Why Uber & Lyft leaving Austin is just a real-world A/B test

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Uber and Lyft’s temporary departure from Austin earlier this year was quite simply a real-world A/B test. Never mind Prop 1, driver fingerprinting and passenger safety. If Uber and Lyft were serious about these issues, they would have complied, rather than left the city.
By temporarily leaving a large and growing tech metropolis without the dominant ride sharing duopoly, they’ve been able to test the speed to market and ability of competitive ride share services to mobilize and thrive, including traditional taxis.
And mobilize they did. Fasten, Getme, zTrip, Fare and Wingz, to name a few, were quick off the mark to launch or beef up their apps and offer discount codes to drive customer acquisition. The quality and reliability of these services and apps initially varied greatly (spurious arrival forecasts, crashing apps, stationary car avatars). After a few months of updates, plus customer & driver acquisition, the platforms have rapidly evolved closer to the true Uber experience (reliable app, fast customer service).

Driver and rider feedback

Monday morning May 8th, 10,000 drivers awoke to learn Uber and Lyft delivered on their threat of leaving Austin after losing the vote on Prop 1. Slowly riders and drivers adopted the new platforms. My anecdotal feedback from talking to about 30 ex-Uber/Lyft drivers in Austin has been very mixed. Some said they would instantly go back to Uber (great incentives and bonuses). Others claimed they would never deal with the companies again after the recent debacle. That being said, selecting which service one drives for in an a la cart fashion is now common (much like what riders do). Drivers can have all the ride share apps open and exercise the option to pick whichever service delivers the next best fare.

Real World A/B testing

Real world A/B testing is more difficult to implement and measure accurately than online. Conversely, A/B testing online is so damn easy and cheap to implement with free tools such as Google Analytics, Optimizely and Unbounce.

Direct mail has utilized A/B testing for many years. David Ogilvy’s Confessions Of An Advertising Man from 1964 talks about A/B testing his DM campaigns. FMCG companies commonly test products at city and country levels. Supermarkets (who enjoy a wealth of data) do it at a store level. It can be harder to do with physical products depending on your business’s resources and reach. A simpler broad preference test can work such as “Daily Special” and “Limited Edition” product runs like chip flavors and special edition burgers.

Re-enter Uber and Lyft

So what has Uber and Lyft learned from this A/B test? They’ve seen that similar apps/companies can quickly sprout up and deliver a comparable service. They’ve seen DUIs arrests increase. However, they have not seen the taxi industry spring back into life at such a golden opportunity created by the vacuum.

Uber and Lyft will inevitably re-enter the Austin market soon. The subsequent test will be if these ride share platforms will survive. Although clunky at first, I’ve had great service riding both Fasten and Getme. However, I will certainly jump back on the Uber and Lyft bandwagon when they return. It seems we are all suckers for big brands and their supposed reliability.

Shout outs (tl;dr)

  • Real world AB testing is more difficult to accurately implement and measure than online.
  • If you’re not A/B testing your campaigns and product mixes, you need to be.
  • There are many cost-effective tools available, without having to invest in a full marketing automation platform.

Lean Product Design & Music Tech Manufacturers

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Ever wondered why your hot new controller or synth gets quickly superseded by a new version seemingly only months after purchase? Wondering why Arturia didn’t just make the Beatstep Pro in the first place? Can’t keep up with Native Instruments ever growing army of Traktor controllers?

Lean Product Design

We’re seeing a trend of music technology manufacturers using Lean methodologies to test their products on real users. The Lean model is not new and has been used for many years by software companies, especially in Silicon Valley. In 2011, Eric Ries published a book called The Lean Startup detailing the methods used by startups to “shorten their product development cycles by adopting a combination of business-hypothesis-driven experimentation, iterative product releases, and what he calls validated learning.”

Two central concepts of Lean are:

  • The Minimum Viable Product (MVP)
  • The “Build > Measure > Learn” workflow

An MVP is about shipping to the market a functional but stripped back version of your ultimate product.  This enables a company to start getting immediate feedback on what users like and/or hate in that product.

The “Build > Measure > Learn” workflow is an iterative business process loop of adding product features, testing their real-world response, and ultimately incorporating them into subsequent versions of the end product if well received.

Lean methodologies (also known as Agile) are common in startups and software companies, however, we’ve seen a recent surge of established music technology  hardware manufacturers incorporating this workflow into their product development. Rather than spend years developing a super-product, smaller components are being released as standalone products. If sales and sentiment for the stripped back item are positive, the product re-enters a development phase and new features are added.

Let’s look at two successful product line examples; Korg’s Volca series and Novation’s Launchpad series.

Korg Volca Series

In 2010, Korg released the rather toy-like Monotron. Boasting a “real filter from the MS-20” and ribbon keyboard controller evoking memories of the Stylophone from the 1960s, the Monotron was priced to be the perfect stocking stuffer for your DJ friend. Although of limited usefulness except for screaming sirens and dive-bombs, the “all analogue” pocket rocket was a huge success for Korg. Surprisingly they released two new versions of the Monotron the following year with the Monotron Duo (2 oscillators) and Monotron Delay.

Around the same time came the mashup groovebox, the Monotribe, with a 3 voice 8 step drum machine and single VCO with LFO, VCF and a choice of multiple waveform and envelopes.  It inherited the Monotron’s ribbon controller much to many people’s dismay. Note the inclusion of Sync in/out and “Tribe” naming convention as nods to Korg’s past and future intentions.

Enter the Volca range in 2013 (Beats, Bass and Keys), heavily shaped by lessons learned from their predecessors. This time around, Korg really nailed the ribbon controller and fun factor on the Volca range.

Don't Buy The Noise - Lean Product Design - Korg Volca Timeline

At this point we can summarize what Korg validated, with real products, purchased by real, paying customers.

  • Low price point. The Monotron and Volca ranges opened up analogue synths and drum machines to a new generation.
  • Analogue. The sound and nostalgia around all analogue circuitry certainly resonated with the market.
  • Sync. Instead of implementing full MIDI I/O, the simplified sync I/O on the range made it dead easy to hook Volcas together or with a friends’ unit.
  • Size. Portability and battery power proved a winner for both playing on the bus and gigging.
  • Enjoyment factor. Jamming with friends, posting videos on YouTube, all pointed to the range oozing fun.

In 2014, we had the addition of the gritty and digital Volca Sample. This year the Volca FM was released to a hungry audience, ready to expand their personal Volca collection.

Novation Launchpad Series

Novation Launch Pad Series

Another great example of Lean product design is the Novation Launchpad and Launchkey ranges, leading into the recent release of the Circuit groovebox.

In 2009, the original Launchpad “launched”. A smaller and more affordable and portable version of Akai’s APC40 Ableton Live controller, the unit sold very well as both a studio and live controller.

With a hit on their hands, Novation experimented with keyboard versions (Launchkey range), mini versions (Launchpad Mini, Launch Control) and incremental updates with the Launchpad S (2013) and Launchpad RGB (2015). Last year, we also had the well crafted Launchpad Pro which expands horizons with open source firmware and full MIDI, therefore no longer exclusively tied to Ableton Live.

Lean Product Design - Novation Circuit Launchpad Pro

Late 2015, enter the Novation Circuit. A standalone groove box with 2 synths and 4 part drum machine, the Circuit borrows heavily from the Launchpad Pro hardware and workflow. A product MVP in its own right, Novation have continued to build on the initially minimal OS of the Circuit with multiple firmware updates, software editor, cloud backup and the ability to load custom samples.

You can find other Lean product design examples from music tech companies Native Instruments, Pioneer, Roland, Akai and Teenage Engineering to name a few.

Are you buying a test product?

So, how do you avoid buying a soon to be superseded MVP from your favorite hardware maker?

1. Wait.

Wait a year or two before buying a brand new product line. You can guess for many companies the timing of their product release cycles. You’re probably making music today without that hot new synth or controller, so ease into it.

2. Or… don’t wait!

If you simply must be on the bleeding edge, then buy that latest controller the day it is released. However if they iterate versions, quickly sell your current version and buy the new one. You need to sell quickly before the second-hand market turns. One look on eBay and you’ll see the price of version one Beatsteps and Launchpads have dropped considerably.

3. Buy mature products today.

Buy mature and tested products now. If there are a number of product iterations already in existence, go for it. Arturia’s Beatstep Pro, Novation’s Launchpad Pro, and Korg’s Volca range are well-tested product lines ripe for purchase.

Further Reading

The Democratisation Of Synthesis: Korg designers on the making of the Minilogue

The Lean Startup – Eric Ries

Book Review: Small Data – Martin Lindstrom

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I’d love to buy Martin Lindstrom a beer. Actually, I’d shout him quite a few beers, just so I could listen to the countless branding stories from his travels to every corner of the globe. And much like his previous books Buyology and Brandwashed, Small Data could be considered an endless pub conversation of Lindstrom’s resume of solving critical sales and customer problems for the world’s biggest brands. From Pepsi, McDonalds, Lego and Disney, through to lesser-known (at least to me) international brands such as Tally WEiJL (Swiss teen fashion retailer), Devassa (Brazillian beer), and Lifebuoy (Indian soap).

Lindstrom’s storytelling style is cascadingly structured (big story > sub-story > sub-sub story > back to the big story), repetitive and can at times read like a 250 page CV (“When I worked with Coke last week…”). However, his discoveries and insights are candid, bold and up to the minute.

Two of Lindstrom’s insights that resonated with me were:

  • The Western goal of happiness as a modern concept.“It was only in the mid-nineteenth century that the pursuit of happiness gradually evolved into a legitimate goal, and unhappiness became a blight to be avoided.

    “Happiness has evolved today into a singularly Western, and especially American, phenomenon-even a mandate.

    “Ironically, our insistence on being happy all the time almost guarantees unhappiness, if only by creating the fear that you’re not measuring up to other people’s levels of contentment, wealth or well-being.”

  • Permission zones.“This is a term I use to refer to a moment, or an environment, that allows consumers to “enter” an alternate emotional state. A Permission Zone can be literal, like a zoo, a ferry ride or a movie theater, or even a fast-food restaurant.

    “A permission Zone can be linguistic, too. If you’ve ever sat in a meeting, or had a conversation with someone you don’t know well, you probably remember the first time one of you swears. Without even realizing it, you’ve just granted the other people in the room permission to use profanity. You can almost feel the unbuckling of formality in the room, and from that point on, everyone at the table will begin swearing.”

Initially, I struggled to feel Lindstrom delivered on the catchy title’s premise as an antidote to the current trend of Big Data. It does all tie together in the final chapter as Lindstrom guides you through his small data 7Cs process of Collection, Clues, Connecting, Causation, Correlation, Compensation, and Concept.

If you are into branding, product marketing, work for an agency, or just love marketing stories, definitely read Small Data or any of Lindstrom’s other works. They’re a good yarn, and will provide you with some great pub anecdotes of your very own, such as “Did you know MacDonalds is the world’s largest manufacturer of toys?”, or “Did you know all food tastes bad at 30,000 ft, and it’s not just airline food? (Why in-flight food tastes weird)”.

Shout outs (tl;dr)

  • Martin Lindstrom is a brand genius from Denmark.
  • If you are into branding, marketing or user-focused product design, read his books.
  • Small Data is about sleuthing for small clues in a user’s everyday lives that lead to insights into their buying behavior. Important clues that are outside the traditional spectrum of big data collection.

Further reading – Martin Lindstrom

  • Small Data – The Tiny Clues That Uncover Huge Trends
  • Buyology – Truth and Lies About Why We Buy
  • Brandwashed– Tricks Companies Use to Manipulate Our Minds and Persuade Us to Buy

Disclaimer: I have zero affiliation with this book, the author or the publisher.

Service Design Hackathon

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A few weeks back I got involved in the Global Service Jam in Los Angeles. Held simultaneously in 113 locations across the globe, the event is a 48-hour hackathon for Service Design. You may ask, what is Service Design?

Service Design is “the activity of planning and organizing people, infrastructure, communication and material components of a service in order to improve its quality and the interaction between service provider and customers.” – Wikipedia.

Basically, it’s all about making services and processes better. This can be for an existing service (e.g. applying for a social security number, catching a taxi, ordering a hamburger), or creating a new service altogether (e.g. a faster and cheaper way to travel from Los Angeles to San Francisco, how to recycle 80% of all household rubbish and so on). Uber is a great example of redefining the “catching a cab” experience. Throughout the Service Design methodology, you are analyzing and mapping the journey of people and processes.

Our team chose the topic “Find ways for tenants in Los Angeles to conserve water with minimal cost and effort”. Other topics from the LA Jam included:  “Improve the User Experience of the embarkation and debarkation for passengers of trains” and “How might we instill empathy in children?”

Over the next 48-hours we hypothesized on water conservation and tested our ideas by interviewing people on the street. Although it was somewhat confronting asking complete strangers for their opinions, it resulted in a perfect feedback loop that enhanced our learning and end prototype.

Don't Buy The Noise - Service Design Hackathon 03

Our team deep in ideation.

Get loose

What I found rather annoying for the first half of the weekend was the looseness of the Global Service Jam. There were no group leaders assigned, no order or processes spelled out, and no instructions of “do this next”. Inadvertently these things did happen, but in a back to front order. Each person in our team took turns in leading, we made our own processes and worked out what to do next.

Similarly, a looseness as to what we could dream up in the “ideation” phase was important to explore. In business scenarios my thinking is typically commercially constrained by budget, timelines, resources and the client. We learned to take a step back and initially throw those constraints out the window. Uncomfortable initially, however I soon got in the groove.

The result was a number of ridiculous ideas that were not instantly dismissed, but work-shopped and taken further. This teasing-out of an idea meant we may discard the overall concept, however some interesting components could be used in a real work situation. I learned to embrace some ridiculous ideas in the safety of the ideation process.

Don't Buy The Noise - Service Design Hackathon 02

Our water saving lo-fi paper prototype.

Get Involved

I highly recommend for anyone who works with a team to create or enhance products or services (which is most people in business!) to get involved at the next Global Service Jam or similar Service Design hackathons.

If Service Design is just not your jam, get involved with something that is like a user group related to your work/passion. Many technologies and professions have free user groups that meet on a regular basis in most cities. Often they supply free pizza and beer! Check out EventbriteMeetup and General Assembly in your area.

Further Reading

Global Service Jam website
Service Design Network

Shout outs (tl;dr)

  • Service Design is all about making services and processes better.
  • Get loose with your thinking. What if there were no economic or business constraints?
  • Try not to shoot down ideas no matter how ridiculous.
  • Get involved in other hackathons and meetups.
  • If you’re a manager, encourage your team members to get involved in events.

How to rapidly understand a company’s business model

If you are not already familiar with the Business Model Canvas (BMC), I strongly recommend you print off a few copies of the free PDF and familiarise yourself with how it works. Originally created by Alexander Osterwalder, the BMC is a framework to help quickly distill a business’s value proposition, how it operates and ultimately generate profit. Being able to identify and understand the nine business model components,  you’ll better understand your business and your customers needs.

A perfect starting point is to run your own business (or employer’s business) through the framework. You’ll be asking yourself such questions as, “Who are my key partners? What are my essential resources? Which key resources are most expensive” And so on. This only takes five minutes. A full list of questions is available here.

For further insight, run your clients, partners or competitors through the BMC and see what they look like. You’ll start seeing consistent patterns and gaping holes in how other companies are structured and operate.

Ultimately, you want to develop the ability to visualise the BMC in your head when you meet a new prospect or customer. You’ll be able to ask some great questions about their business, assemble a picture of how they operate, validate the viability of their commercial model and identify cash flow challenges.

There is a number of apps, websites and PDF versions to assist with creating your own BMCs. However, I find the best way is using good old scrap paper or a whiteboard. Post-it notes help too, especially when workshopping it with a team.

The Business Model Canvas is by no means perfect. As George E. P. Box said, “All models are wrong, but some are useful”. Ash Maurya even published his own tweaked version and renamed it the Lean Canvas. Aimed at startups, it emphasises the high risk and actionable components of a fast-growing new business. Ash mixes up the format and adds the following buckets: Problem, Solution, Key Metrics and Unfair Advantage.

You may find the Lean Canvas works better for your own business and the BMC for analysing other companies. Either way, you now have a rapid method to sketch out business plans.

Shout outs (tl;dr)

  • Run your customers, partners and competitors through the Business Model Canvas framework to develop your understanding of how they work.
  • Learn to visualise the Business Model Canvas in your mind. When talking with a customer or prospect, this visualisation will assist your rapid understanding of their key objectives and challenges. 
Business Model Canvas Example

Further Reading:


If you don’t celebrate your wins, no one will

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So you’ve shipped a group project or hit an important milestone on your product. You high-five your team members and celebrate over some drinks on Friday afternoon. What’s next? Onto the next project or five thousand other items you have on your to-do list? You need to celebrate your win some more. That’s right, keep celebrating. I don’t mean to go on an all-weekend bender. I mean, promote the win to everyone in your company.

Firstly, send an all employees email or Yammer/Slack (or equivalent) post. Mention what your team achieved, why this is good for the company and name all those involved.

Next, tell colleagues at lunchtime and coffee breaks of your team’s win.
And again, promote your win at the next company meeting. Stand up (or get a team member to) at the regular company gathering and reiterate the key points from your email/post summary.

Lastly, include your summary in your monthly board report or activity report.

This may seem like overdoing it and shameless self-promotion, however if you don’t promote your wins, no one will notice! As the great David Ogilvy said, “You aren’t advertising to a standing army, you are advertising to a moving parade.”. This is why you simply must repeat your message more than once. There are important reasons behind the internal PR campaign.

You aren’t advertising to a standing army, you are advertising to a moving parade.

Why promote your team wins?

Perception, impact and morale. Most work colleagues believe the many things on their plate are much more important, than keeping abreast of what your team is doing. Therefore, now is the right time to cut through and make some noise about your team. Do you know what everyone else exactly does in their roles? Probably not. And neither do they necessarily know, what you spend all day doing.

Depending on the visibility of some projects, results are not always apparent to upper management. Software development updates often have no outwardly visible impact. And overtly visual marketing campaigns and graphic design changes seem to get all the glory.

Publicly recognising your team is also an essential tool in driving team morale. Note the individual team member’s style, so as not to embarrass. Some team members love the accolade and glory. Others prefer low key and quiet acknowledgement.

Often colleagues/subordinates/managers are not aware of the hard work you are doing. By celebrating your wins, you remind others of the impact you are having to the business, to build morale and make your team and you look good. Of course, one can go over the top here, so use discretion. The last thing you want is for no one to ever know what great things you’ve done for the business.

Shout outs (tl;dr)

  • Everyone in your company is busy. If you don’t shout above the noise and promote your team’s wins, no one will notice your hard work or achievements.
  • Publicly recognising your team is essential to driving team morale and engagement.
  • Create an internal PR campaign by:
    • Summarizing your team’s win and sending an all employees email update
    • Telling colleagues at lunchtime and coffee breaks
    • Promoting your win at the next company meeting

Further Reading:

The New Leader’s 100-Day Action Plan: How to Take Charge, Build Your Team, and Get Immediate Results This great book about onboarding for a new role, has some great info on building teams and celebrating early team wins.

Why everyone’s copying your campaign

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Have you ever spent time developing and launching a new visual campaign, only to discover another company using a very similar theme or style? Have they copied you? Have you inadvertently copied them? Is there some kind of collective consciousness going on?

What’s at play here is the “Availability Heuristic”. When you have recently been exposed or primed to a series of images, shapes, words or colors, they anchor in your brain. Suddenly after go-live of your new campaign, you start noticing companies using similar logos to yours, advertisements with the same typeface or other instances of this phenomena.

Before I learned about the availability bias from Daniel Kahneman’s “Thinking Fast and Slow”, its occurrence struck me as strange. Many years ago I purchased what I thought was an uncommon model of sports coupe (which my friends dubbed “The Hairdresser Mobile”). After the purchase, multiple times a week on my commute I noticed others driving exactly the same model.

Dont Buy The Noise - Availability Bias BMW318i

The Hairdresser Mobile (LA version)

Kahneman gives the example of air crashes impacting the public’s the perception of air travel safety.

“A dramatic event temporarily increases the availability of its category. A plane crash that attracts media coverage will temporarily alter your feelings about the safety of flying.”


When I work on logos and visual campaigns with clients, the availability heuristic provides a constant reminder that your work is far from original. The safer you play with concepts, the more it happens. The more spiky, pointed or outlandish, the less so.

However, originality is not always a good thing or a requirement. Depending on your target market, many customers love familiarity and not running in the opposite direction of the herd. Insurance companies and financial services know this too well. There’s nothing wrong with that staid navy blue logo with a 90’s ellipse.

Shout outs (tl;dr)

  • Be aware of the availability bias’s impact on your daily perceptions. Billboards, online ads, movies and so on. Also, note how availability can influence your client’s perceptions. Senior stakeholders can obsess over small unrelated details on a project because of last night’s 60 Minutes exposé.
  • There are many ways you can use the Availability Bias to your advantage.
    • Aligning with trends or deliberately going against them.
    • Leverage recent local or global events to promote your product.

Further Reading:

Thinking Fast and Slow  – Daniel Kahneman