I focus all the way to the ­horizon as well as much closer to our ship. Let me assure my management team that my desire, stated in that article, to replace them all with a robot that says 'yes' to my every whim is a joke. For now...