The Car UI

The cars of olden days were all born with manual gear change. The Ambassador as I remember also had a button to the right that dimmed the headlights. The dipper, you know.

The four foot pedals were
Accelerator
Brake
Clutch
Dipper

In that order. Makes it easy to remember no?

I wonder if the current card have any such smarts and simplicity…

Talking / Trusting

Today on a ride back from the beach on the auto I had to stop at an ATM because money was short. I asked the auto guy to find an ATM and he stopped at one enroute.

It was dark when we started so I’m pretty sure neither of us recognized each other enough to spot in the crowd. I got down, walked to the ATM and wondered how I would find him if I did lose him in the crowd. Never mind that for now because it deserves another post (it is an auth and identification problem similar to a browser handshaking a banks’ server).

I walked in the (right) auto and didn’t say a word and got dropped at the hotel. I loved that. Yes, the part where I didn’t have to say a word. You can sure ho ahead with how-unsocial-I-must-be sort of jokes but here is why I liked it: the unspoken trust between two individuals is priceless.

A gazillion wasteful processes exist in our world to compensate for the lack of trust between people. Bus conductors, preventive litigators, currency notes, airplane boarding passes, gates, window grills.
All that is a bloody waste because people can’t trust each other.

We’re born myopic. Let’s fix it.

Evolutionary improvements over the past few eons have taught our brains to detect and identify any immediate changes around us. You might have noticed that at times when you are not even focussing at the corner of your eye, the slightest movement catches your attention. This is remarkable by the way and very specialized processors and sensors (rods in the eye and the hippocampus in the brain to be specific) help you achieve this feat. Think of it like low-power natural language processor built in the new Moto X. Evolved, just to do one thing really good.

Such hyper-efficient systems are myopic. As a result, our brain loses out on noticing long term changes around us. If I were to change the colour of this text one point on the RGB scale at a time chances are you that will not notice it till some time has passed. I am talking about changes that your eye CAN detect, but your brain refuses to acknowledge – like the gradual scaling of paint on a wall over seasons or the tree adding a new branch. Big changes – that we do not ‘see’.

I believe that we should inculcate the same approach in our short lifespans too. This hyperopic approach will force you to compensate priorities for something you did not before. Long term changes are arguably enormously more powerful than short term changes.
Consider the skill of language: Our ability to pass on unique information we learn to our children (this is the basic skill of language that only a few species have). It allows us to teach our children to ward off new dangers and point to new resources. Over time this makes us insanely more powerful than any other species.Consider however the time it would have taken to evolve speech, hearing and language from the point where we didn’t have it. I don’t know the exact years, but safe to assume it was more than 100,000 years. While that looks like an awfully long time to one generation, it is a blip for the entire species in its’ evolutionary story. That ‘blip’ however completely differentiated these ‘speaking’ species from others to a point where you simply don’t look back ever !

As a case in point, here are two ways you could think of this in your work life.

Your active, contributing working life is somewhere between 40 to 60 years in which many of us end up in a learn-everything-by-going-to-college-then-work-all-your-life approach. Don’t you think punctuations for picking up additional skills is a much better thing to do ? Or perhaps a six month period every 5 years where you only improve on a specific area of yours that you wish to make better on ?

Or think about your goals at a 40 year scale; I think that having a personal brand that clearly stands for what you imbibe is so much more important than the immediate promotion or a salary hike that you’d been vying for and perhaps even losing sleep over. Trust, I have always believed is much harder to earn than money and takes a much longer investment to achieve. It is much harder work than say, closing a sale or writing a program to solve 2048.

And the above examples are just the onset of a way of thinking – What’s stopping you from thinking about other aspects of your life in this way ? Perhaps all your key decisions like the choice of the city you grow up in, the spouse you chose, the books you read would be influenced by this thought process.

I look forward to hear how you think the world would operate differently if everybody became hyperopic :)

How old are you ?

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I just learnt that Shaheed Bhagat Singh, who hanged for fighting for Indian independence on March 23rd, 1931 was all but 23 years old at that time. Twenty three and a half. Think about it. That’s younger than young. And he had a mission in his mind so clear that he was happy to sacrifice his life for it too.

What purpose he had in his life! One that lived way beyond his life even! What an amazing soul!

Parking at the airport

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At the Delhi airport parking you pick up a ticket on your way in from an automatic dispenser, pay and then insert into an automatic reader on the way out within 15 minutes of the payment. Parking charges are in three buckets: 0-30 minutes, 30 minutes to 2 hours and then full day charge. All parts except the ‘pay’ one are automated. They perhaps avoided automating it for the cost of interchange. Also I don’t like it because it creates a wait for a bit too long and would only get worse when lots of people get out together from arrivals (3 am on any given day is perhaps the busiest at DEL).

Anyway, I am writing today about something else. The ’15 minute’ part. Once paid, a new ticket is printed and provisioned to work for the next 15 minutes – which leaves enough time for people to find their cars and leave.

I think however that this (15 minute constraint) is unnecessary and easily avoidable at no extra cost. My impulse to think about this came from the long wait I have to do when I have some luggage with me and want to quickly head back to my car and to my way home ASAP. If only they allowed people to pre-pay their parking fee, it would be so much better. The benefit of removing the 15 minute constraint would be that the queue on the human-powered pay counter would drastically reduce because people can pay any time between entry and exit.

Here is how:
The printed ticket is a bar coded paper card that is machine readable and carries 20 digits. Right now it carries a unique number that is allowed to open the gates for the next 15 minutes after which it expires. These systems are pretty similar to prepaid calling cards and recharge cards that telecom operators have used since eons. They are primarily designed to avoid fraud so nobody can print them at home.

Instead, these twenty digits could be split into two: one part the expiry date+time and the second part a unique number that ensures it is protected from fraud. This combination of expiry time and the unique number could further be encrypted so it isn’t easy for anybody to predictably print new ones.

Do you reduce the security by now using lesser number of digits than before for the unique number ? Yes 12 digit uniques are less secure than 20 digit ones but by a practically irrelevant amount. Moreover the combination of these two parts can also be jumbled together to raise security even further.

Now the automated reader at the exit would know to look for a valid expiry time along with a check to make sure it is not a fraudulent ticket.

The change required is purely in software which is the kind of change I always consider equal to buying real estate. Done right, it is one-time investment that never stops giving returns.

The benefit would be a lesser queue and possibly lesser people required at the pay counter. Happy passengers, happy car-parkers, happy pay counter staff. It is truly a situation where the total amount of happiness in this universe will increase.

Referral programs

They’re a magic pill. But they don’t apply to all situations.

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Your product is likely to fall into one of the lines on the graph above. If you’re on the blue line the benefit to an individual user of your product increases if more users use your product.

Referral programs don’t work very well with products on the red line.  For the blue line kind of products it is very hard to achieve 1 user bringing in 2 users and those 2 new guys bringing in their own 2 new guys and so on. Many companies resort to offering freebies or plain money to users to fundamentally do marketing for their company. While it is certainly not a bad idea it will not get you a hockey stick.

I often use Dropbox as an example when I speak about referral programs. Dropbox is more useful to me when I use it across multiple devices of mine. I also could find more utility if my co-workers and friends use it. Dropbox decided to structure their referral program promoting the latter use case – this is a crucial difference that must be understood.

Consider PayPal, another favourite of mine. They had two things to offer: a buyer paying the seller, and users sending money to their friends. Through all the $10 referral rewards they gave out to their users for getting their friends onboard, my guess is that they’d have done better if they have that $10 instead to add on top of money they decided to transfer to their friends. So imagine this: if you gave your friend $25 for a lunch through PayPal your friend would’ve gotten $30 and you get $5.

Mind you, hindsight is always 20/20 and do keep in mind that their belief at that time was that P2P money transfer wasn’t really that much of a business as getting merchants on eBay accept PayPal.

So while referrals are great in folklore, the magic only applies to 1% of the 1%  If you’re not in that category, don’t despair because when people like a product they naturally share it socially. All you need to do is to make it easy for them. See how these guys do it.

If you’re there you’ll find that your referral program design will end up having to monetarily incentivize the users on getting other users as opposed to users finding the intrinsic value of the product increase for them.If you’re on the red line the benefit to one user doesn’t increase when other users also use the product.

Honesty, or marketing ?

I mentioned something about honesty in a previous post. Reading it again I felt I should explain it a bit.

Nothing better than a real world example to explain a view.

I recently stayed at a holiday resort at Merchala a place about 15 km north of Jim Corbett national park. It is a quiet place in a valley with a stream flowing next to it. More importantly it is marketed to people from the big city (Delhi) as a place to go to wind down and be close to nature. I am tempted to write more about the place but perhaps later.

In their rooms I found some directions regarding re-using towels – they encourage you to not send them out for washing as frequently like many other hotels do in order to ‘save precious water’.

Honest you think ?

Absolutely not, I say.

I call it so because ‘saving precious water’ is not even close to their top 10 items to focus on. For instance they happen to keep a 2000 square meter garden immaculately green with grass that doesn’t even belong to that place and also maintain a swimming pool. They have a central heating system (electric) for cottages spread across 2000 sq m so imagine the wastefulness in sending heating water all around ! And towels shouldn’t be cleaned every so often to save water Really?

So why does water wastage for towel washing come up as item 2 on their messaging to their customers ? It’s because this is a message they want to give to their customers that resonates and brings a positive response.

It has no connection to what they actually are. And hence is not honest.

Many a time marketing does not soulfully say what product is. Don’t get me wrong – It isn’t supposed to be a description of the product. The very purpose of marketing is to create demand. This is done by fundamentally asking the question: what does the consumer want to hear, not a description of my product features.

Rarely though, these two things are the same and it is then honest. I am a bit biased for this kind of honesty and I guess that is evident already ;)

Freemium products are by definition honest.

Free is good. Free is honest.

You build something (product) and then tell everyone about it (marketing) and usually the latter is what takes a larger amount of energy. It is arguably the hardest thing in the world to tell somebody else what to do and it is only more difficult for a startup when it is something new that they have to offer.

Typical consumable goods companies spend an enormous amount of money in informing the masses about what they produce and why it is the best option. And there is good reason to believe that their mass communication methods are highly inefficient. On the other hand some companies allow (their potential paying customers) to use their product for some time for free. Instead of viewing this as the opposite of revenue (not charging for what you intend to), this expenditure should be viewed as a replacement to the advertisements or ‘gentle yet expensive nudges’ that has traditionally been spent in marketing all products. 

Like marketing expect this to be a long term investment and don’t get disheartened if you don’t see any revenue coming in soon after you announce your product. Unlike traditional marketing though, it will be far more ‘honest’ !

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A better infrastructure ?

I found something weird during a visit through the road toll collection booth at Moradabad when I passed through it last week.  The image below shows two circles that are two consecutive toll collection points that charge the exact amount (Rs. 15/-). I passed through both and was subjected to two queues, a kilometer apart. 20140317-170850.jpg

I couldn’t help but wonder and the most likely explanation in my mind was that highway toll collection was assigned to two different companies who managed different parts of the highway and since there was no simple way to allocate funds collected in one place (trust issues), it was probably their solution to setup two points for collection.

I was wrong though since on asking I found out that a number of vehicles go to  alternate destinations south on the two roads marked there. Those vehicles who go through the entire toll road pass through two toll collection points and thereby paying the full toll (Rs. 30/-).

This method leaves a majority of people have to wait at two queues wasting double the time required in toll collection. I hated it instantly and also set out to think of how it could be done better in the first place.

I thought I had a very decent solution but I now know it is wrong and I understand the reason for the current solution to exist. It is not optimal and is doubly bad for the majority, but man honestly I don’t have a better solution. (Note: I have made some assumptions listed at the bottom of this post – those are valid for the context here so do read them).

So at this stage I invite you to give a better solution if you have any.

My original (but now rejected) solution is below: Red ones ask for Rs. 15/-, Blue ones ask for Rs. 30/-

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Assumptions:

-  automatic toll deduction through a transponder won’t work because you need compliance from a large set of cars that are from another state. 

- license plate recognition won’t work. You’d have towait for maybe another ten years till every car here has a machine readable number plate (States like Delhi have already started making them mandatory)

- A system where vehicles punch out an ‘entry’ ticket and that is used to calculate and charge toll at the exit points won’t work either. There will be an arbitration opportunity most likely exploited by some enterprising businessman who will sell lower toll fees entry cards to the incoming vehicles. Governance: Let’s not even think of solving that in this frame. 

my personal blog, serves me for cathartic purposes and might help make your day a bit more surreal