“The Last Car I’ll Ever Buy”

That’s how a developer I know described his recent purchase of a new Mazda 3. His statement has really stuck with me because I realized he was right. He wasn’t planning to take immaculate care of his car and make it last a lifetime. He was talking about the end of the car ownership era, and the rise of the autonomous car service.

I’d think anyone in a technology field agrees that autonomous cars are coming. What I believe many underestimate is how quickly they will arrive (given we are already using most of the technology required), and that autonomous cars will shift the car ownership market to a service-based model.

Think of all the reasons you currently own a car. Convenience is clearly at the top of the list. You need something that is at your doorstep the minute you are ready to leave, and takes you exactly where you need to go. The privacy is nice; just you, the radio and your Clay Christensen-approved milkshake. But that’s about it for the positives. We know cars are expensive to own – between depreciation, fuel and maintenance costs, insurance and financing charges it’s easily the worst investment you’ll ever make.

Now, think of some of the other things we take for granted with car ownership:

  • We take for granted that we will only enjoy the benefits of this terrible investment about 5% of the time (it’s far less in my household). Most of the time our cars sit in a driveway or parking lot somewhere, steadily depreciating.
  • We take for granted that we can only pick one vehicle to serve all of our needs for the next several years, and might choose a minivan or SUV even though most driving will be done by a lone occupant (the alternative of course, is to double-down on the terrible investment and buy a second car).
  • We accept that we are wholly responsible for our vehicle, and if it breaks down or ends up in a collision (even if someone else caused it), it’s going to be a big, unplanned expense.
  • We accept that significant amounts of real estate in prime downtown areas needs to be set aside for parking cars.

So the opportunity for autonomous cars is to meet the needs of the existing car owner with a service that offers greater benefit than the current model. And the opportunity for an autonomous car service is to provide a greater benefit than car ownership currently does.

To compete on cost is just one factor. Competing on user experience – the sum total of convenience, efficiency, aesthetic details – is where the business is won or lost.


While people tend to focus on the obvious ‘experience’ benefits of autonomous vehicles, there is equal – and in a way hidden – value in developing a business that addresses the expensive inefficiencies of car ownership detailed above.

Being a digital product guy I’ve found a lot of value in Strategyzer’s Value Proposition Canvas. So let’s apply it to our topic du jour.

If you were mapping out the value proposition for an autonomous car service it would look something like this: (the circle on the right is current state for a car owner, the square on the left represents the automated car service solution. Click for a PDF version.)

Autonomous ValueProp

The Value Proposition Canvas, if you’re not already familiar, is a powerful validation tool in product development. One of key benefits of the Value Proposition Canvas is forcing discussion and agreement on what the customer ‘jobs‘ are. Second, it highlights the positives and negatives (gains and pains) of the method a customer currently uses to get the job done. Finally, it captures the gain creators and pain relievers of the new product/service, which are the assumptions you are making about the values you believe customers will find in your new service. The next step is to figure out how to validate these assumptions – will customers actually see new gains or pain relief in your solution?

In the ‘jobs to be done’ section it’s simple. The car in my driveway needs to get me where I need to go, quickly and safely, ideally in comfort and privacy. If you’re willing to give up some of the gains (speed, privacy, some comfort) by taking the bus, you can spend a lot less money – a value proposition people decide on every day.

Taxis are a longstanding alternative, and have a specific value proposition that makes sense enough of the time to keep them in business. And then there is Uber, Lyft and in China, Didi, which Apple recently invested a billion (yes, with a ‘b’) dollars in. These new businesses have turned the taxi industry on it’s head by providing better service at a lower cost. Specifically, Uber and Lyft offered a key ‘gain creator’: app-initiated pickup requests; and one pain reliever: seamless, automatic payment. It’s worth noting that customers were not demanding these features en masse, but they were the reason Uber was able to break through (among other customer experience improvements). These improvements have been available to the taxi industry for almost a decade, but the atrophied incumbents failed to innovate fast enough.

But the reality is that Uber is just a prototype, the MVP for something much bigger. It’s a way to test and prove that a car service summoned from customer smartphones can work. The human drivers are just the stopgap until fully-autonomous vehicles are available.


The reason I’m going a bit inside baseball with the Value Proposition stuff is that strong gain creators and pain relievers are what drive rapid adoption of new products and services. Transformative products often offer gain creators and pain relievers that people didn’t even realize they wanted or were previously not possible. And autonomous vehicles offer all of this. Some of these gain creators – automatically calculating the fastest route, the ability to choose the vehicle suited to your particular need for each trip – are powerful but mostly invisible to customers until the service actually exists. And many of the pain relievers address significant drawbacks of private car ownership (see Part One) which we simply take for granted in the absence of a viable option.

So let’s step back from simply applying autonomous technology to the next car in your driveway. Imagine instead a service, a flexible fleet of autonomous electric cars. Single occupant vehicles, dual and 4-passenger rides, and vehicles capable of carrying 4, 6 or 8 passengers in auto-configuring, private cabins (think limousine privacy barriers that go up and down). Suddenly Elon Musk’s self-opening car door makes a lot more sense.

You summon a vehicle on your smartphone and select the level of service. The system figures out which suitable vehicles are near you, what other pickups/dropoffs each pool vehicle needs to make, and the most efficient route to your destination. If you can picture this system at scale, you can see how the multi-passenger option makes sense.

To use an internet analogy, think of the passengers as packets of data. The network figures out the most efficient way to get them to their destination address – no driver required.


Instead of the way we currently pay for taxis or Uber, which is per-use and by length of ride, think of it being a monthly fee, like a transit pass. To position this effectively as an alternative to car ownership the pricing model should mirror the way most of us pay for the vehicles we own.

Based on your home and work locations and tier of service, you would be able to select a plan that could cover all of your commuting needs as well as unlimited trips on evenings and weekends. Let’s say the service has a median cost about $500 per month. If that sounds high, consider that the American Automobile Association estimates it costs, on average over $8,500 (USD) per year to own and maintain a car in 2016.

That’s a pretty healthy monthly-revenue-per-user to work with, considering your target customer is almost every car owner in or near a major metropolitan centre. And again, don’t let the current taxi/Uber business model realities cloud your thinking. Remember these are autonomous, electric vehicles. They don’t incur the operating cost of a driver and run on electricity, which is anywhere from a half to a third of the cost of a gasoline fuel source. Remember a single vehicle can meet the needs of a dozen customers throughout the day. And at night while most of the city sleeps, these cars can do double-duty as delivery vehicles, with seating configurations hot-swapped for shipping racks, re-stocking the city with commercial goods (think of this as the ‘last-mile’ for the imminent driverless trucking revolution).

If you’re thinking this transformation will take a decade or more, think again. As I said earlier, the value proposition of driving one’s own car vs. taking public transit is something people evaluate on a daily basis. The choice between a legacy taxi and Uber shifted so quickly many cities have no idea how to deal with it.

In a few years my developer friend will decide the convenience of his faithful Mazda3 is no longer worth the insurance and gas he puts into it. His decision will be based on the same logic as people today who are ditching their land lines, cancelling their print subscriptions, and cutting their cable. The transition will be easy (far, far easier than the hassles involved in buying a new car) and it will be permanent. For all the hype around autonomous cars, the biggest change they introduce will not be the hardware so much as a change in the business of cars.

In particular GM appears to be well positioned to take the lead in building the actual vehicles at scale, but as Uber has shown, the real business growth potential is in the software and service.  The companies that position themselves for this eventuality will be the ones that will truly dominate the automotive industry in the next decade.

– July 6, 2016

Drowning in (Technical) Debt

If you deal with software, you deal with technical debt. I’m not just referring to people involved in creating software, I mean anyone using software. Technical debt is the result of compromise, sloppiness or lack of knowledge. It’s the enemy of any business, leading to wasted productivity and unhappy customers.

If technical debt is something you’re already well aware of, and you’re more interested in ways of getting rid of it, you might want to skip ahead. Plenty has been written about ways to avoid creating technical debt (refactoring, test-driven development etc.), but what I’m addressing in this post is more pedestrian and practical – how to you find the time to fix the technical debt you already have?

First coined by pioneering programmer Ward Cunningham, technical debt is perhaps most easily understood as what happens when a developer decides to (or far more commonly, is asked to) take a ‘fix it later’ approach to a known software issue. Of course, ‘later’ never comes, as new work comes in. The problems that technical debt causes typically aren’t visible to the people setting the business priorities – because they’re not the ones dealing with it.

But just like financial debt, companies pay interest on technical debt. Interest in the form of time spent; doing manual workarounds, rebooting servers or worse, security breaches and lost revenue as a result of downtime. And just like financial debt, the more technical debt you accumulate, the more your developer ‘budget’ is going towards interest payments at the expense of actual project work.

A brief aside – I’ve mentioned The Phoenix Project before. It’s a great book that does an excellent job of illustrating the impact of technical debt in a real-world context. If you’re having challenges getting buy-in from your IT management to pay down technical debt, I suggest you buy a few copies and pass them around.

Fine. Technical Debt is bad. So now what?

As mentioned, much has been written about avoiding technical debt, and hopefully your development teams are already adopting practices that minimize the amount of technical debt that gets onto production. But in my experience, the more common challenge iswhat to do with the technical debt you already have? 

Developers are usually the ones who carry the burden of technical debt, and are often the least empowered to advocate for fixing it. An hour here, 15 minutes there – over the course of a week or a month doesn’t seem like a lot, compared to two or 3 days to actually fixing the root cause. It’s hard to get buy-in to fix any one issue.

However when you end up with 10 or 20 little issues that individually take up an hour or two every week it becomes incredibly disruptive. Worst of all – these issues often appear sporadically and require immediate attention – aka unplanned work (another recurring theme from The Phoenix Project).

So how do you build a case for getting executive buy-in for fixing technical debt? As usual, the key is creating visibility.

If you use development software like Jira, Pivotal Tracker or Rally, you probably already have the tools and processes you’ll need. In the example below I’ve created two tickets in Jira. The first, TECHDEBT-221 is an ‘open ticket’ that I’ll use to log developer time whenever someone needs to go in and perform the workaround caused by a single broken application. Each time the task is repeated, it’s tracked in the work log at the bottom, and cumulative time spent on the workaround is easily visible on the right (to date, three and a half days).



Then, I create a second ticket (below), TECHDEBT-222, which is the permanent fix for the broken application that will eliminate the need for the manual workaround. So far I’ve logged about 90 minutes investigating the issue, identifying the solution and documenting the fix. Most importantly, the team has estimated the time required to complete the permanent fix to be about 2 days (yes I know it should be story points, I’m trying to keep it simple here).



So what does this tell us? When I created TECHDEBT-221 I created a way of capturing cumulative time spent on a task that I would need to do again and again. While it was fresh in my mind, I also created a ticket for the permanent fix, and then linked the two tickets together. Over time, the hours captured in the workaround ticket increases, and fairly quickly I’ll be able to forecast at which point the effort spent on the workaround is greater than the effort of the permanent fix. In the example above, I’ve already spent a day-and-a-half more in developer hours on the workaround than would be needed for the fix in the first place.

One more thing: If your organization can manage it, a very empowering exercise for your teams is to set aside a dedicated technical debt sprint. Ideally every few months, each team gets to choose the technical debt tickets that have been bothering them the most, and have a sprint dedicated to fixing them. If you’re having a hard time getting buy-in, try getting agreement to a technical debt sprint in August, when most businesses are at their slowest, or pick the last sprint of the calendar year when many shops go into code freeze before the holiday.

If you’ve done a good job of documenting how much time has been wasted on workarounds, and can compare to the time required to fix the underlying problem you should be well positioned to identify the most ‘expensive’ technical debt – and most cost-effective fixes – in your codebase.

– thanks to Matt Drewitt and Brad Botting for the 3 minute hallway conversation that formed this idea!

Additional Links: Interview with Gene Kim, co-author of The Phoenix Project

– posted June 20, 2016

On Failure

I’m fascinated by the stories of company failures. For me (as I’d hope it is for most) it’s not professional jealousy but rather a opportunity to learn. Another plus -learning from the mistakes of others is a lot less painful than learning from your own.

Companies succeed through a combination of hard work, good luck and timing, but how does a well established company at the top of it’s game manage to lose it’s way?

Survivorship Bias is the theory that we tend to focus on success stories and not examine enough the ones that ended in failure. Alasdair Croll brought up a great example at a LeanUX talk I recently attended. As the story goes, during the Second World War the Allies studied the bullet hole patterns in returning bombers with the intent of adding additional armour to those areas. Then someone pointed out that these were the planes that made it back, and in fact what they should be doing is adding protection to the undamaged areas. Planes that suffered damage in these areas were the ones that didn’t come home, so their vulnerabilities weren’t studied.

So, to extend the analogy to business, let’s look at some former high fliers and see where they took the heaviest fire.  

When I was cutting my teeth in print design in the mid-’90s QuarkXpress claimed to have 95% market share of the graphic design/layout market. Quark and Photoshop were pretty much all we used. But through a series of compounding strategic mistakes, Quark opened the door for InDesign to completely take over the market. This excellent post by former Vice Magazine art director Dave Girard spells out Quarks downfall in great detail. It’s a fascinating story.

Once or twice a month, Daring Fireball’s John Gruber digs into a topic with a feature-length post. In Microsoft, Past and Future Gruber suggests that ‘Peak Microsoft’ occurred sometime around the year 2000, when Windows, like Quark, had 95% of the market for desktop operating systems. But signs that Microsoft has been unable to evolve to the new computing landscape, claims Gruber, are everywhere. 15 months in, Windows 8 sales are a third lower than Windows 7 during the same period. Chief architect of Windows 8 Steven Sinofsky, fired. Ballmer has stepped down.


As the Upton Sinclair quote goes; “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it”. Gruber suggests Ballmer is guilty of this, not accepting how fundamentally the iPhone changed the landscape, not believing the sweeping change in how iPads and smartphones would create a post-PC market, and that Microsoft couldn’t capitalize accepting how fundamentally the iPhone changed the landscape, not seeing early on how iPads and smartphones would create a post-PC market, and later, his inability to effectively lead Microsoft through that change.



image credit: @lmanul

The open hostility of the various decisions at Microsoft is widely known. How this has affected Microsoft’s ability to innovate and respond to the market has rarely been better illustrated than a 2010 NYTimes Op-Ed by former MS VP Dick Brass. (read: Microsoft’s Creative Destruction)


“When we were building the tablet PC in 2001, the vice president in charge of Office at the time decided he didn’t like the concept. The tablet required a stylus, and he much preferred keyboards to pens and thought our efforts doomed. To guarantee they were, he refused to modify the popular Office applications to work properly with the tablet.

So once again, even though our tablet had the enthusiastic support of top management and had cost hundreds of millions to develop, it was essentially allowed to be sabotaged. To this day, you still can’t use Office directly on a Tablet PC. And despite the certainty that an Apple tablet was coming this year, the tablet group at Microsoft was eliminated.”

Consider that. Microsoft had a 10-year jump on Apple in building a tablet computer, and spent hundreds of millions of dollars doing so. And yet Microsoft’s top executives failed to address internal – INTERNAL – conflicts that doomed a project costing hundreds of millions of dollars to failure. Not only did they fail to manage the internal conflicts, they failed to grasp what these conflicts meant to the success of their project.


 Here is one of my personal favourite stories on this theme. Think of how absurd it is that Sony, dominant in electronics in the 70’s, and inventors of the ubiquitous Walkman cassette player in the 80’s, somehow missed the market for personal MP3 players. While Sony hardly qualifies as a failed empire, the story of how they fell from such a dominant position in the consumer electronics sector is fascinating, and it goes back to the loss of Sony’s Betamax format to the VHS standard.




Sony’s strategic mistake was to bet that Betamax’s superior picture quality would win the day, while the competing VHS consortium invested heavily in exclusive or first-rights content deals. Consumers voted for the more tangible benefit – better access to content – over the less tangible picture quality. Eventually Sony effectively exited the consumer VCR market (though the Beta technology continued to have a good run as an industrial format, where quality was an issue and pre-recorded content wasn’t).


Believing they had made a strategic mistake in not having control over a significant content library, Sony’s US division spent over $5B in 1987 and 1989 to purchase CBS records and Columbia Pictures. Sony’s goal was to use content as the carrot to encourage consumers to adopt new recording formats they had developed, including DAT and MiniDisc.


But neither format caught on with western consumers, and the significant library of content Sony had amassed became a millstone in how the company adapted to the rise of file sharing and the MP3 format, which undermined the ability to extract revue from content. Despite clear evidence that there was a huge market for a Walkman-like MP3 player to hold the billions of music files being shared by music fans, Sony muddled along with other manufactures developing MP3 players that held a couple of dozen songs at best. Adoption was hobbled by Sony’s DRM requirements – any songs you put on the device had to be encoded in Sony’s proprietary format.


Sony as a company was hamstrung by it’s unwillingness to allow it’s separate divisions to compete openly against each other. In fact, at one point during the Napster era, an association of major record labels (including Sony Music) launched a suit against multiple electronic manufacturers (including Sony Electronics). Sony was, in effect suing itself.


We own the market. Undoubtedly Quark, Microsoft and Sony made that statement repeatedly during the good times – and they were always wrong. A company does not control a market. A company with 95% share of a given market is only there by the grace of its customers. Should a better or cheaper competitor be successful at communicating its benefits to new customers, market share shifts, sometimes dramatically so.
Mobile phone design before and after iPhone introduction in 2007


The folly of these business empires is mistaking dominance for power. The automotive Big Three failing to respond to the superior quality of Asian imports. Blackberry for chasing new markets while failing to aggressively innovate to deliver new value to its existing customers. The music industry, for attempting to litigate out of existence a technology that customers clearly loved. Customers hold the power. They always have. A company that is not organized from the top down at ensuring they are responding to the market is an empire ripe for a fall.

What You Should Be Reading Right Now

The Phoenix Project: A Novel about IT, DevOps, and Helping Your Business Win 


This one is in heavy demand in the Info Tech managers group, and it’s excellent. I’d liken The Phoenix Project to the near-equivalent of spending 3 years in an IT operations role, and that’s pretty good for a book you can read in a few days. Get your team and decision makers aligned around the concepts in this book, and you’ll be able to make significant headway in the often misunderstood world of IT Operations and software development.

Also excellent: Who: The Method for Hiring. A fast read (thanks William Russell!). Even if you consider yourself an excellent judge of character and ability, this book will have you rethinking your methods for screening and interviewing potential candidates. Immediately useful, this is one you’ll be keeping at your fingertips for years to come.

Holland 1945

I don’t know how Stephen Colbert came to be a fan of Neutral Milk Hotel, whose song “Holland 1945” he used to close out the final show of The Colbert Report. For me, it was summer of ’97 I think, a bunch of us went out to Simon Nixon‘s cabin on Lake Ontario for a night of drinks and laffs. As we were packing up the next morning there was a CD of Neutral Milk Hotel’s debut long-player ‘On Avery Island’ on the kitchen table – left by a previous guest I suppose as nobody in our group claimed it. So I took it. 

I loved it. At turns haunting and joyful, filled with distorted acoustic guitar, flutes and tape loops, stark bits giving way to furious blasts of noise – above all exceedingly weird and beautiful. I consumed the followup ‘In An Aeroplane Under The Sea’ with equal vigour, the amplified vinyl filling the kitchen at Draper on many a night. That’s where we kept the stereo. We had a couch in the kitchen too. It was a good setup.

Despite doing everything to remain obscure – the band broke up in ’99 and Jeff Magnum disappeared – the myth of the band continued to grow over the next decade. People continued to discover and fall in love with those first two albums, new bands and music journalists would name-check them constantly, and the records continued to sell.

At least one of them was bought by Stephen Colbert. In a profile back in April, The Times’ Maureen Dowd ended her piece with the lyrics to Holland 1945, something Colbert had send her. Dowd connected the song to the plane crash that killed Colbert’s father and two brothers when he was 10.

The fact that eight months later Colbert closed out his 9-year run with that song suggests she was right. A tribute to family, an acknowledgement of tragedy, sadness and beauty, Neutral Milk Hotel is all of those things.

Smoothing out Hyperlapse videos

Considering the proliferation of 1st-person Go-Pro style video that is being shot, this processing algorithm developed by a team of Microsoft engineers is going to make a big impact. Full story here.


The iOS Battery Life – by a Genius Bar Genius

Filed for future reference: If you’ve ever struggled with the challenge of tracking down the cause of rapid battery drain on an iOS device, this excellent post by ex-Genius Bar technician Scotty Loveless is extremely thorough. (via Daring Fireball)

Where the Magic Happens

card27451(via http://thisisindexed.com)


The Hidden World of Experience Design

UK blogger and UX designer Peter Smart’s excellent post proposing an industry-wide rethink of the humble boarding pass is a perfect example of what is increasingly referred to as ‘experience design’.

There is no shortage of real-life examples of products and services we encounter every day that suck. Where product teams (which include designers) bring value to the companies we work for is in evaluating our products based on the experience of using them (see eat your own dog food) and working to improve the suck factors.

Experience design goes beyond typical product design by taking a broader view of how using the product makes you feel – sounds a little airy-fairy I know – but think about the last time you purchased something from an Apple store. Do you remember how it felt to walk out of a packed store with your purchase without wasting any time lining up at the cash register? By rethinking the retail experience by providing floor staff with handheld checkout terminals, Apple substantively changed how customers feel about the Apple store experience.

This is not the first time airline boarding passes have been called out for a redesign, but Peter Smart puts the key focus on usability and experience, not about simply cleaning up the design. Smart’s proposal also works within some very practical constraints: the boarding pass is still the same standard size and information is still printed in black ink. The little design touches – adding the destination weather at arrival time and leveraging the existing perforation so the boarding pass fits perfectly in a passport with just the Flight number and departure gate showing – those are the clever bits that make all the difference.


Jack Dorsey understands experience design. The co-founder of Twitter and CEO of payment startup Square recently spoke in detail about the mission of Square: not just to make payments easier, but to reinvent the experience of digital payments.

The biggest challenge with experience design is that we need to uncover parts of the customer experience that are often hidden – because we take them for granted. Status quo is the enabler of poor experience design. Boarding passes haven’t changed much in decades, and they function reasonably well. But if you fly often enough, you might re-imagine how a better boarding pass could make the experience better. Dorsey talks about coming at the experience design of Square from the perspective of a consumer, not a merchant, despite merchants being Square’s direct customers. Putting a lot of thought into what many would treat as an afterthought – the payment receipt – shows a commitment  to evaluate every customer touchpoint and make improvements that contribute to the overall experience.

As a digital product team we arguably have complete control over customer experience on the digital side of the business. At the Globe and Mail, where I work, we have roughly a million unique visitors each day navigating our web site on any number of devices, using one of our native apps, or signing up for a subscription service online. Every screen, menu and click is part of the overall Globe experience. Every detail is the result of the decisions we make, and collectively that defines the experience.

So sweat the small stuff. Details matter. Constantly evaluate every customer  interaction point, and rank improvements on a PICK chart. Talk to you customers regularly to understand their hassle maps. Incorporate grey label customer feedback tools like UserVoice or GetSatisfaction right into your digital products – believe me they will be a hundred times better, faster and cheaper than anything you could build yourself. I’m also a fan of Net Promoter as a simple, trackable metric of customer satisfaction – it will tell you if you are moving the needle in the right direction and give you verbatim customer feedback you might otherwise miss.

Experience design isn’t an entirely new concept – in some ways it’s no more than a new coat of paint on the old adage about the customer always being right. But with better tools to understand the customer experience and the ability to quickly deliver iterative improvement a on digital products, our ability to respond has never been better.

Attracting and retaining talent

Interesting interview with Valve CEO Gabe Newell on how the innovative videogame maker strives to create a workplace that employees never want to leave.

In a nutshell, employees at Valve are granted an significant amount of freedom, respect and trust – and their parents get to tag along on company getaways. The company has made substantial efforts to accommodate each individuals life events – having a baby, caring for an ailing parent, attending an Ultimate Frisbee tournament – and in turn reaps the reward of company loyalty this engenders. While not a one-size solution, it’s a great example of adapting to a competitive labour market in a knowledge economy.

related – read how footwear retailer Zappos plans to get rid of management structures in favour of a system called ‘Holacracy’.

update Jan 29/2014: Here’s a segment on CBC’s The Current on Holacracy

(link expires May 2014)