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.

StateModelOfATrip

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?

-Kintan

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?

-Kintan

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 –

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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?

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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!

Kintan