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Archive for January, 2010

Improving the public transportation in Paris

Improving the public transportation in Paris brainstorm

Last week I had a brainstorm with my students as a practice in ideation and we chose the topic “How to improve the public transportation in Paris.” It was an ungrounded brainstorm (i.e. no prior need finding or design research) so the issues highlighted were very high level and broad (in retrospect, I should have narrowed the topic), but there were still some great ideas. Here are some of them:

Do something with the tickets

Since you only need the tickets to enter the Metro system and not to exit it, people discard their used tickets everywhere in and around the station. The idea was to give the tickets some kind of value so that people will want to keep it instead of discarding it. One would be to make them lottery tickets, and another would be to give discounts to those who bring X number of tickets to the station. Similar idea was implemented in Japan for free paper fans (uchiwa) that companies gave away at sporting events. Since people discarded these at the end of the event, companies made them lottery tickets with winners announced few days later in the newspaper so people would take the fans home.

More modes of feedback

As public transportation is practically a basic utility, the general mindset is that there are providers and there are consumers. But does it have to be that way? The general feeling is that RATP, the operators of the Metro, does what they want and the passengers have very little say in the matter. There are now many new forms of communication technologies that could be used to provide feedback such as Twitter, SMS, iPhone Apps, internet forums, etc. Further more, the mobile technologies could be used by passengers to report issues directly from the site and even attach photos. While RATP would still have to deal with the issues, all passengers could now be reporters from the scene. What’s interesting about this idea is that by listening, it may change the perception of the RATP from a bureaucratic organization to an empathetic problem solver, even if there isn’t much change organizationally.

Broadcast the strike

As followers of my tweet feed know, strikes are common place in the Paris public transportation system. When the strike happens, heads of the union and the RATP have negotiations in a closed room trying to resolve the issues. Why not broadcast it? People whose lives are affected by the strike seem frustrated at the opaqueness of the situation, and a broadcasted negotiation session may hasten the negotiation procedure (think Hawthorne effect).

Strike against the strikers

To be honest, I had this idea prior to the brainstorm, and while unrealistic, it’s still my darling baby idea. When the strike happens, publish the pictures of those who are responsible for the strike (leaders of the union and RATP) at every bakery, supermarket, cafe, and restaurant and make sure that they do not receive service anywhere. A taste of their own medicine?

Information to change behavior

If there was a world Metro cleanness ranking and Paris ranked very low, would that motivate people to clean the Metro? If we had solid statistics on how damaging the strikes are (both financially from people missing work and environmental from people driving more cars), would that motivate workers to strike less? How about video interviews of people whose lives are significantly affected by the strike? I don’t know, but we could surely prototype.

These are some of the ideas that resulted from the 30 minute brainstorm. Can you imaging how many more interesting and brilliant ideas could come out of a proper design project with need finding, prototype testing, and insight gathering?

A RATP project would be great fun and meaningful as it affects so many people. I’m sure there will be many willing students in Paris to take on this challenge.

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A step will save 0.0014 yen

Accoding to Asahi News (in Japanese), researchers at the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare calculated that one step will effectively save Japan .0014 yen (.0016 US cents) through reduced health care costs. While that may seem like a small number, if every adult in Japan increased their daily step count by 3000 (~2km or 1.25mi, 30 walking minutes/day), health care costs to treat diseases/conditions such as cerebrovascular disease (cause of strokes), diabetes, and heart attacks can be reduced by 5.5% or 269.5 billion yen  (3 billion USD). The total health care costs in Japan is 33.1 trillion yen (368.5 billion USD).

3000 step increase does seem like an ambitious goal as that’s roughly a 50% increase for the average Japanese citizen (male 7011 steps, female 5945). The original article has more explanations on the calculation (Google Translate).

I sense that the financial benefit would be even higher in the US where health care costs are much higher (2.26 trillion USD in 2017) and people walk much less (2,300 ~ 3,000 steps a day according to Novartis Nutrition).

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A platform is not a killer app

Creating a platform is a hot topic now with companies trying to create the “Next iPhone for X” or become the “Next platform for Y.” The idea behind creating the platform is simple and elegant: create a place where companies and developers can implement new ideas and innovations that the platform creator didn’t even think about and through the platform deliver the values to your customers and clients.

Here is the problem: what will drive the users  to your platform? and if there are only few users, what will motivate the developers to create for your platform?

Every platform needs a seed or a killer app, the reason for the first strong group of users to join and the first group of developers to create. The iPhone, even before it was a platform, was the multimedia smartphone and mobile web browser that everyone lusted for. Facebook, before it was a platform, was the social network for people to connect and share. Apple II, and some argue microcomputers in general, needed VisiCalc to go from niche product to mass market.

Compare that to some of the platforms that haven’t quite taken off: Linux as a personal computing operating system, Palm smartphones, the Openmoko, Chumby, Nabaztag, etc. They are all capable in its own right, but I don’t see any compelling reason for the average user to adopt any of them.

Of course there are exceptions. What was the killer app for Firefox? (Stability? Not being IE?) Why has Android caught on? (Is Open Source a killer app?)

How can we create a platform of platforms? Is that too meta?

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The Parisians and complaining

Americans say that the French complain a lot. The French say that the Parisians complain a lot. I don’t know if this is true (is there hard data on this?), but if it is, I can see why.

There is a lot to complain about in Paris.

The weather here is not atrocious but it leaves lots to be desired. It’s hot and humid in the summer and windy and chilly in the winter, and while it doesn’t rain abundantly, there is consistent rain from week to week.

The city is beautiful but as a pre-automobile city, the layout is chaotic and the roads are narrow. Paris was simply not designed to be driven on, and traffic jams are everyday occurrences.

Then complaints leads to more complaints.

Workers complain about the working condition so the government enacts laws limiting working hours and doubling the pay on Sundays. Then people complain about how stores are not open late at night or on weekends.

The train operators complain about their salaries and working hours and go on strike, then the people complain about how unreliable the public transportation system is.

People complain about fairness, so the government creates elaborate systems to assure fairness only to find people then complain about bureaucracy.

I’ve known several French people in the US, and from what I can tell, they didn’t complain anymore than their American counterparts. While this is hardly scientific, if the Parisians do complain more (unsubstantiated), it’s not the people but the context of the city and the country they belong in. Even I have found myself complaining in Paris and have been warned by my American friends that I’m turning “French.”

P.S. While not a direct proxy, the Satisfaction with Life Index could be used to measure how much people complain, and France does score low compared to other developed countries. Japan ranks even lower, and while in my opinion there isn’t much to complain about in Japan, people do complain a lot.

P.P.S. France does lead the world in the Tax Misery & Reform Index by Forbes.

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Learning a language in the IT generation

I have a feeling my generation will be very bad at learning new languages.

With the mobile internet, vast amounts of information is available, any time, anywhere. The IT generation has adapted to this world, becoming skilled at searching for, processing, and comprehending amazing amounts of information. With many of the online translating services and my iPhone, I’ve discovered that I can translate almost anything I see into English and anything I think into French. The information is there and the tools are available to access it.

But here is the problem: learning a language is not an information challenge but a skills challenge. It’s not about accessing the information or rote memorization but practice and repetition. Because communication is becoming possible without having to learn the language, I’m not practicing my French as much as I should be.

If people can communicate perfectly without learning each other’s languages, then we don’t really need to learn languages anymore. However, we are still very far from such a world, and in the mean time, the information savvy are going to face tough challenges in gaining new language skills.

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Physical Beauty vs Functional Beauty

Physical beauty is loud. As soon as you encounter a product, you experience its form and subconsciously (or explicitly) judge it. Physical beauty arouses lust, and lust sells. That is why companies spend millions on industrial design and advertisement.

Functional beauty is more subtle. You can’t experience the functional beauty (or ugliness) of a product until you use it, and depending on the product, it may take hours or weeks to fully appreciate it. Functional beauty is often overlooked in products and replaced with functionality. Functionality is what a product can do, functional beauty is how well a product can do it.

Functional beauty is often hard to communicate, even more so than functionality. A spec sheet for a product can show what it is capable of, but how can you demonstrate how well a product can perform its capabilities?

It has been done:

Compare this to the Motorola Razr commercial:

and of course they had to list the functionalities in the end if in case you missed it.

The designers of physical beauty are iconic. You’ve probably heard of them: Philippe Starck, Jonathan Ive, Michael Graves, etc. They are often interviewed in mainstream publications and invited to talk at major conferences and share their philosophies.

Who are the designers of functional beauty? They are teams of designers from different disciplines: engineering design, software design, industrial design, interaction design, etc. Together they create complex systems that are functional and useable.

I believe that functional beauty will become relevant, and not just because companies are trying to follow in Apple’s footsteps. While marketing reports probably still indicate that consumers don’t heavily weigh their purchasing decisions on functional beauty (which is substituted by terms like usability or ease of use), the internet has created a platform where everyone can share their experiences, their amateur reviews, or their benchmarks with each other. When enough people complain about the difficulties of using a product or feature, purchasing decisions will change and companies will notice.

Maybe someday we will have groups of designers grace the covers of magazines.

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My apartment is full of character

Character or Flaw

Inspired as always by one of my favorite blogs, Indexed.

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n-type and m-type people

I am a Yelper (and I explain why here) or, I used to be until I moved to Paris where Yelp doesn’t exist.

Coming through profiles on Yelp, I’ve noticed that there are two kinds of raters on Yelp. One are those who rate with a normal bell curve where most restaurants are average and few are spectacular or terrible. I call these people the n-type people, and they are by far the most common on Yelp.
n-type
Then there are those who have two peaks on their rating curve at each extreme. The m-type people, as I’ve come to call them, have strong opinions, believing that most restaurants are either amazing or despicable.
m-type
These two types of people have a fundamentally different way of viewing the world, not just how they rate restaurants. n-type people are level headed. They see something new and aren’t easily amazed. Most things are normal to them and very little bother them or surprise them.

m-type people, on the other hand, have strong opinions and convictions. When they come across something new, they are quick to judge. Their way of seeing the world is much more black and white than shades of grey.

There isn’t one right way of seeing the world, but both types of people need to be aware of each other. I am clearly an n-type person (see my Yelp or IMDb profile) who is slow at judgement and excitement. I work with several m-type people, some of whom have openly admitted being m-type, and they are much faster at building convictions. When each side understands the other’s perspective, the interference is constructive. Else, the situation could turn dire very fast when neither side understands how the other thinks.

So, are you n-type or m-type? And have you had any n-m rifts?

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The Pre-Information Age Consumer

I am an Information Age Consumer. When I make meaningful purchasing decisions (i.e. not groceries), I would look up the product on Amazon to see what people are saying, find the going price on Google Product Search, see if there are any deals or coupons on RetailMeNot, maybe ask for advice on my social network through Twitter and Facebook, etc. I rarely listen to what the company says (besides the basic specifications of the product) or the person trying to sell me the product. My purchasing decisions are based on other customers and people like me rather than the people on the other side of the equation.

My mother is a Pre-Information Age Consumer. Many of her purchasing decisions are made through conversations and suggestions from the sales representative. She goes to the same speciality stores repeatedly to buy things like furniture, electronics, and appliances even though she knows she’s not getting the best price. She has a trust relationship built up with the clerks and/or owners of the store and believes them when they make suggestions for the right product for her.

We are both consumers but of a very very different kind.

The old speciality retails stores do not know how to sell to the Information Age Consumer. The small mom-and-pop stores in Japan are getting wiped out by the big-box retailers and online stores, which owe a great deal of gratitude to the improved and amazing postal system here. They can’t compete when their customers are no longer willing to listen to them and optimize their purchasing decisions.

Kakaku.com is a Japanese price comparison search engine that fueled the price cutting war in Akihabara, Tokyo’s electronics district. The service started rather guerilla-like with agents going to each physical store and uploading the price from their cellphones. Now the stores realize that they can’t be relevant without publishing their prices on the website, so they do it voluntarily even if they are collectively strangling their bottom lines.

I sense that these new stores are not able to sell to the Pre-Information Age Consumer either. How do you build up any kind of customer loyalty when your sales clerks change every six months and all you advertise are low prices?

The world is definitely shifting towards the Information Age Consumer, but there are still people who think and purchase the old way that seem to be forgotten by the new big-box and online retailers. Now that sounds like an opportunity.

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What next?

In remembrance of the once prolific blogger Vonnie: when the heck did it turn 2010?

Having been born in 1982, I am now entering my fourth decade, which is a scary way of looking at it.

My first decade, the 1980s was all about coming to my senses and getting to the starting line. The world was still split in two and people were comfortable in their own bubbles.

My second decade, the 1990s was about getting the basics down: English, people skills, high school, etc. I left Japan and became more and more Americanized. The world changed abruptly and many people were trying to cope with the changing paradigm in a globalized world.

My third decade, the 2000s was about adventure and discovery. Through higher education and globe trotting, I found out that more I know, the more I don’t know. I lost convictions about many of the things I used to believe strongly and became much more nimble with my thoughts and beliefs. The internet came of age and people were trying to understand the effects of the ever shrinking and interconnected world.

So what will the 2010s be about?

For me, I wonder if I could keep living the high ambiguity high mobility lifestyle. This decade could definitely be about getting settled down both personally and professionally. I would like to think that this would be the decade where I not only keep learning but also start contributing back to society and the world. Could I finally make something of myself?

For the world, I hope this is the decade we figure out how to live in this new world where technology has interwoven our social, economic, and political structures. Can we finally agree on our differences?

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