Category: Customer is King

Everything as a Service

Pic: source
 
Over the past decade, the business world has had a real attraction to making everything a service. And rightly so. Would you rather struggle to repeatedly sell your product to the same customer? Or would it be better to offer it on a subscription model where you can keep improving it over time, and charge users a regular fee for using it? From furniture and tech products to cars, web hosting and food apps. I’m all for the services model.
 
However, you can’t help compare the process of buying good ol’ products whenever you would need them, to subscription based services. Let me know what you think..
 
In FMCG products, larger SKUs are more expensive, but (almost) always cheaper per unit than smaller quantity SKUs.
Increased manufacturing, distribution costs, and profit margins affect the price of a product. But that price applies to all customers, new or loyal ones. As does any promotion, that does not differentiate between old and new customers.
 
Compare that with technology and web service companies. You pay a monthly, quarterly or annual fee for services they offer. Technology companies, like any other business, have costs that tend to grow over time. And their discounts to convert free-, or non-users to paid users are far more tempting than consumer product discounts. Rightly so.
 
But these discounts strain the operations of many of these tech companies, forcing them to create lean models of operations. That’s the upside! Is anything more fascinating than Uber needing only a 3-member team to manage every new location it expands to?
 
But once that discount period is over, fees of many tech services companies goes up, year after year. And similar to consumer product customers, there is no growing advantage of staying loyal (apart from a superior offering itself) to a brand. While customers of consumer products still benefit from any benefits offered to new/ non-paying customers, that often does not happen with tech services companies.
 
And therein lies the anomaly. Alert consumers of a tech service would find themselves reviewing the service and its benefits, comparing with competitors, or even just weighing the pros and cons of retaining any such service, each time it is up for renewal.
 
I’ve been using the MS Office 365 service for almost 8 years, and the older MS Office software before that. And while my subscription was on auto-renewal for many years, at one point I realized how the fee had steadily risen. While new users were still getting it at a price almost 40% lower (and as a friend mentioned, even lower on Amazon on festival days). It seemed unfair, and there was nothing stopping me from simply registering as a new user with a new email id, and simply moving files from one cloud to another.
 
Similarly, hosting is a ruthless market for service providers. All service providers offer heavy discounts on new subscriptions, but those fees skyrocket once that initial period is over. And in many cases, you don’t want to avail the heavy discount and commit to many years subscription without knowing the quality of the service and support.
 
I wonder if this anomaly seems more in price-sensitive markets like India, or it is a pattern across the world.
 
And I wonder if there is a better model that might help fix this apparent anomaly (for customers) and challenge that service companies face. One that is adequately fair to the service companies that work hard to bring incredible services our way, and to stand apart from the competition. And that is also fair to the average user of those services who is not thrilled about being fleeced for a service he or she has been using loyally for sometime, and then finding out that it is being offered to newcomers at a fraction of the cost they pay – with no extra benefits to show for the loyalty.
 
The ideal model would be one that adequately compensates tech service companies, while also avoiding the highly skewed pricing between newbies and loyalists. And tech companies need to lose any fat.
 
I am always reminded of Uber and Ola. It is popularly known that Uber just needs a 3-member team to expand to a new city. And in 2012, I remember forgetting an empty gym bag in an Ola cab, and ended up being sent to two of their sprawling offices in Mumbai!
 
The business model that extends from the founders’ vision and extends to become part of the culture of the organization, will determine how soon and how much profits your business can and will make.

Heel Rollers – Not a great Design

Image: source
 
Heel rollers, heel wheel skates, or heel wheels, have a fundamental flaw in their design.
 
If we humans were to pick between standing for a minute on the front section of our feet or the heels of our feet, odds are we would be more comfortable on the front section. The heels generally bear most of our body weight. But if our weight is channeled only to the heels, they seem to tire soon (the calcaneus region). In contrast, the front section of our feet do better at balance control and managing the weight.

Image: source
 
Coming to these heel rollers which seem to be popular with kids, they seem to have a flawed design. Each roller has a single pair of wheels, worn over shoes, and positioned towards the heel. This leaves the front section of the feet free, allowing for balance control. Yet, this puts the axis of the wheels in line with our center of gravity, increasing chances of rapid falls backwards. That in turn, increases chance of injury to the head.
 
What if you wore the wheels over the forward section of your feet, closer to the toes?
 
While this would remove that balance control that the front section of the feet offer, it would increase chances of a forward fall. Of the two, this one is slightly better as the user has a shot at controlling or dampening the fall. But, now the wheel’s axis is outside of our center of gravity, making the ride unstable and not enjoyable. Unless one skates only using the forward section of the feet. [Imagine a woman in heels, but with wheels under the front. Does that look remotely comfortable?]
 
Unlike roller skates, heel (or forward) rollers would be a good way to induce a back pain due to its unstable design, The lower back in particular would be working extra hard to counterbalance to constantly maintain or regain balance.
 
So in all, not the best idea for a fun alternative to walking for kids.

Product Design – Bottle Necks

I recently got some (plastic 😬) bottles for home.
Not proud of it. But anyway, I noticed a small design anomaly with them.

Normally, the neck of most bottles are only slightly shorter than their lids.

 

Now while these bottles are fine otherwise (except, plastic!), I wonder how many people who’ve bought them have unintentionally spilled water on themselves while drinking.

When we reach out for a bottle, we unconsciously gauge the height of the neck (also the mouth diameter), and the brain magically calculates an approximate “how much to tilt”…

But with these bottles, that seems a little misleading. You expect a taller neck than the lid hides, which means water will be out at a smaller angle of tilt than one expects.

Ideally, always either match or exceed (i.e. err on the safer side of) user perception.

This bottle’s neck design is like having a negative margin of safety.
Say a product has a 100 kg payload limit. It is designed with a margin of safety, meaning it will deform or buckle above 100 kg (maybe at 110, or at 120 or even higher), not exactly at 100. But then imagine another similar product with the same 100 kg payload claim, but one that buckles at 95.
This bottle neck is that. Not always desirable.

Product Use and Experience – Range and Layers

There is a beauty to how some products (and software) are designed.

Think scissors. If we want to cut something fast, we use the forward section of the blades (speed multiplier). Want to cut something fatter or tougher, use the rear end of the blades (effort multiplier); and cut slower, or risk breaking the scissors.

And Mixer grinders. Need to grind coffee beans to a powder? Start with the low speed, and slowly increase. Jump to the highest speed fast, and you could damage the blades or motor.

Cars (MT) and commuter bikes follow a similar rule. More torque for climbing on lower gears, and better speed on higher gears. Try climbing in a high gear, and you’ll stall. Go fast in a lower gear (or drop to a low gear at high speed), and you wear out the gear.

Think Software. I’ve always admired the MS Office suite. Layered, so novices like the teenage us got some basic fun. And as our task complexity deepened, the software opened up to keep pace.

Physical products have manuals. Tech service cos would benefit if they spelt out the expertise/ features they offered. Many of us use online services not knowing half their features; many of which could simplify our work or make things more enjoyable.
Make layers appear as the user gets ready for them.

Pic: source

 

 

Where Should Laptop Charging Lights be, and Why are Laptop Keyboards so Small?

Firstly, should laptop charging lights be put on the side the charger plugs in?
That is where the charger plugs in, but not where we sit. Which means many a times, it would be an effort to confirm charging.

How about on the front? Better, since most often, many of us (remember to) charge the laptop only when using. Still not the greatest place since it might require a slight head movement to check.

Or should it be placed someplace else?
Of course, there’s also the flip-side, that of prominently placed lights being a subtle distraction to the user.

Till date, Apple’s indicator on the charger end logically seems to be one of the best spots.
Though surely there are other spots or angles that might be more easily visible to the user.

Where do you think the charging lights should be?

And, on the topic of laptops..their keyboard sizes in particular… guess most of us assume what we buy is all we get…

I stumbled upon a clip of a 1995 IBM ThinkPad 701. Surely pricey at $1500-3200 a laptop, but look at that keyboard!
Incredible! Why isn’t this feature standard in laptops now?

Makes you wonder why the most useful of technology never seems to survive time.

 

 

The Gap between Good Intentions and Impact

The gap between good intentions and impact of the resulting action (or choice) has been an area of interest to me.

A decade ago, a Brad Pitt linked non-profit messed up an affordable homes project [2008-2015] in New Orleans.
Meant to be green and sustainable, the homes had severe structural and mold problems. 6 of 150 are in good condition. They were not even adequately designed for heavy rains the region received.

Even the best intentioned plans must cross the Usability bridge and be adopted by users to achieve their purpose.
However often, noble intent overshadows recipient needs.

Few years ago, the Delhi government messed up a similarly noble homeless shelter project.

Growing up here in India, another amusing example I’d hear of, is slum redevelopment.
Governments built apartments for city slum dwellers in city suburbs. But oftentimes, many of these dwellers would rent out their new accommodation (thus gaining a new source of income), and move back to their old slum, which was familiar as a place, people, and place of employment.

In all of these cases, the beneficiaries are not to blame. They are not too demanding or picky or greedy.
Despite the best of intentions, it is simply a failure to design a more caring solution for them.

An Idea for Food Delivery Services

How most food ordering/ delivery service apps work is, you make your selection, pay (or CoD), and confirm the order.
However, there are occasions (or lack of them) where you might want to order something, but without any time constraint.

These instances might include, remembering to order a birthday cake for tomorrow, or have some starters or dessert sent anytime this evening. In such cases, at present, you’d have to remember or set an alarm to place the order in a broad time bracket.

But what if instead, like with Scheduling a ride with Uber, you could simply place the order in advance, and either pick the day, or a broad time within the day, for when the order could be dropped.

It would be convenient to customers who might risk forgetting or risk ordering too late.
Companies could insist on prepaid orders only.
Companies benefit by being able to bunch orders only when a rider is headed in a particular direction, rather than sending them with a lone minimum order in a direction.

Might help marginally with easing traffic, and make rider trips a little more efficient, while being convenient for customers.

***

This Idea for Food Delivery Services was part of an initiative called RattL ’em.
What is RattL ’em?: We are constantly fascinated by companies, products and services.
So, every few days, we send out an email to, or share an idea online about a random company anywhere in the world that caught our fancy. The email either contains an idea for a new product or service, a concern area to focus on, or a new feature or improvement to their portfolio.
We do it for free. And for fun. And the company that receives it is free to use the idea, with no financial or other obligation toward us. We think of it as our way to be the best at what we do in the field of innovation and design strategy consulting.

WT f UX

Last week, I was speaking with a post-grad design student who had just finished her Masters, and was trying to figure out her career options. She mentioned that most job opportunities on campus involved UI/UX related to mobile apps or websites. Something that wasn’t to her liking. My suggestion was not to obsess too much about industry lingo, but instead, try to figure out across industry sectors, what she would (and would not) like to work on instead.
 
In the recent years, industry lingo has made the job market murky, with plenty of keywords being irresponsibly thrown about. A few years ago, a leading digital transformation company with some very elite global clientele got in touch saying they felt I was a good fit for a senior role at their company. A note on the position had words like ‘design thinking’ and ‘innovation’ used generously. I got back to their HR contact to request her to explain the role in more detail to me. Turned out, they were simply looking for someone to help them with UI/UX for the mobile apps they built. I spent some time explaining design thinking, UI and UX, so she would be able to identify potential candidates better.
 
It obviously wasn’t her fault. Many industry sectors are evolving so rapidly for the past many years; with new skills, new terminologies and jargon popping up regularly. So much so, sometimes even human resources of such companies have not been adequately explained what and whom they should be looking for.
 
For starters, one can simply define UX (user experience) as the overarching journey to create meaningful experiences for users. And UI (user interface…design) involves different components of a product or service itself that strive to make better UX possible. Of course, the term UI tends to get used largely in relation to web and mobile or related display contexts, but let that not limit us by way of examples.
 
Let’s consider more traditional products. Take a car for example; some of them have a footrest next to the clutch, that drivers can rest their left foot on when not engaging the clutch, especially on longer journeys (instead of straining the foot by resting it only on the heel). Here, the footrest itself is a UI element that is added to improve the overall UX for the driver of that car (by reducing driver fatigue by way of the footrest feature).
 
There’s good UX and bad UX out there in the world. But here’s an example of arguably the worst kind of bad UI & UX. The seemingly invisible kind.

This switch panel is very old. From long before I knew what design thinking is. If I remember correctly, back in the day, such panels came with fixed square slots. One such slot of two would be used by one 3-point socket, or would accommodate two switches.
 
The left plug is of the refrigerator, and the right one of the microwave oven. While it might appear perfectly normal to us, there is a small invisible UX challenge here. The fridge switch obviously needs to be on at all times. The microwave however, is switched on and off a few times each day. The close proximity of the two switches is where the bad UX layout is at.
 
In an ideal layout, the switches be on either sides of the two plugs, thereby reducing almost any possibility of someone accidentally switching off the fridge while intending to switch off the microwave. And most of us might not even realize something like this when going about our busy daily routines. However, in such cases, our semi-conscious mind tends to be in a state of partial alert whenever we reach out to switch on or off the microwave. Because we do not want to accidentally switch off the fridge, but at the same time, it is too routine a task for us to pay 100% attention to it. Sometimes, we might reach out for the switch while reading something on our phone, or while speaking to someone standing opposite to the switches.
 
The reason we might not realize the layout flaw is because it is subtle. We might accidentally switch off the fridge 1 in 50 times, but for the other 49 times, we are probably in a state of partial alertness, for a task which should not ideally require that alertness of us.
 
As a UX designer or anyone who wants to create a more seamless experience around this, would ensure the fridge switch was either placed away, or access to it was covered or restricted (by placing a partially blocking partition if necessary).
 
Of course, thanks to progress in the switches and related products space, products in more recent years do not have square slots like this one. Instead, you can place switches and plug points anywhere along a line as per your preference.
 
Which brings us to trying to imagine what good UX design might be. It is one or more UI elements that make the experience so seamless for the user, that they get the task done with minimal mental processing, especially with frequent use.
 
In my book, I mention one about TV remote design – how some have buttons so well laid out (UI) that after initially familiarizing yourself with it, you can operate it without needing to look at the remote each time (UX). Well designed remotes follow a simple logical layout that makes it easier for the user to recreate a spatial position of essential buttons in their mind that are built around a central reference point.. A tacky button layout will have an inbuilt resistance, preventing the user from creating (and from remembering) a mental picture of the remote, and therefore being unable to use it without needing to first look for the button.
 
With a glaringly bad UI feature, a user almost instantly knows and doesn’t like it. However, with the seemingly invisible bad UI, the glitch might not be very obvious, and the inconvenience to the user too, might be brief and occasional. In such cases, the user might tolerate the product or experience, never at peace and enjoying it, but also unfortunately not aware enough to change it, unless a better product and the need to replace the old one comes along.
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