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.

Case Study: Eyeweb Platform

eyeglasses

The term “e-commerce” isn’t used in 2015 because 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, Pierre struck a deal with Lenscrafters to host an Eyeweb co-branded kiosk, which would allow potential customers to precisely measure their facial/pupil structure and then capture an image that would be uploaded to the cloud (yes, we had “clouds” in ’98).

Upon returning home, the user would log-in to Eyeweb.com, browse an inventory of thousands of frames, virtually try them on against their freshly captured head shot, and ultimately, purchase the product from the comfort of their home.

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

I was assigned the project under the mentorship of Organic’s Chief Information Architect, Robert Fabricant, as this was my first foray into IA after shifting over from art direction at another interactive firm. The work was intense in terms of getting up to speed in how to design a search and discovery mechanism around SKU-based inventory—rich with descriptive attributes that could drive our frame advisor engine. Between Robert’s direction, and the amazing collaboration between the Organic team, I settled in for an interesting ride.

We started on the ground floor, as the branding was developed from scratch via a thorough brand exercise with Pierre. As Fanny Krivoy and the visual team led that process, Robert presented our organizational concepts to Pierre through conceptual 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. Settling on the right nomenclature was important, as we were transitioning people from their mental model of high-end, real-world shopping to a very early online experience. Areas such as the Personal Collection needed to impart the same white glove feel they were used to experiencing in person.

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 strict constraints 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 doesn’t seem pertinent in the retail world, as the ultimate goal is to convert purchases. But stickiness also applies to users easily moving from one interesting product to the next in their browse > purchase lifecycle, which increases the potential for conversion.

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.

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 remarkably different, so different is what we targeted.

My sketches began by crafting an explicit linear narrative, using multiple choice questions centered around the notion of style and functional preferences, 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 foundation and built upon it with our visual designer evolving the explicit nature of the questions & answers to be represented as 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 SKU attributes, moving 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’ve held up to the times.

Frame advisor interface
Frame advisor interface

With the co-branded kiosk, we were working with a much more task-based interface with interesting environmental considerations, as the user was operating in public and needed to precisely map specific areas of their face for the system to prep their image for the try-on interface. We honed in on an overly simplistic interaction model and interface, with zero extraneous copy or features so any shopper could successfully use it. 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 in the public space, and online as a true shop, browse, and manage service while leveraging 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 while our Eyeweb experience isn’t one of them, some variation of the business is still operational, so we must’ve done something right.

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

The Oldest Methodology In The Book: Adaptation

Inspired by Damien Newman's process
Inspired by Damien Newman’s process of design visualization

That’s a 30,000 foot view of Damien Newman’s process of design. It may be crude, but it’s absolutely clear: the unknown heading into Research leads to the sparks of Ideation and culminates with the clarity and details of Design.

While being a universal axiom of both art and design—we all start in a fog as we attempt to narrow down to any clear form of visual or behavioral communication—what it doesn’t begin to touch upon are the moving parts found within the various methods that we must employ in order to participate within & contribute to a product development team.

I’ve been thinking about the evolution of my own creative method for a while now, as I’ve moved from personal expression to participating within and creating Design methodologies for both start-up & large organizations over a 20+ year-long career. So if you’re inclined to join me on this journey, be warned up-front: I’m going to start at the beginning and that goes way back.

Being an Artist

Before, during and after art school, I was a “drawer” on most days, and an illustrator when things got fancy. As a drawer, I’d go directly to pad with either pencil or rapidograph, often to remove cognitive processing altogether with blind contour drawings—my portfolio for art school was filled with them. The subject matter was mine to define, and I finished when I felt it was complete.

As I became more serious, I’d spend time understanding the subject matter, find inspiration, and prep in a number of ways—taking photographs, sketching, cutting images out of magazines, you name it. If the illustration was for a class or a client, I’d spend time up front to understand the concept I was attempting to illustrate. My creative process evolved to include other people’s input for the first time.

artist ad design
“Dunk” (1988) & Sunkist: Nature’s Temptation (1991)

Undergrad Advertising Design

My illustration focus at Crouse College quickly took a turn to advertising design, and with it, a whole new set of creative challenges and processes were introduced.

We discussed campaign objectives and parameters in studio, sequestered ourselves to research, sketch and write copy, and then returned to present three concepts and be critiqued by our peers. Repeat, narrow down, complete. It may not sound like much at first, but being able to clearly pitch an idea, and then take criticism as constructive rather than negative, is almost as important as the ideation process itself.

Towards the end of my undergrad career, we began to collaborate with Newhouse copy writers, prepping us for the machinations of a real world creative team (I never pursued a traditional print & tv agency career). With no developers in the mix, this was a commercial design process, but one with greater degrees of complexities than illustration when it came to client input and iterations towards sign-off.

Game Design

Directly after undergraduate, I spent my days designing CD-rom games after landing an internship at a design and production studio. The biggest contrast between then and now is that the notion of a downloadable patch or a version update simply didn’t exist. We were pre-web, so production houses didn’t staff and operate with the concern that developers constantly needed to be busy shipping product.

We began each project with a singular clear goal of burning a gold disk to take to a reproduction house on a specific date far off in the future. There was no iterative approach, no outcome to meet other than great reviews. We were 100% big bang.

big bang product development
From nothing to everything

Our creative process looked something like the following:

  • the writer develops a linear script
  • our team translated it into a non-linear, node-based script
  • we storyboarded key frames and the interaction model
  • environment, sprites, and animations were identified
  • we then focused on final animations and artwork

As we made progress, the development team would ramp up their technical requirements and begin to shape their architecture; new details from the design team would impact their approach and they’d iterate accordingly. We would intensely collaborate, and the engineers prototyped both good and throwaway code. The process felt much more like collaboration found in film production than a web-based product.

Our reputations and compensation were dependent on releasing a finished product that found a market. Our distribution partner placed the product into the limited sales channels that existed prior to the robust long-tail of online retail, so we only had one chance to make a impression with both reviewers and customers.

So if you ever see me twitch when an MVP is mentioned, that’s simply muscle memory from a product age long ago. It subsides with a good night’s sleep.

Agency Life

As east coast game production dried up, I transitioned to the web and cut my teeth within a couple of agencies; first as an interactive art director, and then as an information architect.

  • The creative process as an IAD was somewhat similar to undergrad—though pitches and critiques absolutely stepped up in intensity—and my experience in the gaming world prepped me for collaborating with a development team. Similar to gaming, online campaigns, websites, screensavers, etc. were a first impression pursuit— the notion of iterative updates was nascent in adoption.
  • As an IA, the work was much more focused on defining and then translating requirements into sketches, schemas, taxonomies, etc., but the ideation, presentation and executing processes were highly similar. The “new” element was the explicit notion of documenting user requirements as an explicit point in the process. Functional requirements (user + business + technical) and strategy docs were the foundation for how we ideated solutions

= = = = = = = = = =

In the late nineties, when agencies were in the luxurious position to offer soup to nuts services, development teams didn’t have the same agency to drive innovation as they enjoy today; they were mostly beholden to the client initiative, which didn’t often align with experiments as Creative drove the process. Aside from feasibility reviews of deliverables, and early exploration to settle on technical requirements, innovation was boxed within the core vision of the client, the strategy team’s position paper, and the design process.

linear design process
Traditional process for one-off production

Only the best of the best shops could honestly tout a record of pushing the boundaries with their work, and those shops were doing it with amazing collaboration and client partnerships across the board. My time spent time at Organic exemplified such a business environment. These days, firms such as IDEO and frog have diversified with such quality and talent that they can demand the proper price to bring innovation to the table.

Smaller studios and boutiques have to be creative in how they sell their creativity, otherwise they fall into a game of pitching beyond their capabilities. Clients may invest upfront to bring in a shop to provide specific thinking or output—forever the value of an external team—but businesses are leaning more and more on newly formed in-house product design teams to take on the majority of design thinking and execution capabilities.

collaborative-ideation
Collaborative method for ideation

While traditional full lifecycle innovation is difficult in the agency space, outside consulting can foster innovation within this climate through ideation around notions such as brand experience, behavioral and industrial design, and technical approaches.

The challenge ahead for studios will be to move to a business model and underlying IP creation method that can adapt to the shifting world around them to redefine what innovation looks like and how an external team can provide it with clear and understandable ROI.

= = = = = = = = = =

Engineering Leading; Engineering Billing

After stopping by for the tail-end of a startup experience (Tripod)—where method wasn’t much of a focus—I experienced working within a development-centric organization for the first time. As the Chief Information Architect of a consultancy spun off from a global IT shop, my charge was rather specific—to develop an information architecture practice within a creative team methodology that was flexible and scalable, and could roll out across the agency offices across the U.S.

Aside from forming strong allies with creative directors in each office—which became a difficult line to toe as they (understandably) felt comfortable running their own teams as they saw fit—the largest problem I faced was that ancillary teams (business analysts and developers, in particular) operated in an object-oriented, UML methodology. Engagements began with JAD meetings that lasted days, sometimes weeks, and stacks of business and development documentation were produced for the project’s build.

I’m sure good thinking came out of those sessions, but it looked like ceremony for ceremony’s sake, especially as I came to understand that the majority of the work turned out to be websites with less than innovative aspirations, degrees of difficulty, or complex user needs. The scale and complexity of the challenge ahead of me was clear.

How to drive a designer crazy, 101
How To Drive A Designer Crazy 101

My primary goal out of the gate was to figure out how to get tech management on-board with user-centered design in the midst of client engagements constantly kicking-off across the country.

What I immediately discovered is that IA had to own as much of the actor-driven UML documentation as possible or we had no leg to stand on. While we were successful in taking ownership of certain aspects of the process—from key insertion points to deliverables—we just couldn’t nudge the overall methodology, which was a nightmare.

As our team attempted deeper degrees of change, our efforts quickly became a game of tug of war with management. This was the time we lived in (2001)—many of my design peers were experiencing similar struggles with development-centric organizations across the industry. The attempt to convince an entrenched executive technology staff that Design needed to have a seat upstream to inform development of what users needed, even with wins in tow, quickly devolved into a street fight.

Technical documentation = billable hours.

Looking back, the daily struggle for optimizing how Design fit into a potential innovative space created a blindspot for me to the possibilities of more collaborative opportunities. Maybe we could’ve figured out a pre-Lean UX / Agile approach, or complimented JAD with design activities. At the end of the day, I believe we were too early to a problem that not enough people had yet encountered.

Over the next five years, I unceremoniously took on the conscious role of being a change agent for Design, which unbeknownst to me at the time seemed as important to me as producing innovative work.

Product Design Where No One Considered Product As A Thing

In the period following my uphill battle within the IT world, and just prior to the rapid evolution of Extreme Programming & Goal-Directed Design, I took a position to design streaming applications in the financial industry—well before the FinTech descriptor was anointed. Not only was this particular domain ripe for Design to impact innovation, but the financial industry as a whole was a chasm for our craft to fill.

As with my previous stop, it took results to seal the deal of institutional change.

Over the three years that I was in the employ, of Datek / Ameritrade, Design moved from a position of downstream application to an upstream presence that impacted every aspect of the brand made available to the public. But to describe our methodology in a simple sentence just isn’t possible.

Both firms knew they were providing a service to their clients, but at the highest positions internally the authenticated space simply wasn’t perceived as what we commonly understand product to be today. It was treated as the “flip side” of the marketing layer; the logged-in space that pushed traffic to pages or applications that triggered trading charges.

When Ameritrade bought us, the Business provided Development with direction that prioritized desired projects, and Marketing was accustomed to providing all visual assets when applicable. After successfully navigating the domain for a few years, I positioned myself to staff a UX Design team to design a new trading platform after a deep, collaborative analysis of user needs by me and former Datek leadership.

The Active trader platform, Apex, was born and we had real, innovative work to do.

cooper design
We ran a modified version of Cooper’s Goal-Directed Design

While our process was more waterfall than not, the front-end engineers were in our group (UX) and were constantly prototyping our designs for testing and skeleton development. Consider us an early EPD team, with the evolutionary notion of product management still stuck between the business analyst and project management roles.

Without this organizational approach, waterfall would’ve stopped development in their tracks, but our team collaboration was top-notch. At any given time we had 10-15 active projects prior to the era of collaborative platforms (e.g. Basecamp). Our productivity would’ve grounded to a halt if it weren’t for how well our internal processes adapted to produce both on-time and above expectations.

We pushed forward within a Goal-Directed Design framework to innovate an experience designed specifically to support scenarios particular to our active trading clients. The opportunity to apply human-centered design thinking in a broader manner was limited by our place at the bottom of the engineering reporting structure.

True collaboration between Design, Development & Business had a ways to go.

Calling The Shots, And Not

For the past ten years, I operated a design shop that would flex in size depending on the opportunities in front of me. Similarly, the particular engagements I landed (and the domains behind them) greatly influenced the process and methods available for me to employ.

For almost two years, I engaged with a huge player in the media industry, building out my team to six to completely re-imagine how they published to their online brands which received millions of views per day.

Our design process with the internal project management and development teams was steeped in an early-stage (2007) Agile method with a blend of GDD., as we needed to understand and meet the needs of a cross section of internal users—editors, designers, media buyers, product management. It also had the challenging objective to be generic enough to be used by teams across multiple brands publish to different the same, yet differing front-end templates.

After beginning the gig with a round of research to understand the role-based needs of the product, we kicked off the work by identifying key scenarios to pursue, beginning with the “publish and edit article” scenario.

My team, located across the US and the UK, would hold our own daily scrum each morning prior to joining in for the client scrum in the afternoon. We (myself, the PM and dev lead) discussed where we were in designing for the scenario in play, and what we’d complete over the following three week period. We would sketch, review, and specify, and then work with dev.

As this was an internal application for a high-profile brand, a certain degree of politics limited our iterative learning capabilities. If I were in-house, I probably would’ve dove directly onto that sword; as it were, I did the best I could delivering what we had promised to deliver.

The lesson from that experience is that methodology decisions matter, as method—collaboration, research, iteration, agility, etc.—directly impacts the creation of a useful experience for real people.

Design Thinking With A Side Of Innovation?

We began with a process of design, which seems ridiculously simple looking back across this essay, and here I am, fully taking in how much I’ve had to adapt to my environment over the years to thrive, even survive at times.

While I’ve explicitly operated in a manner to nudge others to shift their perspective on how to work with Design over the past 20 years, the evolution of my understanding of Design, and how it fits across industries, form factors, and customer types has immensely changed as well.

Just as business leaders shift their operational tactics as the world evolves around them, we designers must also evolve in order to produce quality work in an ever-shifting technological environment with varying expectations from clients and business partners alike.

Adaptation to circumstances
My d/Design interests have never led me to submitting entries in an awards chase. I don’t care about accolades; I care about results. My interests lay squarely in the realm of leading a team of practitioners, contributing to an excellent product vision, understanding human needs, innovating solutions, and executing designs to the point of wild success.

What method gets me there is still yet to be defined.

Ramping Down & Moving Forward

change in view

It won’t come as much of a surprise to those close to me that I’m planning on retiring dotmatrix studios as a business this winter. Housekeeping will keep me billing clients as such until the end of this calendar year, but any aspiration of evolving the business passed a few years back. It’s time to move forward, or as my favorite philosopher once said:

The only way to make sense out of change is to plunge into it, move with it, and join the dance.
Alan Watts

I’ll continue to consult independently while I shift my focus to pursuing the right fit of an in-house design management position.

Quite honestly, it’s a few years past time for me to return to the challenge of building, collaborating and developing professionally with an internal team. And regardless of the results of my full-time pursuits, I’m going to pursue work that is more strategic in nature, which is not to say I won’t dive deep on projects, but at this point in my career I’m exponentially more valuable upstream consulting strategy, defining direction, mentoring designers and working cross-functionally.

Before my life becomes too hectic in this next phase of my career, I figured this might be a good time to document the history behind my studio (RIP), hash through its evolution and take into account the positives that I took away from these past 10 years. By no means do I consider this to be a case study of any particular importance, but it could provide interesting fodder for those looking to strike out on their own.

86 Bedford Street

When my stint with Ameritrade ended a decade ago and I moved from Jersey City to Greensboro, my professional goals were simple enough: to open my own shop. After three years of negotiating the waters of a development-centric organization sans executive Design support, I had become disillusioned with the politics of leading an in-house product design team, on deadline, while fighting turf wars to meet the needs of our clients.

In comparison, the notion of running my own shop, making decisions that fit my approach to design, business and the ripening opportunities of the web was more than appealing.

After a few months of consulting I quickly came to realize that I wasn’t interested in constructing a traditional agency; I had zero desire to get caught in the loop of chasing down work in order to maintain a bench of designers. That was when I took inventory and came to understand that my interests revolved around three distinct axes:

  1. to collaborate with as many of the best and brightest I could find
  2. to work on projects that I found to have value beyond a paycheck
  3. to immerse myself in community-building efforts

This “mission” is what drove the choice of the dotmatrix name and mark. Riffing off an analog printer’s output—imagining individual members of a team or community coming together to create something larger than themselves—within the spoken equivalent to a top-level domain, the branding was ironic, cryptic, geeky, aloof, and executed with sophistication (thanks, Tina)
sean coon office

After putting 10+ years in the industry, I was still an artist at heart who trained as a designer and learned the art of business out of necessity. If I was going to run my own shop, it would be by my own rules, so I decided up front that I wasn’t going to chase RFPs and local clients—let alone propose panels and angle for speaking engagements—but rather invest my time and efforts in openly posting my thoughts and ideas about our quickly evolving 2.0 world and attempt to meet potential collaborators.

From ’05 to ’07 I attended a good number of conferences—from SXSW to Emerging Technologies at MIT—and met some brilliant folk along the way (such as Tara, Doc, Nate, and David). The more I posted, the more I became a part of the 2.0 conversation and the more project feelers I’d get in return. Over the last ten years, every project I’ve worked on was the result of either a past colleague reaching out, a referral or someone pinging me based on my writing.

dotmatrix studios never marketed itself with a website or a twitter account; we were the speakeasy that you came to know by word of mouth.

The Work

One of the advantages of setting up shop in a city like Greensboro is the cost of living, which can give you the opportunity, if you’re so inlined, to balance your time between paid gigs and creative pursuits.

After contracting with Behavior Design to rethink and design the Media Matters for America platform, I had the opportunity to assemble a full team to design the CMS for Scripps Networks, which was to be used to publish, manage and monetize content for multiple high-visibility online properties (i.e. The Food Network, HGTV, DIY, etc.). I’d co-lead scrum calls on Skype and interview users on location every few weeks. Working out of offices Knoxville and NYC with a team based in both, including London and Minnesota, the project was a bonafide feat of collaboration.

In my (few) off-hours, I ended up becoming waist deep in the local music scene, and after watching my musician friends struggling landing crowds at shows and getting their music to the masses, I came up with the idea for the dotmatrix project (DMP). Encompassing all three of dotmatrix studios’ mission elements (collaboration, value project, build community), DMP was an experience design challenge both online and off.
dmp banner greensboro

Offline, we crafted the shows to be experienced by the audience as a mixture of a studio recording, a video shoot and a live show, which got the locals talking and showing up in numbers; online we posted high quality documentation of the shows and promoted both the documentarians and musicians as if they were all rock stars.
dmp-site

The goals of the project were large (win grants to pay documentarians and open a venue were just two), and the commitment exhausting (I carried equipment with the engineers, contributed to designing & hanging show posters, produced the shows, managed all creative collaboration, etc.) and in the end it was just too much to juggle with full-time paid design work. We produced our last show in May of 2010 and imbibed a few tall ones to celebrate a good run of close to three years worth of monthly shows—all through the efforts of a volunteer community of more than 200 local, creative souls.

For the last five years, dotmatrix studios began the slow ramp down from taking on team-oriented projects to individual consulting projects, with me eventually teaming up with a few different shops: Bluespark Labs (where I took a UX Director role for a minute until I felt the itch to try one last time to make dotmatrix work) and my current partner, Analogous. The work has been challenging and interesting—from the startup Knewton.com to FXCM.com to Indiana University Libraries to the Inter-American Development Bank—but priorities change.

It’s A Wrap

Sometimes I look back on where I was in 2005 and wonder if I made the right decision to move from NYC to the south; to leave Silicon Valley offers on the table in order to startup my own business. I have zero regrets. While ten years removed from being employed by a large company might make it difficult to transition back into a full-time product team, too many amazing things have happened to me over the past ten years to think twice about my decision.
family

If you ever have the chance to do your own thing, regardless of the obstacles that lay in your path, be sure to go for it. Take that risk, as life is too short, or as the kids say nowadays, “YOLO.”

Dislike Within The Facebook Ecosystem

facebook dislike

The recent announcement of Facebook “working on” a Dislike feature could read like an overstated talking point for a seemingly simple update. I mean, design an icon, add it to all posts and register the count, right? What could be so involved to make this such a “working” situation?

Brand integrity and the bottom-line would be the short answer.

When Like Is >> Love

This “minuscule” feature update has probably been tossed between Facebook upper management for a while now, but not due to a “slow to respond to feedback” perception as many users might believe.

The Like behavior has become ubiquitous with the Facebook brand; it’s one of the core experiences we have when when using the product. I’d imagine management realizes that Like has transcended the brand itself, becoming a pseudo-proprietary eponym for all likable (favorite, best, etc.) interactions online. Even offline the term “like,” used in practically any context, has become the a collective linguistic signifier for the upturned thumb, which equates with the Facebook brand.

That’s a valuable interactive component for an online product; as valuable as asking for a Kleenex instead of a tissue. As my former colleague Dan Saffer describes it:

[…] Microinteractions, when done well, can become Signature Moments that are associated with the brand. Facebook’s “Like” is one great example. […]

Facebook isn’t going to disrupt such brand DNA haphazardly. While Dislike may make perfect sense to the user within the context of registering a quick opinion on a post, it introduces tangible degrees of dissonance to the purity of the brand as a diametrically opposed interaction. Disrupting such a key aspect of the brand—with the potential of turning the simplicity of a Like experience into something heading in the direction of the faceted rankings of posts on Buzzfeed—takes a measured approach.

So yes, it’s a simple execution, but not from a brand strategy perspective.. and even more so when considering the bottom-line.

Adding Up The Ads

facebook like ads

From individuals (artists, musicians, politicians, etc.) to businesses (phone companies, restaurants, airlines, etc.), people have recognized the value of a Facebook presence, understanding that a high numbers of likes on a Page can provide:

  • a perception of credibility in the field, such as a musician with a large following looking to book gigs with established venues
  • an avenue for traditionally non-sexy, non-communicative brands, such as an AT&T, to get placed in the news feed of users

This understandable path to credibility and gained attention has become a strong revenue model for Facebook, as in-product advertising—presented to highly targeted users—drives conversion to Liked Pages.

So where would Dislike begin and end in this business model?

I would imagine that if Dislike is rolled out to all posts and comments, users would expect the ability to downgrade everything else as well. AT&T’s 5M plus Likes looks “impressive” when positioned alone; add in the context of, say, 35M dislikes and… “Houston, we have an issue here.”

This is the fine line that Zuckerberg tows.

One persona—the daily user of Facebook that posts to generate conversation with friends and/or the general public—would thoroughly enjoy the ability to provide “truth” to everything; from politicians to corporations to local restaurants to individuals. But revenue providing personas? They’re not going to enjoy catching one-to-one cancellations of hard-earned/paid for Likes.

It’ll be interesting to see how Facebook handles the different interests in play, though I have a pretty strong feeling that they’re going to lean in the direction of catering to the user base who parts with cash. Call me crazy.

A Wrench In The Algorithm

facebook algorithm

Lastly, and potentially most interesting to me (aside from people de-friending people left and right for dropping explicit, negative, system feedback such as DISLIKE!), is how the behavior of Disliking would affect the News Feed. Here’s how Facebook positions its purpose:

The goal of News Feed is to deliver the right content to the right people at the right time so they don’t miss the stories that are important to them.

Facebook designed the approach for how to filter content based on user behavior, and then codified these specific choices it into an algorithm. Of course, no one will be 100% happy with the results, but that’s to be expected and quite honestly, we’re not dealing with brain surgery here. As long as the context of inclusion feels like it’s in the ballpark, user won’t complain… too much. That said, the behavioral decisions are somewhat obtuse at times. Here’s the approach (from 2013) with my comments in bold:

  • How often you interact with the friend, Page, or public figure (like an actor or journalist) who posted – Do I really want to see more content from someone I negatively interact with? Isn’t there a good chance that content hidden might be more appropriate?
  • The number of likes, shares and comments a post receives from the world at large and from your friends in particular – Who’s to say I consider my friends as equitable partners in my world view? If one of my friends posts surfaces more often, and I explicitly interact with them, does that actually mean I want to do the same down the road?
  • How much you have interacted with this type of post in the past – Can the system recognize “type” beyond content types of video and music, and explicitly understand the difference between politics and sports? Or more specifically, left vs. right or Jets vs. Patriots?
  • Whether or not you and other people across Facebook are hiding or reporting a given post – If I hide or report a post, the post is gone. Does the algorithm look at the “type” I reported and draw conclusions about future “similar” content?

Now toss the Dislike feature into the mix. Am I disliking my friend’s contextualization of a post, more so than the post itself? If I’m passionate about the subject matter, I probably wouldn’t want to see less of it based on a dislike; I may want to dislike more of the same to remain vigilant with my position and potentially impact other people’s perspectives. It’s a tricky balance.

While I’m constantly berating myself for the amount of time I spend on Facebook—tending to draw some pretty ill conclusions about what drives our society’s collective addiction to connecting, pontificating and arguing—I have to admit that this evolution intrigues me. Don’t agree? Like this post and I’ll argue my position on your wall.

RETHINKING: Planet Fitness Mobile App

planet-fitness-review

As a member of Planet Fitness for over seven years now, I have to admit that I had not once thought about the utility of a mobile app. My personal context scenario is focused on making it to the gym first and foremost, then jogging for 20 minutes, lifting free weights, cooling down with cardio and dragging myself home.

But that’s my routine when I’m casually hitting the gym; for those brief stretches when I’m serious, my routine becomes highly structured and dependent on there being low traffic on both machines and weights. That made me wonder—could a mobile app actually assist me attain my goals?

The Current State

When I imagine the potential for a gym app, I think of an experience that’s going to assist me with my fitness goals and the close context surrounding that primary set of scenarios. Planet Fitness doesn’t view their app in the same light, as the focus is centered around marketing their business to the general public, rather than assisting a member in their workout. 90% of the navigation leads to sections that could be the responsive output of a marketing site for a mobile devise.

planet-fitness-mobile-app

From a list of local gyms to member benefits to a PF store, the marketing navigation clouds potentially useful member interactions. Even the “Planet of Triumphs” section—one with an authentication requirement of members—is set up for members to help market the PF brand by sharing our workout stories. In a world of blogs and social media, why exactly would I or any other member waste time with this feature?

The responsive version of a well designed site should be able to cover these requirements, as potential members will most likely end up there via organic search. Why would a non-member download a branded mobile app? It should be built with highly specific goals of members in mind by presenting highly specific member features.

Highly Specific Member Features

Once you get past the marketing noise, there is one section geared towards supporting member workouts: the My Fitness area. The primary features include:

  • Scheduled Workouts: Set up a cardio or weight-lifting workout, choosing from a list of activities with times, effort levels, weight, number of reps & sets etc.
  • Log an Exercise: If not working from a predefined calendar workout, members can document their workouts
  • Start Your Exercise: Countdown based on in-the-moment choice of exercise and all its details
  • Sync a Wearable: Link a Fitbit or Jawbone fitness tracker to the details of an exercise
  • View Reports: Goal Progress, Day/Week/Month reporting (hours, exercises, calories burned)

Currently, I bring a workout calendar on two sheets of paper to the gym, covering each day of the week for two weeks, with weight, rep and set info. I have to admit, it’s somewhat annoying to walk around with it and even keep track of it at home. PF has made the process of creating a calendar with both cardio and weight specifics super easy:

planet-fitness-mobile-app2

PF could’ve stopped there, but they dug in deeper to support member needs, adding the ability to sync with a fitness tracker and review progress reports automatically generated by previous workouts. These features create closure around the context of workout goals—the reason we all drag ourselves to the gym in the first place.

planet-fitness-mobile-app3

This set of features should be the absolute primary purpose of the app. Aside from the rare need for finding a PF when on the road, members shouldn’t even see the corporate marketing content. That said, PF is missing out on supporting one huge scenario, core to the gym workout experience.

A Packed Gym

How many times have you shown up to the gym and had to wait for a treadmill or exercise bike or a series of free weight stations, throwing off your schedule? What about when you’re just getting back to the gym and simply want less people around as you try to reach a 15 minute mile? Could the mobile app present data to help with these scenarios? I think so.

What about a visualization on the main screen that presents the current capacity of the gym? 40%, 80% full, etc.? Since PF members use bar codes on a keychain to check-in as they enter the facility, the entry data is already captured. When signing up for the “Planet of Triumphs” feature on the current app, a member enters the same bar code ID# to be verified as an actual member, so the two systems already speak to one another.

In a perfect world, members would check in AND out with their cards, creating conclusive data re: time spent in facility. This would allow for explicit visualizations of traffic in the moment, and reporting of historical trends for, say, a Friday night or a specific holiday. Another option would be to tap into the phone’s GPS to approximate when the member leaves the gym, though that might have unintended consequences regarding privacy issues. It may even be worth it to PF to incentivize checkout behavior by members, but even without exit data, PF could present occupancy patterns based on check-ins at certain times of the day. With more than enough employees roving the floor, they could also manually input % of cardio and weight stations used on a half-hour basis.

These are the scenarios that matter. Get me in the door, no waiting, into my routine and help me accomplish my goals. Develop that app, strip away the noise and members of a $10 per month gym would gladly participate in the best type of marketing corporate could ask for: word of mouth.