All posts by ontokyotime

Traffic-based driving directions – Microsoft’s clearflow

Mashable reports that Microsoft is introducing a new technology called ‘clearflow’ that calculates driving directions based on current traffic conditions. I will have to try it during rush hour.

They’re using GPS devices to enhance their data sources:

“collecting trip data from…employees who volunteered to carry G.P.S. units in their cars.”

I suggested using mobile phones not too long ago. More sensors equals more accurate data.

How you get ripped off when buying concert tickets

I’ve been buying a bunch of concert tickets recently. I typically buy two and then figure out who I want to bring.

The math used by the online ticket sellers is stunning. Here is an example of ticketmaster:
2 x $32.50 for the tickets
2 x $9.45 convenience charge
1 x $5.15 order processing charge

Total: $89.05

That’s a 37% premium over the ticket price! The total would have been even higher if I chose to get the tickets delivered rather than will call.

Sure, they’re running a business and have to make a profit on every transaction. That’s what the order processing charge is for. But what is the convenience charge and why is it per ticket? Isn’t an online transaction more cost effective for them? If I called in my order they would have to pay an operator. In some cases I even print the tickets myself. Shouldn’t ticketmaster pay me for doing some of their work?

I got so annoyed that I went over to StubHub and see what they have (after checking Craigslist too). There my experience ended at the sign-up flow where my email address with a 2-letter country code didn’t validate. Too bad.

I then went on to ticket liquidator which I hadn’t heard of before.

I found better tickets for the same show for $44 instead of $32.50. Add to this a $16.28 service fee and $15 for shipping (cheapest option) and you end up with a total of $119.28. Again, I feel like I’m getting ripped off with a 35% premium. The show better be good!

Facebook in Spanish/German/French – now what?

Facebook has launched various community-based translations of their site. I’m currently seeing French, German and Spanish next to English (US) in a drop-down menu. The Spanish version launch received a lot of blog coverage but I almost missed the German and French launch. They’re also working on a traditional Chinese version (and more).

Community-based translation

The idea of community-based translations is not new but Facebook is trying to optimize the result with two twists:

  • A Translation Application allows for easy and contextual translation instead of an external strings file
  • A rating system bubbles up the “best” translations through community-based voting

I haven’t had the time to look at the quality in detail yet but started using Facebook in German today. I will switch to French in a few days.

I’ve tried to add the Translation Application a while ago without success. I just managed to add it now though.

Promoting the new language versions

One of the key questions when launching a new interface language is how to migrate users to it. Typically the user is given a choice via a preference. Facebook went one step further and force-redirected IPs from Spanish speaking countries to the Spanish version. I expected some backlash from users as changing the user experience without their consent is typically a recipe for trouble. I haven’t seen anything so far though.

One thing that doesn’t seem to work quite right: I tried setting my language to German in the logged out state. After logging in the interface language switches back to English. I have to change it again in my account settings.

Impact on local competition

I do expect to see higher Facebook adoption in non-English speaking countries as the interface language is an important factor in the user experience. Network effects, i.e. if your friends are already part of it, are more important than interface language for social network adoption though.

The Spanish launch is targeting the Latin America market where Hi5 is strong. Germany has a Facebook clone called StudiVZ that will now get stiffer competition. Asia has very strong local competitors and entering those markets will be very tricky.

And who will translate the Facebook applications?

Applications are trickier to translate as they’re built by third parties. This leads to a weird mix of languages on profile pages. The larger application companies could collaborate with Facebook and expose their strings for translation too. Smaller applications are probably out of luck for the foreseeable future.

Happy Birthday Gmail

April 1st marked the 4 year anniversary of the launch of Gmail. This was a life changing event for me as it is the main reason I’m with Yahoo! and still in the US.

The launch on April Fool’s Day was genius. It generated a ton of buzz especially after it became clear that the product actually exists. Back then Google was all about search which made an email product launch very unlikely. Some people were confused or didn’t believe the story for weeks.

I have a Gmail account but don’t really use it. I don’t think I have logged in for the last 4 weeks (I’m going to now though). I work for Yahoo! Mail and know that product inside-out, every key-shortcut, search modifier and also some hidden features . And I truly prefer it to Gmail from a user experience point-of-view.

Thanks Google for mixing up the email space!

The importance of the fitting room

I went clothes shopping today for the first time in several months. Such a long break is unusual as I like to shop but much appreciated by my bank account. Total damage: $303 for 2 button down shirts, 2 polos, a sweat-shirt, a long sleeve shirt and a pair of shoes. I gave my money to Guess, FCUK, Zara, Banana Republic and Skechers (via DSW). I’m a total sucker for Guess and FCUK but it’s the first time I found something at Zara.

I realized how important the fitting rooms are as that’s where the buying decision is ultimately made. And some stores can definitely improve on that front.

Top lights are bad

The direct light from ceiling mounted spot lights is terrible. It overemphasizes the structure of the fabric and creates drop shadows for every fold. Also it gives the face a spooky look. Indirect light from behind the mirror is much better.

Mirrors – size and position

The mirror has to be big enough so that I can easily see my entire body. I like it when there is an angled mirror behind me so that I can get a 360 view.

A the DSW shoe store they had these small angled mirrors mounted to the seats. You can see the shoe and your leg up to your knee. It allows you to see if the shoe matches your pants. But it doesn’t allow you to see if the shoe matches your style. I couldn’t find any full size mirrors anywhere. I ended up not buying a pair even though I liked how it matched the pants. I was convinced it doesn’t match my personality.

Customer vs. guest vs. client

At the checkout at DSW the employees called for the next ‘guest’ rather than ‘customer’. This must be a policy as they consistently did so. Now I understand that some companies don’t want to call their customers, well, customers as the term implies:

  • buyer of product
  • source of money

But being called a ‘guest’ felt wrong. Especially at the checkout where I turn into a customer as I’m handing them my money. I can’t be fooled into thinking that it’s a privilege to be at the store or that they just want me to be there without buying anything. It makes more sense for a hotel or restaurant as they’re hosting you for an extended period of time. Please don’t call me a guest at a shoe store.

In-N-Out also has some special name for their customer. I can’t remember it right now though.

Know your audience – and spell check your creative!

I recently received a newsletter from AT&T thanking me for choosing AT&T and stressing how lucky they are to have me as a customer. This was immediately followed by an invitation to visit a store! No special offer, reward or anything. But that’s not the point here.

The headline reads “lucky. glücklich. chanceaux.”.

Congratulations on being international! The French translation is obviously wrong and should be “chanceux” unfortunately. I’m the first one to admit that foreign languages are tricky but screwing up a one word translation takes some skills.

Why German and French? What about Spanish and Chinese?

What I don’t get is why they picked German and French. This would make perfect sense in Switzerland but not in the US. Spanish and Chinese would have been more powerful in addressing important local populations. Note: The newsletter closes in Spanish with “Muy afortunado!”.

Further reading: I wrote about another AT&T marketing blunder not too long ago.

Get to work faster with more accurate traffic reports

I spend more than 2 hours a day commuting to work. Accurate traffic conditions and avoiding the worst delays and accidents are key. I’m using 511.org and Yahoo! and Google Maps to get up to date information on traffic. Note: Why don’t the maps services offer an easy way to look at your commute every day?

I’m convinced that we can improve on the quality of the traffic reports. And I found the ideal data source: The mobile phone providers!

More sensors = better data

Think of a mobile phone as a sensor. Thousands of cars are using a given section of the freeway at the same time. The mobile phones in the cars can be tracked by the carriers. Plotting the movements on a map will result in the most accurate and up-to-date traffic conditions. We could have the average speed for any given quarter mile in real time!

Red/yellow/green – what’s the trend though?

Most traffic services currently use green/yellow/red to indicate the speed of the traffic. This is insufficient. Will yellow turn into red or green? The time dimension is lacking here. A simple arrow indicating the trend for the last 10 minutes would help. E.g. It’s yellow right now and has been getting slower in the last 10 minutes.

Speed graphs including historical information

This could be further enhanced by adding a graph for the speed where the x-axis represents the last 30-60 minutes or so. This could even be a 3D graph adding the data for the last 7 days.

Privacy

The privacy of the mobile users has to be protected obviously. No tracking of individuals is allowed. Only the aggregate information is to be used.

MSFT/YHOO – How much is in it for me?

There are rumors that Microsoft will increase the bid for Yahoo! from $31 to $34. Which prompted me to calculate how much money I could make from this transaction based on the stock options that I own. Let’s assume for the sake of this example that the transaction closes by end of October 2008. There are 2 different scenarios:

  • No accelerated vesting of options
    All vested options are under water at $31 and $34. So no difference.
  • Accelerated vesting of options (100% when the deal closes)
    Some unvested options are actually in the money. The potential gain is almost 50% higher at $34 than at $31 and makes it into the low 5 figures.

The second scenario is dependent on the double trigger outlined in the change in control severance plan. It’s formulated loosely enough that I’m not holding my breath.

Note: ESPP, stock and RSU have been excluded from this calculation.

Increasing relevance by adding social networking features

Not every company that’s adding social networking features to its product is trying to become a social network. In fact there is an important difference that doesn’t seem to be well understood.

The goal of enhancing a product with social features is to increase engagement and relevance of the experience. The core feature set is still front and center. Let’s illustrate with an example, say a news site:

Features that enhance the core experience:

  • Seeing what your connections are reading
  • Commenting on articles within your connections
  • Sharing articles with connections

Features that distract from the core experience:

  • 3rd party vitality (e.g. Flickr photo updates, Yelp reviews, …)
  • Profile page
  • Managing connections

And that’s exactly where having a portable social graph becomes key. We will have one main social network where we’re managing connections, checking friends vitality, uploading pictures etc. This will be whatever comes after Facebook. All other products use that social graph to enhance the product experience.

A gaming site that knows your connections/social graph can show you how you score compared to your friends and let you challenge them instead of playing strangers. All this without you having to re-enter all you connections.

4 years in the States – Dollar down 22%

I moved to San Francisco exactly 4 years ago. While I haven’t regretted it (and I should write more about the highlights in another post), it was a really bad financial investment.

The Dollar declined from about CHF 1.27 to CHF 0.99 in the last 4 years. That’s a 22% decline!

Let’s assume I converted CHF 10,000 to Dollars when I moved to the States. If I converted them back today I would only get CHF 7,787.

Similarly my salary is worth less in Swiss currency. In fact the Dollar decline has probably offset any raises I have received when measured in Swiss currency.

YHOO has done significantly better. The stock is up from around $23 on March 17, 2004 to $26.5 on March 17, 2008. This 15% increase does not offset the Dollar decline though. Plus I joined Yahoo! in July 2004 when the stock was at $30 which is about 10% higher than its current price.

Note: There is no correlation between my arrival in the States and the Dollar decline as far as I know.

The ROI of being part of a social network

I’m already tired of hearing about social network fatigue. The problem is not the ever increasing number of social networks though. As long as the ROI is right users will continue to join new ones as well as keep using the existing ones.

The cost of being part of a social network consists of:

  • Fixed cost: Signing up for an account + creating inital profile
  • Recurring cost: Connecting to friends + updating the profile

The value provided by the social network varies from network to network:

  • Keeping in touch with friends – Facebook
  • Job offers, Sales leads, Professional Networking – LinkedIn
  • Recognition, status, new friends – Yelp

These are the key drivers for joining a social network together with peer pressure and the fear of missing out. But the ROI is the determining factor for long term adoption.

What stands out is that the return isn’t always immediate. In LinkedIn’s case the return isn’t even certain. It’s more an expectation (or hope) to benefit later – potentially months or years later. In my case I haven’t gotten a job out of LinkedIn and I’m still actively using it. For Facebook, the ROI (friends vitality) is more immediate. Once you connect you can immediately see their latest updates, pictures etc.

Before you launch another social network determine its ROI. This includes determining the cost to a user of being part of the network as well as defining what the generated value is.

Bebo to be acquired by AOL

AOL just announced plans to acquire Bebo for $850 million (all cash). Congratulations to Michael and the other guys at Bebo!

I was always very impressed with their ability to execute at an amazing pace. Their Engineering team was churning out feature after feature including compatibility with F8 while the business side was focused on making money through innovative advertisement products.

Good luck as part of AOL. I hope they’re not going to slow you down!

The Real Yellow Pages, Really?

I just heard the AT&T ‘real yellow pages‘ commercial on the radio which reminded me that I wanted to write about the corresponding billboard campaign a while ago. Who came up with the idea that anyone cares about the ‘real’ yellow pages? I’ll give up ‘real’ for ‘relevant’, ‘accurate’, ‘up-to-date’ or ‘easy to use’ anytime. Consumers don’t care about real in commodity products.

Why does AT&T still care about their printed yellow pages? Are the listing fees/ads generating a significant amount of revenue? According to AT&T their pages are referenced 4 billion times annually. I wonder what the corresponding CPM is. And do businesses compare this to running their own search result ads?

In fact, who is still using yellow pages? With the Internet at your finger tips with more complete and current information it’s hard to imagine still sifting through a paper copy. Granted there is an online version at yellowpages.com but I prefer yelp.com or local.yahoo.com that include consumer feedback, links to the official web site and a map.

The ad campaign should have been built around ‘complete’, ‘comprehensive’ or ‘most referenced’. Make the consumer feel like she’s missing something by ignoring these yellow pages. Reserve ‘real’ and ‘original’ for fashion and luxury items.