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.

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!


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?


First impressions are critical controllable inputs for new products’ growth

Usefulness of a product during its first use by a customer is the most critical controllable input for a new product’s adoption and growth. Many new products (especially games) coerce the user to take an action such as signing up or connecting with a social network, without paying any regard to that user’s goals. Although such products may achieve short term goals of activating a user or increasing their count of new user registrations, they tend to lag in long term engagement, stickiness and loyalty from their customers. After studying first time user experiences of over forty new consumer products over the last eight months, I’ve noticed that products with a compelling first time experience tend to grow faster.

A new product’s first time use experience can be measured by its effectiveness in solving my needs as a user. In most cases, needs of a first time user are simple and obvious. For instance, Youtube clearly addresses their first time customer’s need to watch a video and Pandora addresses their first time customer’s need to play music. How would you feel as a customer if Youtube required you to sign up for an account before you could watch your first video?

Let me highlight an effective first time use experience by a relatively new service – Lovely, the apartment rental discovery service. As a first time customer on Lovely’s website or iPhone app, my goal is always to find apartments for rent in a location of my choice. Lovely makes it simple, easy and fast for a first time customer to search for an apartment with cost and location preferences and contact the landlord to schedule a showing without prompting or requiring to sign up for a free account. After solving the customer’s need of connecting her with a landlord, Lovely requests the user to sign up for a free account so it can serve her better in future.

Home page of livelovely.com Search for apartments

Search results on a map

Picking the apatment

Contact the landlod

I signed up for a free account and I’m sure majority of their first time users must be doing the same. The case would have been different, had Lovely would have asked me to sign up before finding me an apartment or even before letting me contact the landlord.

Let’s build products that solve customer’s needs in the first time use. Please share examples of exceptional (or worse) first time use experiences that you have encountered.


Reimagine the obvious

I admire Gauri Nanda from Nanda Home for reimagining the obvious – a mundane alarm clock. Snooze buttons in an alarm clock defeat the purpose of an alarm clock, especially for the occasional over-sleepers like me. Gauri redesigned the alarm clock and called it Clocky. By outfitting wheels to it and enabling the clock to jump off the bedside table and hide in the morning, Gauri forces the user to wake up to find the ringing clock. Alarm clocks were designed ages ago and wheels were designed even before. It takes an unencumbered perspective to re-imagine existing designs and exponentially enhance the user experience.

© 2010 nanda home inc. | clocky ®

Many objects and systems around us suck. Let’s attempt to reimagine them. Why can’t we bid on flight tickets? Priceline attempts to handwave at the problem by simulating a close-door bidding, but fails gloriously at it. Why can’t the microwave oven know how long to run for, based on what’s kept on the heating tray inside? Can’t my pack of pop-tarts come with a QR code/RFID that can be read by  standard microwave ovens such that the oven knows to run for 30 seconds as soon as I put a pop-tart in the oven? Can’t my jeans beep, if I forget my wallet? If I put eggs and milk at the same place in the fridge, can’t the fridge order them automatically from Amazon Fresh, as soon as they’re about to deplete?

I’m attempting to reimagine the way in which movie showtimes are displayed on mobile devices. All major apps IMDb, Fandango, Flixster, Moviefone, etc. display them in the same old vertical grid. That sucks and can be remaimagined.

What are you attempting to reimagine?


why I read magazines..and why you should too

How many magazines do you subscribe to?

Most interesting people I know subscribe to at least five to ten magazines (often in areas outside their primary occupation.) Most magazines have beautifully designed websites (often available for free), but I prefer to subscribe to the paper copies of at least a few interesting magazines. I’ve been subscribing to magazines for over a decade and I’ve learned immensely through them.

Blogs and magazines serve different purposes and are not mutually exclusive. I read magazines for three main reasons:

1. Keep up with the trends:

I often find myself reading three-four back issues of magazines at a time. For instance, it is not uncommon to sit on a Sunday morning and read last three issues of Fortune and the last two issues of GQ and compare the trends in content, editorial tone, advertisements, magazine cover designs, fonts, photos and color palettes used in various articles and many more attributes. Magazines couldn’t be seen as distribution channels for news. Blogs, tweets and news websites are much more efficient at that. However magazines often reflect the zeitgeist in a particular industry. In fact certain magazines serve as tastemakers for some industries (especially in fashion).

One of the key traits of entrepreneurs is “vision” – ability to visualize how their product/service will solve a problem in a durable, visible and obvious way over years. Vision can be curated through observing and anticipating trends across various industries and geographies. Magazines facilitate just that.

2. Keep up with the ads:

Some print ads are just beautiful. More importantly they indicate what the big brands are focusing on currently. For instance, while reading the issues of Fortune and Forbes from September 2009 to February 2010, the ads indicated a trend that Android was picking up at a much faster rate. More and more ads for the Motorola Droid started to show up in November and December. That’s an obvious trend, which I would have known even without looking at those ads, but you get the point.

3. Experience the “magazine”:

Reading my favorite magazine – Wallpaper – just on its website and not on the printed version would be unfair for the reader. Some of these magazines are carefully crafted to provide the readers with an authentic experience of the content. The layout on the page, typography, quality of the paper, etc. convey a deeper story, which must not be missed for some magazines.


Which magazines to subscribe to?

In addition to subscribing to the usual suspects – magazines related to technology, design and entrepreneurship, I force myself to subscribe to a new magazine (which I normally wouldn’t subscribe to), just to get an introduction to a new industry.

Here’s the list of magazines that I’ve enjoyed reading:


  • MIT Technology Review
  • Popular Science
  • Wired


  • Harvard Business Review
  • Fast Company
  • Fortune
  • Forbes
  • Inc
  • Strategy+Business by Booz Allen Hamilton


  • Wallpaper
  • ID
  • How
  • Architectural Digest


  • GQ
  • Esquire
  • Entertainment Weekly
  • Dwell
  • New Yorker
  • The Economist

Experiments to learn about trends in new territories/industries (at least for me):

  • Make – hobbyists
  • Real Simple – house wives
  • Digital Photography
  • Boating Magazine
  • Golf Magazine
  • Parenting

Magazine subscriptions don’t cost too much. One year subscription to FastCompany costs less than $10!

Start reading a magazine today.


ps: Photo is used from flickr.com under Creative Commons

Delightful products

I’ve always enjoyed creating and using products which not only fulfills the needs of the user, but also caters to the desires of the user. A well designed product does what the user expects it to do, but some go beyond to delight the user. While Apple has sprinkled such delightful experiences throughout Mac OS X and iPhone, several web companies have used user-delight as a unique value proposition.

One of my favorite website is www.picnik.com , which never ceases to surprise and delight me. The first time I had met Picnik’s co-founder Jonathan Sposato at a panel discussion, he asserted that what differentiates Picnik from its competitors is a little magic, which is hard to define. Over the next few “Picnik” experiences, I was amazed by that magic and got hooked.

Users experience magic from the very first experience. Upon clicking “Get started” on a simple landing page of Picnik, the user is taken to a “loading” screen, where Picnik delights the user by using metaphors of a real picnic to set the tone. It could have easily chosen to display the text “loading” next to the progress bar, but instead Picnic uses one of the following –


Painting sky, Laying blanket, Buttering sandwiches, Coloring flowers…… 

The personality of the software reflects the personality of its creators and is often not guided directly by user feedback. For instance, creators of picnik were not told by their users to use “laying blanket” instead of “loading”. Even if they had used the term “loading”, users would have used their software, because it is a useful software. However, users will spread the word and convert into raving fans, only when they see a unique delight factor.

Similarly Amazon has done a terrific job with the classic screensavers in the Kindle. The screensavers are simple and display a portrait of a popular author or a poet. What else could bring more delight to a reader?


There is no end to the subtleties used by Apple throughout their experiences. Most users of MacBook would know that a small light on the front of a Macbook pulsates, when the computer is on standby/sleep mode. Apple took this one step further by designing their storefronts to mimic the sleeping laptop. The Apple store on University Avenue in Palo Alto (small, but one of my favorites) pulsates after the store closes at 9 PM to indicate that the store is sleeping.Here’s a video.

Does Apple do it at the expense of core functionality?

Did Apple’s customers complain that the store is not sleeping?

How do we add delight to our software? In addition to offering the best utilitarian user experience, the product must appeal to the senses of the users by adding unexpected subtleties throughout the experience.

Let’s make delightful experiences!