Nest Connected Home & Smart Devices

July 7, 2014 § Leave a comment

Here’s a recent article about Nest covering all the details about how Google plans to make Nest the center of the connected home.


I’ll boil down the use cases and pain points they’re claiming Nest can help solve:

  1. If you’re running the wash, and Nest notices you’re not home, it’ll keep your dryer running for you so your clothes don’t wrinkle
  2. Nest can toggle your lights on and off, or turn the bulbs red, if it notices elevated CO2 levels
  3. Nest can text your neighbors if it detects smoke in the house
  4. Next can notify you if it thinks your kids are messing with it
  5. Nest & Mercedes are buddies now, so you can turn your thermostat on the EXACT SECOND you arrive home so you don’t waste energy
  6. Nest & Jawbone are buddies, so when Jawbone thinks you’ve fallen asleep it can adjust the thermostat to nighttime mode

Ugh, ugh, ugh.

My grievances from largest to smallest:

  • A big part of Nest’s whole shtick is that it can save you money by making you smarter about your utility bill. In my opinion (and in Kevin’s, who’s written about this) , it seems kind of implausible that nickel-and-dime-ing a utility bill after laying out the $250 to first buy the device is ever going to return positive from a monetary basis. That’s the benefit that #4 and #5 are trying to sell you on. And yet… there’s #1, which promises TO LEAVE YOUR DRYER RUNNING INDEFINITELY[ref]How I feel about this.[/ref] while you’re out of the house for who knows how long. It’s worth pointing out that under just regular use, your clothes dryer already accounts for roughly 12% of your house’s entire electricity bill.

    What interests me: How does Nest justify building a system for this? They had to have done research to identify this use case and pain point. Who in the world A) Is regularly having the problem of leaving the house with the dryer running only to come back to wrinkled clothes, and B) Is upset enough about this that they need to buy an expensive product? I need to meet these people; maybe there’s a bridge I can sell them.[ref]This assumes they’re not too busy saving up on their utility bills so they can afford a nicer Mercedes.[/ref]

  • Generally, you probably don’t really care about the room temperature once you’re asleep — after all, you’re asleep. When you do care about the room temperature is when you’re trying to fall asleep. I’m not sure what Nest & Jawbone’s intent is with #6. If they’re turning the thermostat off when inhabitants are asleep and won’t mind the heat/cool, then great, you’re saving another few nickels. If they’re saying you want to adjust the thermostat to make falling asleep more comfortable, then the timeline here totally misses the mark.

    Either way: For this system to work, it requires everyone in the entire household to have their own Jawbone, otherwise you’re dependent on the one Jawbone user to be last to bed and first to rise if you want to ensure that everybody’s comfortable. So I guess, now that you’re two to six $100+ devices in the hole, you’re ready to really start saving money.

  • If there’s CO2 or smoke: Please, benefits #2 and #3, don’t alert the neighbors. You’re probably not all that close to them. If you’re not home, I don’t know why Nest might necessarily expect that they are. I also don’t know why Nest thinks they’re going to be checking your windows for suspicious red lighting, or why Nest thinks they’ll have any idea what this even means without you first having to go over and teach them. Do you really want to go and have that conversation?

    Please, just tell the authorities.

  • It’s 2014, you own a home, you’re in a financially sound enough position to put a Nest in your home, and your unattended kids are messing with your thermostat to entertain themselves? Don’t they have iPads? If #4 is what’s getting you excited about this connected home, you’ve got way bigger problems than your utility bill.

As usual, complaining is the easy part. Anyone can complain on the internet. What I get excited about is the challenge of coming up with the right products and strategies myself.

So: What would I do if I was on Nest’s Product team? I’d stick to the core thesis which made Nest such a big hit in the first place: Pick an already-existing interface in the home which nobody really carefully thinks about, and design the shit out of it.

Specifically, I’d take the same basic interface of the Nest thermostat, make a new product, and put it right here:



It shouldn’t be too hard to imagine that the Nest Thermostat would make for an amazing shower faucet interface.

Look at this picture here. What in the WORLD do those three knobs do? The middle one probably turns on the water… but getting just the right temperature? That could take weeks of practice and fine-tuning.

Isn’t it ridiculous how every time you bathe at a hotel or a friend’s house, you have to re-learn how to get the shower right?

Here’s how it should look:NestShower


  1. Press the Nest and the water comes on, press it again and the water goes off. Not hard to add the right design language to make this intuitive. You might even really idiot-proof this and make it so twisting the Nest turns it on, too.
  2. Like the thermostat, the front-facing display shows the temperature. Twist it to adjust to the desired degree Fahrenheit/Celsius. One color background (say, red) indicates the water hasn’t arrived at the desired temperature yet, another color (green!) says the water’s perfect.

Now all I need to learn — once — is the water temperature I prefer.

There’s challenges, sure. Shower faucet installation is substantially more complicated than the installation of a thermostat or smoke detector. You’ll probably need buy-in from plumbers. That’s a hurdle, but it’s not unsolvable.[ref]There’s actually a relatively famous HBS case study on this very subject.[/ref]

In fact, if you want to get really smart & fancy, and if you want to really pay attention user process flow and User-Centric Design, you’d employ the following design which Kevin & I have been talking about:


One set of controls outside of the shower, one inside. Which at first glance looks totally preposterous and superfluous.

But when you think about how you actually use your shower, isn’t it totally ridiculous that you have to dip your hand in the shower and risk getting wet to turn the shower on, or otherwise you have to stand in the shower naked with freezing water splashing at your toes while you wait for the water to heat up?

All showers are designed that way not because this is an enjoyable experience, but because in a practical sense, the faucet heads were physically attached to the pipes behind the shower. With Nest being a “smart” device, why not give users the luxury of keeping their clothes on until the water’s good and ready, instead of the other way around?

Hey, here’s that Billy Mays part: BUT WAIT! THERE’S MORE!

There’s been rampant speculation (and from the comments section, bellyaching) that Google might plan on serving ads on the Nest display screen. Google has since denied the rumor. This was a pretty obtuse thing to complain loudly about, anyway, because nobody in any home, ever, is spending their time and undivided attention in front of their thermostat.

You know where people do spent a ton of time and undivided attention? Yep. In the shower. So if Google actually did want to make a smart device which could meaningfully serve news headlines, the weather, and the occasional ad… the Nest Shower Head would be a bona fide place to do it.




The best part about self-driving cars

June 17, 2014 § 1 Comment

Here’s that Google self-driving cars promo video that’s been making rounds lately:

This is obviously completely world-changing.

The thing is, though, this video and its surrounding coverage in the press don’t even begin to explore the best, most exciting externalities of self-driving cars. They get to, maybe, level 2 out of 7.

So I thought I’d lay out some ideas.

Level 1: People who couldn’t use cars before can now use cars. This is wonderful for the disabled and elderly. And maybe even for kids. This is most of what you see in the video — and these groups of people have every right to be excited. But (and I’m definitely wearing my executive business hat here) the real economic impact of this change is relatively not that big a deal.

Level 2: Instead of driving, you can do other things behind the wheel. (Well, “wheel.”) This is the part that the angry internet masses presume Google is probably most excited about. The worry is that when Google says this affords an opportunity to “catch up on email”[ref]For the record, by the way: I absolutely despise this phrase.[/ref] they really mostly mean it’s an opportunity to be served ads or create data for Google to serve ads.

Personally, I absolutely love the fact that being behind the wheel is one of the last few places where you’re forced away from media and left to your own thoughts. The thought of losing that saddens me. I’m not as worried about malicious ads being served. All the modern soccer mom vehicles have TVs in the backseats so that the kids can stay abreast of the latest happenings with Spongebob, and that seems to bother nobody.

I’m a little curious to think about what the most productive & interesting replacement activity would be instead of navigating a steering wheel and pedals, but again, in a large-scale economic sense, this is small potatoes.

Level 3: Everybody switches to self-driving cars. This seems inevitable to me. Once the technology establishes a base level of safety and reliability — it struggles with snow and rain at present, but I can’t imagine those issues will last forever — then the value proposition of a self-driving car is just massively better than a traditional vehicle.

Put it this way: A full-time chauffeur typically costs $50,000-$80,000/year. So you could argue that — at least for the wealthy elite — the self-driving car is worth something like $200k in savings over a 4-6 year use of the vehicle.

That value won’t be the same for lower classes who don’t value the chauffeur (or, the opportunity cost of their free time) as highly, but it’ll still be substantial.

Economically: We lose the traditional chauffeur industry, but that’s not so bad. The car industry’s shaken up, but not gone. It might even boon.

Level 4: Suburbs are more accessible. This could just happen anyway as the internet and digital collaboration get better. (See: Oculus Rift. Read: Snow Crash, Ready Player One, and so on.) Many people avoid the suburbs because of the immense drag of hours of commuting to work in the city or elsewhere. But what if you can work (or even just sleep) on your way to the office?

What happens when the suburbs aren’t just for married couples who want the space to raise a family and can trade off a few hours’ commute time? Do young people move out to take advantage of the substantially cheaper real estate? Does the urban sprawl balloon?

Level 5: The roads are insanely safe. I anticipate that we’ll eventually see the tides turn completely on the perceived safety of driving. It’ll take several years.

Today, self-driving cars are unknown so they seem dangerous. We feel like we can trust human drivers to behave a certain way.

In the future, computer drivers are a sure bet. The faults and lapses of the human mind and senses will still be unknown, so driving a vehicle manually will likely be the outlier and the threat.

An interesting comparable: You can power up the latest Grand Theft Auto game and just start driving around the city. What you’ll find after a while is that the only car that ever gets in an accidents…is the one controlled you, the human.

Once perfectly coherent computers are responsible for manning the heavy majority of vehicles, I’d expect accidents would drop precipitously. I also can’t fathom self-driving cars racking up many speeding tickets.

Here we really start to face some stranger side-effects. What happens to hospitals who no longer have the patient inflow from auto mishaps? What happens to local law enforcement who no longer have the monetary inflow from traffic tickets? Do we need fewer doctors and policemen? Or do we just get better and more aggressive at treating and policing other things?

Level 6: There’s no need to buy a car. A few more years down.

Here’s a big, universal secret that pretty much nobody talks about: Owning a car actually sucks. Even putting aside the fact that it’s already by far the most dangerous thing anyone does on a regular basis (we solved that at Level 4). Your car is incredibly expensive to buy, it’s incredibly expensive to insure, it’s incredibly expensive to use (gas), it’s incredibly expensive to maintain (repairs). It loses value precipitously the second you drive it off the lot. There’s an infinity of teensy tiny nuanced issues (“Has that scratch always been there?”) that quietly add stress to daily life.

Still — today in 2014 (and in years past), that’s a small price to pay for the freedom of being able to say “I need to be 10 miles away from here, right now.”

In the future? Look at what Uber has already done with its on-demand car service. I’m confident their company gets better and better every day at understanding supply and demand — knowing where their cars need to be and when. With self-driving cars, a future company like Uber cuts its most expensive operating cost out of the equation (see: Chauffeurs) and could realistically have an army of cars always standing by. You might realistically be able to schedule regular pickups and routes for yourself. Because you don’t have to pay for a driver, and because you don’t have to pay for the car’s idle time(see: sidebar[ref]Important, relevant side-note: For most of the 24-hour day, Your car’s pretty much just sitting there. Which is the idea driving this whole sharing economy in the first place. You’re paying lots of money to own a car 24 hours a day, and you’re really only actively using it for maybe 60-120 minutes.[/ref]), I’d imagine this could drive individual trip prices down to meet other transportation services where you don’t pay for individual drivers or idle time — you know, like the bus and the subway.

So why own a car when for all intents and purposes it’s just as convenient, and probably cheaper, to rely on hailing cabs which perform all the same functions but cheaper and with less hassle and maintenance?

Also at this point in the future, the symbolic statement of buying and owning a car is all but gone. Getting a car when I turned 17 was a huge deal — it was my freedom and my coming of age. With self-driving cars… who cares? Youths in this future year 20XX have had the freedom to go wherever they wanted since the day they got their first smartphone.

So now the car industry is toasted. It’ll be interesting for the advertising industry too. Car commercials apparently account for 25% of TV revenue. Maybe some day, not everyone will have “15 minutes could save you 15% or more on car insurance” beaten mercilessly into their skulls.

Level 7: Real Estate. This part’s deep, deep future. Perhaps accordingly, it’s definitely my favorite.

Today, we use an ABSOLUTELY, POSITIVELY RIDICULOUS amount of real estate to just let cars sit idly and do nothing.

New York City has 1,100 parking garages and around 4 million metered and unmetered curbside parking spaces. That’s unfathomable. Think about how incredibly selfish it is to hoard all that space just for the sake of having a car waiting nearby.

Our self-driving taxis, however, should never have to sit idle. Like present-day cabs, subway trains, and the like, they’re either always driving, or if they need to be stationary, they’re parked in far-away lots where it’s cheap and not an inconvenience.

All that means we eventually really don’t need parking spaces. Which means for NYC alone, at roughly 150 sq. ft (19 long by 8 wide) per space, the army of self-driving cars has the potential to unlock over 600,000,000 sq ft of land, or 21 square miles. For perspective: Central Park only (“only”) takes up 1.3 square miles.

What’s fascinating about this challenge, though, is that eliminating all the parking spaces in NY isn’t the same as adding 16 new Central Parks, because these spaces are all distributed on the sides of streets throughout the city. So the problem for the future: What’s the best public or private use of a parking space? Of a parking garage? Maybe it’s housing. Maybe it’s some kind of energy production like solar. Probably it’s something just something else we haven’t even begun to dream of.

Re: Cars & Smart Screens

May 12, 2014 § Leave a comment

In the first week of March, I wrote about the devastating misapplication of modern technology in cars, and the ample opportunity for car manufacturers to improve the capabilities of rear-view mirrors.

Today, Kevin points me to this Co.Design article which proposes the same: Use cameras, reduce/obliterate blind spots. The article also talks about reduced drag, which I think is a relatively minor issue, and about many governments’ legal requirements for cars to have side view mirrors installed, which could be a substantial roadblock. Nonetheless, it sounds like we’re headed down the right path.


My Favorite Product of All-Time is a Sponge

April 28, 2014 § Leave a comment

Surely this title can’t be serious.

I’m a 26-year old red-blooded American male consumer, and my favorite product is a kitchen accessory. Honest.

Here’s some features of my favorite product:

  • No touch-screen
  • No buttons or flashing lights
  • Can’t access or download adult movies
  • Doesn’t play Angry Birds
  • Not connected to other people or other sponges via Facebook

Despite all those shortcomings, and more, I love this product. This should all probably surprise you, or upset you. It should certainly upset every major consumer products manufacturer. Except one: The company that makes the George Foreman Grill, and concurrently, the Foreman Grill Sponge.

foreman grill spongeYep. That’s it.

Here’s why I love the Foreman Grill Sponge (FGS):

First: The FGS takes a real (but incredibly subtle) problem and absolutely, positively obliterates it.

It doesn’t fuss around with trying to be cool or flashy. That’s often a hallmark of a solution in search of a problem. The nascent phenomenon of TVs and phones with curved screens is an example of this. You’re inclined to say “Wow!” because it’s different and heavily advertised and maybe if you use it you’ll win favor with someone you’re attracted to. I doubt anyone said “Wow!” when they saw their first FGS.

The Foreman Grill is prone to collecting the burnt residue of the foods you’ve just cooked, and essentially needs to be cleaned after every use. I believe when the Foreman Grill originally came out, it didn’t come with any cleaning paraphernalia — you used the sponge you already had in your kitchen.

If I asked, back in the day, “What’s the worst aspect of your Grill?” to a hundred Foreman Grill owners, I’d guess the heavy majority would say “cleaning it is super annoying.” If I followed-up and asked “What would you fix,” my guess is the responses would blame the range (“make the range less sticky!”) or blame the user (“make me a better cook!”), but never the sponge. The sponge is a known entity; everyone above age 5 is an expert at using it, and it should hardly be blamed for any of this mess because it was still in the cupboard while you were stupid and not paying attention and subsequently overcooking the chicken. I’m sure if you asked “How do you rate your sponging experience,” respondents would simply say “yeah, it’s fine.”

Here’s the difference that Human-Centered Design brings to the table: I wouldn’t ask that second question, “What would you fix?”

Instead, I’d watch users go through the entire process of cooking a meal on their Foreman Grills. And under those circumstances, what should stick out plainly is the aggravated way home-chefs use their sponges to clean. The sponge is flat and designed to clean flat things. The Grill’s range has a very distinct bulbous shape, like this:


As a result, with a regular sponge it’s relatively easy to clean the most-exposed surfaces of the grill, and relatively impossible—requiring clawing with the corner of the sponge (damaging it), using your fingernails (dirtying those), and no shortage of foul language (disappointing your parents)—to get the recessed nooks and crannies. It’s doable, but it’s not pleasant.

Enter the FGS: A sponge which contours exactly to the grill’s humps. It’s infinitely better at reaching the nooks, and moreover, it just feels mechanically and cathartically nicer to slide perfectly along the grill’s rails. The same “Ahhh” feeling you get when you place the correct piece in the middle of a puzzle, or just generally when things fit perfectly into other things. Product functionality: Massively improved. Product experience: Massively improved. Learning Curve: Completely intuitive. Those are the marks of an insanely great product.

Incidentally, I once wrote this much on my short-lived side website, only there I used 20 words instead of roughly 700.

Second: Like any good Made-for-TV product, here’s the part where I say “But Wait—There’s More!!”

Sponges are a heavily commoditized product. I doubt even Martha Stewart has a favorite sponge brand. (Maybe she prefers lavender sponges to blue?) Perhaps I’m just not a sophisticated sponge consumer, but I know even paper towels try to differentiate in their mopping ability, thickness, and quilted-ness.

I looked on Amazon quickly. (There doesn’t seem to be a sponge-equivalent of quilted-ness, alas.) Depending on the bulk quantity you’re buying, sponges cost $0.50 to $1.00 per unit. The FGS, on the other hand, seems to typically come in packs of three, and sponges cost $2 apiece, or $6.00 total. Which means they’re convincingly commanding a 100%-300% premium on an item that has the most basic, obvious, and clearly copy-able product innovation possible.

And that, to me, is absolutely beautiful.


Cars & Smart Screens

March 3, 2014 § Leave a comment

I’d been reading a lot lately about the implementation of touch screens in automobile dashboards — and in particular, how grave a danger this particular use of technology is. In sum: Touch screens have no haptic feedback — when you use a touch screen dash, you have to look where you press rather than being able to blindly feel for the correct button or dial present on a traditional dashboard. Distracted driving = accidents = problem.

Some folks are trying to solve this by inventing a better touch screen dashboard. The same Forbes author suggests a dash where key functions have hardware buttons and auxiliary functions move to the touch screen. TechCrunch raves about a solution where you don’t have to look at the touch screen, but you still have to learn five all-new, unnatural gestures — which makes it seem like operating the dash becomes a skillset akin to operating a stick shift.

Renault is building a concept car where, while you’re driving, you can use a touch screen to operate a remote toy helicopter. Which is…uh… wow.

Suffice it to say, I think all of the endeavors above — not just helicopter-pocalypse — are steps in the wrong direction. Emblematic examples of technology looking for a problem to solve, rather than solving for a problem already outstanding.

The current-day dashboard doesn’t really have an interface problem. Ask anyone aged 18-68 who’s ever been behind the wheel how to adjust the radio, and they’ll probably do it naturally. Dash board interfaces are already pretty smart and comprehensive.[ref]Maybe you could make a case that we’d benefit from a standardized set of dash controls across all cars — the same way all cars have the same interface for pedals and steering wheels. Or point out how many key functions are moving from buttons on the dash to buttons on the steering wheel. Both fair arguments. But that’s not today’s point.[/ref]

On the other hand.

What if I told you that every single car today already has — not one, but three — screens built in which are genuinely stupid, and are the direct cause of an incalculable number of traffic accidents? And furthermore, relatively simple technology could probably completely fix these performance issues?

Thousands of lives, millions of dollars in damages saved. You’d think automakers would probably jump at an opportunity like this, right? Nah. Instead, they’re finding cutesy ways to make questionable improvements on volume knobs.

I’m not about to propose we add electronics and diagnostics to the windshield. God knows the last thing we need[ref]Well, there was that whole remote helicopter thing…so maybe second-to-last.[/ref] is another colorful distraction in the driver’s direct line of sight.

Rather, here are the dumb screens I’m thinking of:

You might not have thought of these as “screens,” because they traditionally go by a different name: “mirrors.” But I see these as screens — as interfaces — all the same. And mirrors, as things go, are especially dumb.

For example:

  • Isn’t it dumb that you have to rely on tricks of light to judge the presence of traffic around you?
  • Isn’t it dumb that you have to adjust these screens every time someone who’s taller or shorter takes a turn driving the car?
  • Isn’t it dumb that these screens can be blinding if hit with headlights at night?
  • Isn’t it dumb that one of the screens is explicitly inaccurate and says “Objects may be closer than they appear?”
  • Isn’t it dumb that, even after all of those hurdles, these screens are still wildly unreliable, and have blind spots which you can only avoid by turning your head completely away from the road in front of you to double-check?

Sounds like a pretty ripe opportunity for progress. My solution (like pretty much all the best solutions) is painfully simple:

  1. Rear-facing cameras.
  2. LCD screens swapped in for these mirrors.
  3. Connect (1) to (2).

Totally solved, no? Let me reiterate: We’re talking about completely obliterating blindspots on cars. You could easily position the cameras around the hood of the car to form a perfect viewing radius. If you’ve ever used a television you’ll know that LCD screens are clearly viewable by people of all sizes, and are also good at the nominal task of not blinding people.

So what’s the holdup? Can’t be a cost thing; we’ve already got high-quality cameras in all of our ~$X00 cell phones, so they can’t be prohibitive. Can’t be a reliability thing; our cars already rely on a litany of other electronics just as likely to default. Can’t be a durability thing; we’ve already got jumbotrons in outdoor sports stadiums that hold up fine against the elements (and besides, side-view mirrors only have to be outside the car because of the tricks-of-light thing — the new smart screens could easily be located inside the cabin and work just fine).

Look, technology is great. Imagination is great. It’s admittedly wrong of me to harshly criticize the Renault prototype, which is so clearly a concept car designed to inspire creativity and which will assuredly never see the light of day.

But the best innovations are the ones that solve real problems, first and foremost, method of implementation be damned. Ford SUVs save untold anguish by truly understanding a unique and universal car use-case and thus enabling drivers to open their trunks hands-free. And I save untold lives by re-framing the concept of a “screen” and thus opening new opportunities for interface. No 31st-century technology required.

Black Belt Running Shoes

February 25, 2014 § Leave a comment

This post is the result of a simple, peculiar question:

“What if your shoes got better over time instead of worse?”

The true origin of this line of thought goes back a little further – a design thinking process detailed in a separate post, here. But to save my more casual readers the chore of being bogged down by winding design process detail…

Again: “What if your shoes got better over time instead of worse?”

I want to inspire a regular person to become a more active runner, and this is one hypothesis: If my shoes get better the more I use them, I’ll be incentivized to get out and run more.

That train of thought runs into a few really big problems. Such as:

  1. Manufacturers are loathe to sell a product which doesn’t eventually need to be replaced.
  2. Users will hate a product that starts out as the functional equivalent of wearing cinder blocks.
  3. The laws of thermodynamics dictate that entropy only moves in one direction – in other words, you can’t reverse shoes from going through normal wear & tear.

This doesn’t preclude us, however, from designing a shoe that feels emotionally or psychologically better as you use it more. Your shoe can be functionally equivalent, and yet, exude a greater sense of pride in yourself and respect from others. You might consider the system of patches that the US military uses to denote military rank: Functionally, for the most part, all military jackets perform “keep me warm” equally well; the patch on the shoulder and breast of the jacket is what makes one more valuable than the other. Or how in Karate, you earn a different-colored belt as you gain experience and progress through training/mastery ranks.

That last analogy I found to be particularly inspiring; thus, the Black Belt Running Shoe was born.

The main idea: You buy a shoe which has a “White Belt,” and as you run, the color of the belt advances through ranks (yellow, green, blue, etc.) up to “Black Belt.”

Here’s a mock of what I’m thinking about, in the internet’s favorite file format:



I’d imagine that if LA Lights were possible in the 90’s, the multi-color technology here isn’t something altogether insurmountable.

Key shoe value propositions:

  1. There’s a pedometer in the shoe (think Nike+) to track your behavior, connected to the internet for data visualization/sharing/fancy stuff, and connected to the belt to impose color changes at key running milestones based on your personal demographics.
  2. If you slack off, the pedometer knows. Aside from it automatically sending you pointed SMS/email notifications, you’ll begin to lose belt status back down the chain.
  3. Your belt color is a status symbol. To be worn casually or competitively, depending on disposition and circumstance. (I’m imagining a pair of hyper-competitive Alpha-Moms who want to one-up each other when they cross paths wearing these in the supermarket.) But through auxiliary programs, such as a social network or event series, your belt status also grants you tiered/exclusive benefits. Separate message boards or content on the website. Events where Yellow Belts get invites, Brown Belts get goodie bags, Black Belts sit in the VIP room.
  4. Not quite as essential, but still: Your car knows when to tell you it’s time to get your tires replaced based on the number of wheel rotations which it tracks. I see no reason why your smart shoes shouldn’t tell you the same thing. And I’d envision that if consumers are managing to burn through the soles of your shoes through this Black Belt program, I’d set up some kind of retirement / hall of fame ritual to celebrate shoes well-worn (and more importantly, incentives to buy the same brand for your next pair).

The biggest hurdle (for me; perhaps not necessarily for an outfit like Nike) is in finished design. The shoes need to strike a very delicate balance between performance and fashion. You’re supposed to be running in them all the time, but also, feel excited to wear them to the supermarket and to your friends’ place. Otherwise, the Belt loses much of its ability to make a statement and afford you bragging rights — and most of all, it has less opportunity to spread virally.

Designing the next Nike+ is one thing, and that’s not necessarily a bad outcome. But I’m far more interested in deploying the next LiveStrong.



Running Shoes and an Overview of the Business Design Process

February 24, 2014 § Leave a comment

How do you design an innovative solution to address engagement in health issues among low and rising risk patients?

That was the prompt I was given at a design workshop this weekend hosted by some of the folks at Ziba. In layman’s terms, you might say “normal people are unhealthy, please fix it.”

In a single day, we went through the steps of a creative design process which usually takes several weeks or months. I think my results were pretty compelling and worth a share, and moreover, I thought it’d be a good opportunity to walk through some key components of the type of work I like to do best.

The overly simplified timeline looks like this:

  1. Customer Research, gather ideas (explore)
  2. Create insights (refine)
  3. Develop prototypes (explore)
  4. Distill and surface winners (refine)

Without further adieu, allow me to introduce Hannah:

allow me to reintroduce myself, my name is HOV

Normally, discovering things about Hannah (both Hannah, the person, and “Hannah,” the metaphor for people like her) comes through an exhaustive interview process which takes hours and is repeated among a handful of like-minded candidates. Given our constraints, we had to make some guesses. The essentials:

  • Hannah is 27 years old and lives in NYC. She works at a fashion agency.
  • Her job requires hard work during the day and lots of socializing off-hours. There’s a high bar to stay fit and attractive, but the rigors of work and social pressures make incentives and allocating time difficult.
  • She’s motivated by peers, status, and fashion.

To inspire ideas to help make Hannah healthier, we explored the following areas:

Soduct and Prervice

What this means:

  • Environments: Where does Hannah spend time where there might be an opportunity to improve her health?
  • Community: With whom does Hannah spend time where there might be an opportunity to improve her health?
  • Product: What products might she engage with (blah, blah)?
  • Service: What services?
  • Mobile/Web: What apps, etc., ?

This led to a broad exploratory process to illustrate the (in this case, imaginary) details of our interview subject, Hannah. Some observation (in this case, “observation”) examples:

  1. Environments: Hannah’s often at cocktail parties, making unhealthy consumption decisions.
  2. Community: Hannah is stressed about work and doesn’t have anyone to confide in regularly.
  3. Community: Hannah wants to be more responsible about her health, but she’s hesitant about taking a position that could ostracize her from her social circle. She needs someone who can be the far-left wing so she feels relatively centered by comparison as she takes steps towards being healthy.

And so on.

From here, ideas get hastily scribbled down onto sticky notes.[ref]If anyone’s benefited from the trend towards design thinking, it’s surely Post-it Brand.[/ref] A lot of times the areas cross over. The questions and ideas that sprout up are also frequently fairly ridiculous — which is okay in this step of the process. A few of the stranger threads:

  1. Service: What if there was a team of nightlife nutritionists who are at these parties, who can give out smart advice at the height of Hannah’s thought process on deciding what to drink?
  2. Service (& Community): She wants a boyfriend who can inspire her to make better health decisions. What if there was a platform to help you find that? Like “H-date” (health) instead of “J-date” ?
  3. Product (& Service & Environment): 1) “She should get a kitten to help alleviate stress!” 2) “She can’t be responsible for a kitten if she’s working all the time!” 1) “What if she was only responsible part time, like how in elementary school you had the class gerbil[ref]Whose name, invariably, no matter which elementary school you went to, was “Oreo.”[/ref] and got to take it home with you for one weekend of the year?” 2) “What if there was a coffee shop where she could get work done, but also there were a bunch of kittens around that she could play with?”

The heavy majority of ideas fail, for a number of probably very obvious reasons. [ref]#3 actually made it far enough to get a name, “Catfé,” but didn’t last long after that.[/ref]

One stray sticky note haphazardly recorded under Product was “running shoes.” The opaqueness here intrigued one of the Ziba team members, who thus issued a challenge to develop that particular thought further.

Here’s how my thought process went from there:

  1. Running shoes. Hannah could start running. What would inspire her?
  2. When Hannah’s running, what products does she have on her? Her shoes, her keys, her cell phone, her earbuds, her running clothes from Lululemon, her water bottle. What can we fix?
  3. Okay, stick with her running shoes. Classically, you buy running shoes and they just get worse over time as you used them (wear & tear). What if you bought running shoes that started out worse…but somehow got better as you used them?
  4. That’s exciting… but we have to be careful. Consumers won’t buy shoes that start out functioning like cinder blocks. A manufacturer won’t want to sell a shoe that never needs to be replaced. How else can a shoe get better if we rule out physical deterioration?

From here, Black Belt Running Shoes were born. Here first is the low-fidelity sketch I drew[ref]With Nike logos, because I didn’t completely trust my drawing ability to convey that these were sneakers if there wasn’t a logo to help make that apparent.[/ref] that afternoon:

Slack Belt Running Bhoe

And with the benefit post-facto of a few extra minutes to play in Adobe Photoshop, a more high-fidelity mockup in the internet’s favorite file format:



The highlights as I explained them in my final presentation:

  1. Hannah is driven by challenges, and inspired by her peers and community.
  2. Style is important, status is important, and Hannah feels that fitness should be important too.
  3. Here’s the shoes’ key functionality: Everyone starts as a “white belt.” As you meet certain fitness objectives (based on demographics, tracked by pedometer), you advance to differently-colored belts the same way you’d progress through Karate belts, all the way up to “black belt.” If you become inactive, the belt color begins to revert.
  4. This functionality has a handful of normative implications: It means something to be a “green belt.” You can bond with your friends about it, or meet like-minded strangers. You might develop a social network with events, where access and benefits are tiered and tethered to your belt status.
  5. For Hannah specifically, the shoes give her an external excuse to be active and healthy, and afford her an opportunity to meet positive social influences.
  6. I’d envision the finished product to be a distinctive fashion & social statement, much in the same vein as the Nike Fuelband and the LiveStrong bracelet before that. I can’t illustrate that much here; I’m just a humble prototyper.

You could probably poke holes in the end result here (manufacturing the belts likely won’t be perfectly intuitive). Though reception among peers and judges upon the day’s completion was strikingly positive. A few colleagues in the exercise suggested I make sure not to talk with anyone from Nike until successfully securing a patent… I think I’ll take my chances for now.

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