Patterns And Asks Left And Right, With Innovative Iterations Kinda, Sorta, Somewhat In Sight

by Ben WisemanIllustration by Ben Wiseman

I published an article on Medium last week entitled, Understanding Snowflakes, Wheels, and Innovation.

The gist of the five-minute read is pretty straight-forward: smart modern day product teams aren’t slaving through 12 hour days within a high-cost, iterative gestation process in the pursuit of a “born perfect” entry to market; they’re most likely stitching together an experience based on a saturated market’s best practice patterns (think: regenerative braking in an electric car, or access to apps for smartphones).

Only once the business deems the market viable will a deep investment in major differentiators begin.

None of that is news to product teams, but what I’m discovering in my first B2B enterprise software rodeo is that the sales variable is much more influential than I had understood when breaking into the space six months ago. From shipping expectations to requirements definition to even the definition of the interaction model itself, sales greatly influences product across the board.

This reality has me attempting to work out an equation to immediately support ever-spawning sales profit arteries while nurturing an innovative and iterative product design culture, one that will have much more impact on our end users the farther we go down the line.

A brave new world. Interesting stuff.

Design, Post-Modern

For 20 years, I’ve been pining for the industry to consider interactive design as something far more than pushed pixels, first & foremost. Looks like even industrial design is becoming a second class citizen to the experience of things.
jonathan-ive

Has Jonathan Ive Designed Himself Out Of Existence?

[…] Think of massively linked datasets on user behavior, which allow your phone to guess what you want to do, when you want to do. Think of digital assistants able to parse even the vaguest commands and parcel out all the sub tasks to the right app—”Hey, can you make a reservation at one of my favorite restaurants this Friday, and make sure that my best friends get the invite too?”

These things are invisible. We can’t hold them, and the sense in which they are “designed” will be vastly different from any piece of hardware we have today, or even any piece of software, no matter how beautiful. […] The next great design monuments won’t be easily displayed in a design museum. They’ll instead be the systems and incentives that dissolve all the messiness of our whims into that simple bit of feedback that happens when your smartphone listens to whatever convoluted thing you’re asking about, and simply says, “Okay.”

3, 2, 1… MedBridge.

surf's up

On May 5th, a Thursday, I heard back from the COO at MedBridge; my references had finally checked out, and their offer to join the team as their Product Design Manager was official. Just three days later, I found myself on a plane to Seattle and started work the very next day. To say the last month and a half has been an acclimation whirlwind would be the mother of understatements.

I’ve been somewhat of a lone wolf for the last eleven years, so it’s going to take me a while to wrap my head around what I can share that’s job specific, but I’ll figure all that out in due time. In the meantime, I’ll stick to posting a smorgasbord of product design thinking that’s been rattling around in my head.

As for MedBridge; what a great opportunity to do work that truly impacts people’s lives.
medbridge

The company started five years ago with a focus on creating high quality online courses for physical therapists and a HEP platform to improve patient outcomes. Since then, they’ve invested in a production studio, and the product line has expanded to support enterprise solutions, along with continuous shifts towards the latest advancements in the field. As a bootstrapped company, we’re as agile of a business as you’ll find in our industry, which allows us to nimbly pivot to address immediate needs—whether cementing our strengths or addressing our shortcomings.

While the design challenges are deep and wide—from overhauling the existing interaction model to standardizing our patterns and visual language to impacting the next wave of products from the moment they become a directive—it’s the exact challenge that I’ve been looking for. The last time I had a similar opportunity, my team made some serious waves in the financial industry with the Apex platform.

Surf’s up.

Uber: Not Quite The Driver Friendly Business Model

uber app

In the midst of a post-job interview / project downtime stretch this past March, I decided to scratch an itch I’ve had for a while and test the overall experience of driving for Uber. I’ve always wondered about the product experience from a driver’s perspective, and hey, why not make a few bucks while finding out?

I was steeled for a lengthy process, but signing up was rather simplistic; I only had to upload images of my active insurance, registration and drivers license. As I waited to clear the Uber background check I detailed my Ford Escape, upped my mobile data plan, and within just a few days, I was on the road.

Since Uber launched a number of years back, I’ve had a rather conflicted perspective on the entire ride-sharing industry, unsure as to whether I found their disruption innovation to be of actual value to workers or an example of a tech firm taking advantage of an entire ecosystem of labor. The reality I experienced over three straight weeks of 30+ hours of driving was something a bit more towards the latter.

Context Is King

Heading into this experiment, I realized there was going to be a drastic difference between driving within a saturated area such as New York City and my current home town of Greensboro, NC—from fare prices to Uber’s percentage cut to the degree of fare consistency, location makes a difference. So before I jump into my findings, let me provide some context regarding the environment I found myself navigating:

  • As a sprawling home to 270,000 people, Greensboro has a small downtown footprint—three blocks wide by six blocks long—surrounded by traditional suburbia and urban sprawl that extends out to a good number of office parks, gated communities and strip malls. It can take upwards of 30 minutes to drive from the northernmost to southernmost tip of its borders.
  • There’s one sporadically busy bus and train station downtown, and one small international airport about 20 minutes away.
  • Five sprawling college campuses call Greensboro home, along with a host of technical and trade schools. The student population alone is close to 35,000.
  • Nearby major cities include High Point (20 mins), Winston-Salem (30 mins), Raleigh-Durham (1 hr) and Charlotte (1.5 hrs)
  • Sundays and Mondays are practically dead, with not many options for food or drink available after 9pm, if establishments are open at all.

Fares and Surge

As one might imagine, catching fares in such a vast physical space with limited activity can be a challenge. Aside from very particular hours of the day—from 8 to 9:30am and 5 to 6:30pm on weekdays, and from 10pm to 2am from Thursday through Saturday—consistency is severely lacking. The job becomes a crap shoot with so many neighborhoods and businesses to cover in guessing where fares will pop up, especially while competing with an unknown number of fellow Uber drivers chasing the same rabbit.

Whereas large cities have relatively consistent Surge™ zones over populated areas of both work and living activity, Greensboro drivers don’t enjoy such a luxury. The most recognizable Surge zone is found downtown, often later in the evening as people make their way home from clubs and restaurants. Every now and then a random Surge zone appears on the map, but it’s often during down times, and it seems to be literally based on a couple of fares vying for one or even zero drivers in the area. Uber markets Surge to the public as a feature designed to get more drivers on the road to service passengers with high wait times, but in reality, by the time an active driver (let alone someone at home or in a coffee shop) makes it across town to attempt to tap into an announced Surge it has already passed.

From a driver perspective in larger cities, Surge pricing is a nice-to-have in order to augment consistent fare activity in larger cities. In locations such as Greensboro, Surge is a core necessity in bringing hourly rates to even a semi-respectable level, much closer to how a waiter making $2.50 per hr relies on tips to pay the bills.

When expanding into cities with low population density, high degrees of urban sprawl and a limited adoption of technology, it’s abundantly clear to me that Uber can’t just roll out the same program.

(Not) Sharing The Load

In January, Uber reduced the passenger rate in the Piedmont-Triad area by 20%. This price point reduction was rolled out to help grow the Uber passenger base, which is an understandable approach and one that would help drivers as well. The problem is that while Uber passed such a significant savings to passengers, they didn’t supplement the loss of income for drivers, as they kept their 25% overall take of driver earnings in effect.

Essentially, drivers in non-dense, growth markets are paying for Uber to expand their market, while the company keeps raking in the profits. If I were making solid money over those three weeks, I wouldn’t care much. So how was my pay? Here’s the breakdown:

Week One: 32.18 hours driving
Fares: $487.92
Surge: $73.27
25% Uber fee: ($142.80)
Gas & carwash: ($100)
Total Income: $328.39 [$10.19 per hour]

Week Two: 30.92 hours driving
Fares: $380.25
Surge: $19.66
25% Uber fee: ($99.96)
Gas & carwash: ($100)
Total Income: $199.95 [$6.47 per hour]

Week Three: 36.12 hours driving
Fares: $530.11
Surge: $33.68
25% Uber fee: ($140.92)
Gas & carwash: ($100)
Total Income: $322.87 [$8.94 per hour]

Over the course of three weeks, working an average of 33.07 hours, I only made $8.58 per hour—not to mention the cost of taxes (10%) or the depreciation of my vehicle by putting an average of 1,000 miles per week. Unless I had zero other options to earn, why would I continue driving for Uber when in order to meet a living wage threshold in my area, I’d have to make at least $10.53 per hour?

The Longtail Of Drivers

Aside from drivers who have limited options to earn income, you have to wonder why anyone would commit to a full-time schedule picking up fares. Maybe my three weeks doesn’t accurately represent the opportunities of all drivers. Or maybe Uber didn’t design their service with full-time drivers in mind, and are shifting the focus away from their more traditional employees.

Uber portrays their archetypical driver in the following commercial:

The service is framed as beneficial to each person’s life based on the flexibility that Uber provides; not based on the amount they can make while driving. Uber has tapped into a workforce version of what Chris Anderson coined The Long Tail well over a decade ago.

In an online retail environment, The Long Tail represents product that might never see the light of day on a brick & mortar shelf. Think Amazon, and the millions of books available to you, regardless of the size of the print run. The web makes such product availability possible, as the concept of physical shelves is replaced by a singular coded product template that represents each and every book in stock.

Most importantly, when you stack the long tail on end, overall sales will equal or surpass the big ticket items; the “popular” head of the tail. While such a static results proposition doesn’t match the actual results of part-time vs. full-time Uber driver productivity, it doesn’t need to, as new long-tail drivers are constantly replacing the attrition of fellow moonlighters.

Uber’s business model is steeped in the surface notion that the tail is what matters; that people moonlight with Uber to make ends meet, so the traditional definition of an “employee”—and every labor expectation that comes with it—shouldn’t apply. And with the constant turnover that occurs in the < 10 hours per week driver class, Uber benefits by having a turnstile of new drivers willing to forgo basic labor rights, such as a minimum wage or benefits. This becomes the overarching approach to classifying Uber drivers, as they redirect attention to the moonlighters while full-time drivers aren't treated any differently.

Noah Zatz makes a similar point in his post at OnLabor:

[…] the much-touted majority of Uber drivers working very few hours per week are performing far less than the majority of the work. And the seemingly marginal group of full-time drivers actually are doing about half the work, far more than those driving the fewest hours. The precise numbers are sensitive to how one subdivides the drivers (using 1-10, 11-29, 30-44, and 45+ hours per week might look worse for Uber) and to the distribution within each bracket, but the basic point is robust.

Uber has created a worker ecosystem that benefits only those who need to occasionally earn, and doesn’t reward those who invest the most amount of time catching fares.

Suggested Changes

As a driver, there are a few interaction model changes that would impact my ability to make more money:

  1. Expose predictive patterns – I’m not sure what percentage of riders use Uber in the same way either daily or weekly, but expose pick-up patterns to allow drivers to cruise areas well prior to Surge zones being presented. It may not matter in a huge city, but it would make a difference across all of the mid-sized cities in play.
  2. Allow for tipping – Lyft already has tipping in play. I can’t tell you how many of my riders wanted to hook me up, but didn’t have cash on hand. Uber, if you’re not going to cut your 25% take, then make it easier for drivers to make a living.

The Proof Of His Existence (I Was There)

stephen charles

Last week, on a beautiful North Carolina Sunday afternoon, I ventured out to the edge of Greensboro’s vast footprint to pick up my good friend, Stephen Charles. I had reached out a few weeks earlier to gauge his interest in me sitting in on his podcast, “Proof of My Existence,” and he seemed happy to oblige. After he ushered me into the house to introduce me to his latest gadget—he’s by far the tech geek of the two of us—we made our way back to my house downtown where we had planned to record episode #14.

Stephen is a renaissance man, with interests as vast as photography, comic narrative, brand development and fashion design, so I wasn’t surprised when I first heard that he was podcasting. His demeanor fits the sonic form, as he presents himself with a calm, measured and direct tone, which allows him to move easily from one subject to the next with a NPR’ish production vibe…and that’s exactly why I thought we’d be an interesting mix (you can figure out what that means for yourself when you listen to the show).

Enough with the intro; here’s Stephen Charles’ Proof of My Existence: Episode #14.

Case Study: Eyeweb Platform

eyeglasses

No one uses the term e-commerce anymore because in 2015 online retail is a ubiquitous notion to the market. That wasn’t the case in 1998. Six long years after Book Stacks Unlimited went live and three years into the early days of both Amazon & eBay, a large segment of the population was still wary of making purchases online with their credit cards.

This was the climate when Pierre Fay walked into the Organic Online office in New York with a big idea.

Pierre’s goal was to change the way people discovered fashion & prescription eyewear—moving from traditional brick and mortar browsing to a complete online experience. Just months prior to signing with Organic, and aware of the hold that eyewear stores had on the market, Pierre struck a deal with Lenscrafters to host an Eyeweb co-branded kiosk, which would allow potential customers to measure their facial structure with absolute precision and then capture an image. The kiosk would then upload the image to the cloud (yes, we had “clouds” in ’98), providing the person the ability to choose from thousands of frames to try-on, and ultimately purchase, from the comfort of their home on Eyeweb.com.

Eyeweb try-on interface
Eyeweb.com try-on interface

I was assigned the project under the mentorship of Organic’s Sr. Information Architect, Robert Fabricant, as this was my first foray into IA after shifting over from art direction at another interactive firm. While the work was much more intense in terms of thousands of objects tagged with unique SKU#’s and an eventual meta-data scheme that would drive our frame advisor engine, between Robert’s direction and the amazing collaboration of the Organic team, I didn’t feel completely out of sorts.

We started on the ground floor, as the branding was developed from scratch via a thorough brand exercise with Pierre. As the visual team led that process, Robert presented our organizational concepts through high-level diagrams, and as we garnered consensus, I defined the organizational principles, recall methods, hierarchy in the interface, navigational affordance, widget schematics, etc.

Eyeweb.com homepage
Eyeweb.com homepage

With a boutique focus on one retail object, Eyeweb allowed us to draw focus on the homepage to specific frame-centric features, and then divide the global navigation between those features and secondary support locations. Nomenclature is always important, but even more so in this instance, as we were transitioning people from the sensibilities of high-end, real-world shopping to an online experience. Areas such as the Personal Collection needed to impart the white glove feel they were either used to or imagined experiencing for the first time.

Web design challenges in 1998 were plenty, but the most ubiquitous—regardless of project type—were limited resolution display sizes (more than 70% of the market had 800×600 px wide displays or less). As such, we had to make strict choices when presenting information within the limited real estate available. This not only impacted the structure of the active elements in the interface, but it influenced how much white space we used to compensate for crowded aspects of the interface.

Search interface
Personal collection interface

As the user made their way down to the frame detail, we featured the product image prominently, building the actionable affordances of the interface around the frame itself. Before time-on-page was an understood analytics term, we shot for stickiness, which is an interesting prospect in the retail world, as the ultimate goal is to convert purchases. But stickiness can also apply to users easily moving from one interesting product to the next in their browse > purchase lifecycle.

While we didn’t have the capability to present other frames dynamically via collaborative filtering—or even a simple (in 2015 terms) in-line attribute co-occurance driven display—we knew that prominently exposing frame attributes was important for sparking secondary discovery, which increases the chance for purchase conversion.

Frame detail interface
Frame detail interface

When we began working on the most compelling form of discovery on the site, the Frame Advisor, Pierre expressed that he wanted something different, so different is what we targeted. My sketches began by crafting an explicit linear narrative, using multiple choice questions centered around style and functional preferences and leveraging the same set of frame attributes exposed on the detail interface and personal collection—to return a set of frames.

Once we left Planning and landed in Design, we took that architectural approach and built upon it, with our visual designer evolving the explicit nature of the questions & answers to be more of an esoteric, implicit input process, using the grid pattern that we established across the site, but in a way that completely relied on visual clues that mapped explicitly to the attribute answers to move the user through the recommendation engine. The result was compelling and different. If this was designed for 2015, I’m positive that the experience would become immediate, viral Facebook fodder.

Frame advisor interface
Frame advisor interface

Back to the other primary platform experience, the kiosk. We were working with a much more functional interface in this environment, as the user was operating in public and needed to target specific areas of their face for the online system to correctly prep their image for the try-on interface. We needed to create an overly simplistic interface, with zero extraneous copy or features. The last thing we wanted was visible frustration from the least tech savvy users, surrounded by other potential customers.

We carried through the design patterns from the site for both brand and navigation consistency, and designed the java interface to present a simplified mechanism for dragging points into position. The step-by-step process was clearly labeled and overly simplistic, providing easy to find navigation both forward and backward in the process. Yes, we wanted conversion, but not at the expense of usability.

Eyeweb / Lenscrafters kiosk
Eyeweb / Lenscrafters kiosk

17 years ago we created a true platform—one that had interfaces used both in public and in private and leveraged the then magic of cloud immediacy to provide a compelling experience. There aren’t many platform experiences that survive over a period of 17 years, and Eyeweb isn’t one of them, but some (god awful) variation of the business is still in business, so we must’ve done something right.

Silicon Alley circa 1998; the halcyon days of agency product development.