I bought my car on an iPhone app

Buying a car has become dramatically simpler than it used to be a few years ago. I recently bought a car on my iPhone via Beepi’s iPhone app. The transaction took a couple minutes, required a few clicks, an email confirmation and a few signatures at the time of delivery. Beepi andShift are attempting to build a massive marketplace for cars (watch out EBay Motors) by transforming a potentially complex and tedious customer transaction with deft simplicity. While their business model and marketplace design are both efficient, I want to highlight how they offer a superior customer experience through reduced friction.

Buying a car is a non-trivial decision for most customers. Even after narrowing down on the make/model/color/price range of a car, a typical car buyer faces about a dozen decision points through the life cycle of that transaction. Each decision point introduces friction due to three main factors:

  1. Avoidable effort needed to complete a task
  2. Forced context switching
  3. Count and complexity of decisions
Beepi customer receiving a car. Photo Credit: Beepi.com
  1. Avoidable effort needed to complete a task: Beepi reduces friction by addressing basic questions upfront. Some of the most common anxieties for a car buyer are caused by questions such as — “Is anything wrong with this car?”; “Are the basics OK?”; “Is the price fair?” and many more. Typically a customer would check sources such as Carfax to verify the car’s condition, KBB or Edmunds to check the car’s fair market value, and IIHS for the car’s safety rating. Beepi avoids the need for the customer to visit these sources by providing all necessary data to inform the purchase decision. Another task every that every car buyer dreads is to go to the local DMV to get the car registered. Beepi avoids the need to do so by taking care of the paperwork, so the customer does not have to.
  2. Forced context switching: Several decisions and tasks involved in buying a car require a customer to switch context, which often increases friction. For instance, even after deciding the make and model of a car, customers often end up taking the car for a test drive and getting it checked by a mechanic at the local dealership before closing the final transaction. Beepi avoids this need to switch context by replacing test drives with a 10-day “No questions asked” return policy. It also offers a detailed inspection report (sometimes a better report than the local mechanic), so the user does not have to switch context “browsing” cars on an app or a computer to meeting the seller and taking the car to a mechanic for inspection. Along similar lines, existing car owners often end up needing to switch context between buying their new car and selling their old car. Beepi avoids context switching by offering a low-friction selling experience as part of the purchase workflow.
  3. Count and complexity of decisions: The count and complexity of decisions required in traditional car buying are increased due to typical fear, uncertainty and doubt. Beepi shifts the focus from anxiety to convenience by offering generous return policy and peace of mind guarantee.

Beepi’s product experience is a useful case study in taking a multi-step transaction and reducing friction one step at a time.

Nobody loves going to a pharmacy

As a student of “reducing friction”, I often jot down my observations of friction points in day to day experiences in my Moleskine. I’m experimenting with sharing a few observations on my blog, starting with this perspective on going to a pharmacy.

Friction: ​One of the worst things about getting sick or having an unwell family member is going to the pharmacy. Nobody loves to go to a pharmacy (Check Yelp Reviews for your nearest Pharmacy). The first visit often has the worst timing. Besides being in pain, a user may be drowsy and not in a condition to drive or take an Uber to the pharmacy. Upon visiting the pharmacy, she is forced to fill out a paper-form and wait in line to get her order filled. Most major pharmacies offer delivery of generic medications for repeat orders. They periodically ship medicines from a centralized warehouse, so it works for repeat orders. Pharmacies, employers, care providers and insurers are incentivized to improve patient’s health, but lack an efficient way to deliver prescription medications on-demand. Low usage frequency and regulations have dissuaded local pharmacies to offer this service. Startups like PillPack, NimbleRx, Zipdrug and others are attempting to solve this pain point. Given regulatory and scaling constraints, it may take a few years before these services gain mass adoption.

Solution: On-demand services with scale such as Uber, Lyft, Postmates and Instacart are best suited to solve this problem. Won’t it be cool, if they delivered prescribed medications from a local pharmacy directly to a customer’s home or hospital. As an extra credit, the customer could even make her co-payment for the medication via their Uber, Lyft, Postmates or the Instacart app. On-demand companies can reduce friction in the customer experience and add durable value by winning a customer’s mindshare for “convenience”.


Why will Shyp succeed?

Shyp is my most recent investment. In addition to a founding team full of hustle, who have built an unbelievably elegant service, Shyp demonstrates many signs of an effective marketplace. I’ve studied and experimented with various marketplaces for over 10 years, since my failed attempt to build Securamed – a ‘reverse-auction’ marketplace for health insurance in 2001. I’ve found Bill Gurley‘s framework on evaluating marketplaces quite useful and decided to score Shyp on factors outlined by Bill.


If you are in San Francisco and want to check out Shyp, send me a tweet.

Onwards to see the marketplace evolve!


Awesome products avoid WTF moments for users

My teammate @sregmi rightfully pointed out that awesomeness of a product is inversely proportional to the number of WTF moments in its customer experience. WTF moments can be characterized simply as blunders – those moments when your user’s first natural reaction is WTF, usually accompanied with a bad taste and often followed by bad-mouthing about your product. Besides avoiding such blunders, awesome products handle every error condition elegantly :

  1. Acknowledge that an error has occurred
    (deliver the bad news yourself and reassure the user that you’ll fix it)
  2. Tell the user how she got there
    (address the obvious curiosity of every user : “What did I do?”)
  3. Show the user how to get out of here
    (answer the likely question: “Now what?”)

404 pages aren’t necessarily blunders, but many websites make a sincere attempt to address 404s. Fandango’s 404 page handles it elegantly –

Screen Shot 2013-05-23 at 12.05.10 AMSurprisingly, some of the better designed products also end up serving WTF moments:

  • You made a reservation on OpenTable. You reach the restaurant to find out that the restaurant is closed.
  • You keep waiting for UberX on the curb and it never shows up.
  • You are in middle of an important phone call and iPhone/AT&T drops the call.

What are your product’s WTF moments?


Awesome products address the most common curiosity of users

Awesome products raise the bar of customer experience by addressing the most common curiosities of their users. Not to be confused with the minimum viable product, the most common curiosity indicates the primary need of majority of your users when they are interacting with your product. X-RayForMovies

While designing new customer experiences, I’ve found it useful to observe human behavior and identify the most common curiosities of users. For instance, one of our recent products – X-Ray for Video on Kindle Fire HD – solves a common curiosity of almost all movie watchers – “Who’s that actor and where else have I seen him?”. Shazam raises the bar when it comes to music by addressing the most common curiosity – “What’s that song and who sang it?”.

Photo May 06, 10 47 24 PM

A few utility apps have mastered the art of addressing their users’ common curiosities. Google Maps is my favorite among them. Most users are curious to find out how far is a particular place from where they are and how long will it take them to get there. Google Maps addresses them by automatically showing distance and time in search results.

Photo May 06, 10 41 14 PM

When a product solves a universally applicable need, it inherently raises the customer experience. It is equally important to reduce friction in the interaction, so users do more of it. X-Ray comes up by just tapping the screen while watching a video, Shazam identifies a track by just tapping the screen to tag it and Google Maps automatically shows distance and time.

What is the most common curiosity of your users?



How to delight users?

Awesome products are useful, usable and delightful (in that order). While delight is the third order bit, it often ends up being the hardest to pull off. Apple is a master of  delight – from storefronts that mimic a sleeping person at night to tens of apps with a heightened sense of realism (such as Notes, PhotoBooth, Compass, Calculator and more). As a purveyor of delight, I first wrote about delightful products in 2010, but this post attempts to add some science to the art of creating delight.

Delight is best delivered subtly. Subtlety can be achieved with –

  • a witty, but honest use of words,
  • an uncanny attention to detail,
  • anticipation of user’s desires and
  • an element of surprise.

Witty words: Words can delight users, if used aptly. Airbnb’s iPhone app uses words to make their first use experience delightful. For instance, if a user hasn’t booked any trips, the app subtly nudges the user – “Search for that city you’ve always wanted to visit!” instead of showing an empty screen with an ad. I wrote about the power of words in the last post.


Attention to detail: Apple refers to this attention to detail as a “heightened sense of realism” in the official design guidelines for iOS apps. One of my favorite apps – ness (instant restaurant recommendations) changes the background with a mouth-watering dish that represents the search term. For instance, searching for Indian food changes the background to a dish of Channa Masala or Chicken Tikka. Such attention to detail converts a user into a fan by offering unforgettable experience.

Ness Ness

Anticipating user’s desires: While it may sound tricky, anticipating user’s desires can be simplified by focusing on user’s primary intent on a particular screen. Google is the master of anticipating user’s intents – from “I’m feeling lucky” button since the very beginning to  suggestion search. Another app that skillfully anticipates user’s desires is Songza. It takes simple cues such as time of day, day of week, day of year, etc. to deliver delightful experiences. It eliminates the need for mental math for users by recommending playlists based on activities and moods suitable for a given time.


Element of surprise: Timing is critical, when it comes to delivering delight. Twitter Music’s iPhone app masterfully surprises the user at the least expected instance. For instance, when you long press the app icon to rearrange them on your screen, the wiggling icon creates an illusion of a throbbing boom-box speaker. TwitterMusic

Further, the app uses a clever animation when a user refreshes a page – nine dots first form an arrow and then a grid with disco lights. Users don’t expect these subtle animations, but get delighted by the surprise.

TwitterMusic1 TwitterMusic2

Such delights don’t make a product more useful or usable, however they make useful products more fun, sticky and awesome. Let’s build delightful products!


Awesome products connect with users through words

In addition to being useful, usable and delightful, great products converse with their users to form a interesting bond. Language, vocabulary and tone of this conversation informs the interestingness of this bond. Awesome product creators are also master story tellers and they tell powerful stories through their products. I’ve often felt connected to the stories of my favorite products and have curiously dived deeper to study the words used to tell these stories.

These ten brands use powerful and intriguing words in their copy.

  1. Google: I’m feeling lucky
  2. Pinterest : A few (million) of your favorite things
  3. Path : Share life with the ones you love
  4. Macbook Air: Powerful enough to carry you through the day. With so little to
    actually carry.
  5. Spotify: Soundtrack your life
  6. Chipotle: There’s a burrito in your iphone.
  7. Nike Fuelband: Life is a sport. Make it count.
    Nike FuelBand
  8. Fab: Smile, you’re designed to.
  9. Cupidtino: *pegged to the price of a venti mocha lite in Cupertino Starbucks.
  10. TrunkClub: Become the best-dressed guy in the room
    Trunk Club

What brands use words that stir your soul?


Finite state models of a customer’s behavior

Product experiences that map existing human behavior are often successful, as customers do not need to change behavior to be able to use them. Based on this hypothesis, I’ve used finite state models as tools to inform my choices while designing new products. These models identify distinct states that a user passes through while completing a task. Let me use the finite state model of a typical leisure traveler to illustrate various products and services that are geared towards specific states.

A traveler goes through three main states for any given trip. After discovering and deciding where to travel, she finds the best deals and books transportation, accommodation and activities. She often shares her opinions, feelings, photos, videos, reviews, etc. for that trip with her friends and fellow travelers. She uses multiple services and interacts with many friends and strangers through each state during the trip. In most cases, transaction only occurs when a user transitions from “Discover” to “Travel” state as shown in the state diagram below.


Discover: Travelers often discover and decide their destination through one of the following channels:

  1. Social Discovery: Many travelers end up discovering new destinations through social networks such as facebook or Google+ and from day to day conversations with their friends. Once they’ve decided their destination, they proactively end up asking for advice from credible friends. While most users rely on in-person conversations or using the social networks directly, some have started using services such as Gogobot, Trippy, Chalo.io, etc. to discover destinations and activities. As per the latest report on Social Media in Travel 2011 by PhoCusWright, referrals from Facebook to hotel websites are converting at a higher rate than referrals from traveler review websites. Facebook’s higher conversion rate provides some provocative circumstantial evidence that travelers may be engaging in travel planning and shopping activites on the social network.
  2. Q&A: From TripAdvisor to Quora, travelers rely upon one of tens of generic and travel- specific Q&A services to get destination-specific questions answered. While there are many travel-specific Q&A sites and mobile apps such as Bootsnall, gtrot, WAYN, igougo, etc., TripAdvisor is the unanimous leader for finding answers to almost any travel- related questions.
  3. Destination Reviews: While many sites such as TripAdvisor, igougo, Tripsay, Lonely Planet, Fodor’s, etc. offer destination reviews, travelers have started relying more on hotel reviews offered by online travel agencies. Such reviews play an important role in a traveler’s purchase decision.
  4. Travel books, magazines, blogs and TV shows: Some travelers get inspired to travel to certain destinations based on an article they may read in a travel magazine or a travel show they may have watched on TV. Many travelers still buy travel books from leading publishers such as Lonely Planet, Fodor’s etc. to learn more about new destinations.
  5. Search engines and filters: Both Google and Bing offer travel-specific vertical search. Additionally price-sensitive travelers often use vertical search engines, filters and aggregation services offered by companies such as Kayak, Hipmunk, SideStep, etc.

Travel: The second state entails booking the trip and managing itinerary.

  1. Deals and booking: Travelers use a combination of leading travel search engines and online travel agencies to find the best deals and book them. Customers often pick one travel agency over another or purchase directly from the airline, hotel or rental car company on the basis of two main criteria – price and convenience.
  2. Trip management services: While most leading travel agencies offer basic itinerary management and on-trip alerts, lately customers have started adopting services such as TripIt and Trippy that aggregate multiple itineraries and offer comprehensive yet simple ways to manage a trip.

Discuss: The final state often loops back to the “discover” state through social discovery.

  1. Reviews and ratings: Travelers often express their opinions about a destination and rate hotels they’ve stayed in and services that they’ve used after a trip. While most travelers express their opinions on social networks, many take the time to leave a review on the online travel agency’s portal or one of the travel advice websites.
  2. Share photos, videos and notes: Many travelers share their notes, photos and videos from trips with their family and friends via email, social networks, blogs, etc.
  3. Plan a new trip through social discovery: Seeds for travelers’ next trip are often planted during or right after their current trip. Based on their interactions with friends and fellow travelers, they often discover new destinations for their next trip.  Typically, a traveler connects and interacts with one or more of the following:
  • Friends who have been to the destination they’re traveling to
  • Friends who stay at the destination they’re traveling to
  • Fellow travelers to the same destination
  • Friends who want to visit the destination they are traveling to

The travel industry has products and services that specialize in each state as well as some large incumbents such as Expedia, Travelocity and Priceline which offer services for each state. Finite state models have helped me stay focused on the customer’s core needs while building new products and I continue to use them. What is the finite state model of your customer’s behavior?