Posts tagged “cars”

Carol’s War Story: Driving Force

Carol Rossi is the senior director of user experience research at

Since is an auto website we spend a lot of time hearing about how people shop for cars. A couple of years ago we ran a shop-along study where we conducted in-home interviews to both understand car shopping behavior and simultaneously screen people we may want to go with on test drives to dealerships. I always take someone else with me when running interviews – a designer, product manager, exec, etc. – so they get first-hand exposure to real car shoppers.

This time I had the head of editorial with me. The Edmunds editorial team has a long-term fleet of cars so they can write about car ownership. My colleague tells me that he’ll drive and we’ll take one of the fleet cars. We meet in the lobby and he walks us over to a $100,000 red BMW. Not what I typically show up in to interview somebody who is probably shopping for a Honda.

The interview is in Hollywood and although it’s only 10 miles from our office this is LA so we drive up Santa Monica Blvd for like an hour. We find the address and it’s not in the best part of Hollywood. There we are with this six-figure car. Eventually we find a parking spot that looks relatively safe and walk to the building.

We use the callbox and are buzzed into the building. We look for the apartment and realize it’s in the basement. We’re greeted by our interviewee, a middle-aged guy who’s described on the screener as a self-employed writer (like much of the population of Hollywood). The apartment is the tiniest living space. It really looked more like a one-car garage. The air was stuffy, there was a unique odor that was somewhere between musty and dusty, there were no windows open and no A/C, with carpet that had maybe never been cleaned. I started to hope the allergy attack I was sure was coming happened after we were finished. The apartment was overstuffed with piles of papers (screenplays?), VHS tapes, and posters of independent movies (including one with a woman in bondage gear who we later discover is his wife). Although we’d normally want to capture anything descriptive of the scene, to avoid distracting the product team who would watch the video later we had to position the camera to keep the poster out of the shot.

We’re chatting and after a few minutes our interviewee’s 35-year old wife comes out with a baby. The wife is some kind of Hungarian model (think of a European version of Gisele Bündchen). The guy turned out to be really nice, educated and articulate, but also clearly not at all someone likely to test drive a car at a dealership. Basically he hates cars, rides his bike everywhere, is trying to get off the grid but needs a car now that there’s a baby, and says he’ll buy some used car that’s parked on the street with a sign in the window.

Was this interview all for naught? From the first moment through the end I wasn’t sure. You always learn something new, so even though this guy did not meet our criteria for people likely to buy a car at a dealership we certainly got exposure to a type of shopper we knew theoretically existed but hadn’t yet encountered (“the eccentric car hater”).

I’ve seen homes like this (and worse) but after the interview we walked outside and my colleague couldn’t unload fast enough. He’d never seen a living situation like that. In rapid succession he declared (out of concern for our safety) “When we first walked in I thought it was a trap – I was looking for a way out” but then (out of concern for the child’s health) repeated several times “They have a baby in there!!” And then he began to express his concern for my safety “Do you go on these interviews alone?…You take a guy with you, right?”

After this emotional decompression, we jumped back into the ostentatious Beemer and drove down Santa Monica Blvd., away from the unknown of the ethnographer’s life to the predictable comfort of our office…until the next interview.

It’s the sharing economy all the way down

When things start getting really silly, you know you are in a bubble.

A San Francisco startup called Breeze is renting brand-new Toyota Priuses to people who want to drive for Uber and Lyft. There is huge demand from people who don’t own cars to be part of the ‘ride-sharing’ economy,” said CEO and co-founder Jeff Pang. Breeze now has 25 cars, all fully booked by drivers who answered its Craigslist ads or heard about it from friends. “We don’t buy outright as that’s a capital-intensive, asset-heavy model,” said co-founder Ned Ryan. Instead, Breeze rents the brand-new vehicles from an unnamed partner in the automotive space.

Yes, Breeze rents cars from their source, then rents them out to people who don’t own their own cars who then rent out their unused vehicle capacity to people who also don’t have cars but need rides.

Someone has been watching too much Portlandia.

ChittahChattah Quickies

  • [from steve_portigal] Report: EPA kills Chevy Volt’s 230 mpg rating [Autoblog Green] – [Thorny problem about how to give an actual rating of a car's performance when that rating is based on gasoline consumption and the car in question doesn't (really) use gasoline! The whole frame of reference for assessing the comparative economical/ecological performance of a breakthrough product is based on a slightly obsoleting technology. Craziness ensues!]
  • [from steve_portigal] How the Old Spice Videos Are Being Made [ReadWriteWeb] – A team of creatives, tech geeks, marketers and writers gathered in an undisclosed location in Portland, Oregon yesterday and produced 87 short comedic YouTube videos about Old Spice. In real time. Those videos and 74 more made so far today have now been viewed more than 4 million times and counting. The team worked for 11 hours yesterday to make 87 short videos, that's just over 7 minutes per video, not accounting for any breaks taken. Then they woke up this morning and they are still making more videos right now. Here's how it's going down. Old Spice, marketing agency Wieden + Kennedy and actor Isaiah Mustafa are collaborating on the project. The group seeded various social networks with an invitation to ask questions of Mustafa's character. Then all the responses were tracked and users who contributed interesting questions and/or were high-profile people on social networks are being responded to directly and by name in short, funny YouTube videos.
  • [from steve_portigal] Who’s Mailing What – [A very specific form of "competitive intelligence"] Every month the Who's Mailing What! Archive receives and analyzes approximately 4,000 to 5,000 pieces of direct mail in nearly 200 categories — consumer, business, fundraising, catalogs, and much more — forwarded to us from a network of correspondents around the country. Why? Because the best way to create successful direct mail is to study other company's mail to see which campaign and techniques show up again and again. If you're tracking a particular area of direct mail — you can go right to that category, see what we've received and discover: Who's mailing what, the offers, the control, the complexity of the mailing, whether there was 4-color work, sophisticated computer work, a poly envelope, a self-mailing format.

ChittahChattah Quickies

  • [from Dan_Soltzberg] Swedish Artist Michael Johansson’s Shipping Container Art [Inhabitat] – [What makes this 3D collage so appealing: is it the scale? The playfulness? The clever conversation between shapes?] Shipping containers are often repurposed as houses, apartments and studios, but Swedish artist Michael Johansson sees them as building blocks for his sculptures.
  • [from Dan_Soltzberg] Saad Mohseni Is Afghanistan’s First Media Mogul [NPR] – [Afghan Star producer Saad Mohseni is seeding culture change in Afghanistan by broadcasting shows depicting alternate social mores] Through reality TV, dramas, and soap operas, Afghans are able to see things they hadn't been able to watch for years. Women talking to men, for instance.
  • [from Dan_Soltzberg] Tesla Raises Shocking Amount in NASDAQ Debut [Fast Company] – [Tesla takes it public. I have only anecdotal evidence as to the performance of their vehicles – the last time I was on the road next to a Tesla Roadster, it effortlessly smoked my turbo Miata – but Tesla seems like they're doing things right] For all its ambitions to revolutionize the electric car industry, Tesla Motors has only posted a profit once, back in July 2009. It has released just one car (the Roadster), and sells 10 vehicles per week. And yet Tesla's first day of public trading on the stock market has been an indisputable success.
  • [from steve_portigal] Nicolas Hayek, 82, Dies – Introduced Swatch – Obituary (Obit) – – By the 1970s, the vaunted Swiss watch industry was in jeopardy. Japanese watchmakers had begun to undercut Swiss prices. And public tastes were shifting from the finely wrought analog timepieces in which Swiss artisans had long specialized to the pale flickering faces of mass-market digital watches. In the early 1980s, with no apparent remedy in sight, a group of Swiss banks asked Mr. Hayek to compile a report on how the watchmaking industry might best be liquidated. Instead, he merged two of its former titans, Asuag and SSIH, which between them owned brands like Omega, Longines and Tissot. Mr. Hayek bought a majority stake in the reorganized group, known as SMH. In 1983, SMH introduced the Swatch. Lightweight, with vibrantly colored bands and breezy novelty faces, it was remarkably inexpensive to produce. (with 51 parts, as opposed to the nearly 100 needed to make a traditional wristwatch.) It retailed for less than $35 when it was first marketed in the United States later that year.

ChittahChattah Quickies

  • [from julienorvaisas] David Brooks Defends the Humanities [] – "Let me stand up for the history, English and art classes, even in the face of today’s economic realities. Studying the humanities improves your ability to read and write. No matter what you do in life, you will have a huge advantage if you can read a paragraph and discern its meaning (a rarer talent than you might suppose). You will have enormous power if you are the person in the office who can write a clear and concise memo. Studying the humanities will give you a familiarity with the language of emotion." [Brooks veers into strange territory with his idea of the Big Shaggy, but makes a compelling argument for how powerful an education in the sometimes seemingly-pointless Humanities can be in the world of business (a message well-received by the girl with a degree in Art History).]
  • [from Dan_Soltzberg] Does the Internet Make You Smarter? – – "The case for digitally-driven stupidity assumes we'll fail to integrate digital freedoms into society as well as we integrated literacy. This assumption in turn rests on three beliefs: that the recent past was a glorious and irreplaceable high-water mark of intellectual attainment; that the present is only characterized by the silly stuff and not by the noble experiments; and that this generation of young people will fail to invent cultural norms that do for the Internet's abundance what the intellectuals of the 17th century did for print culture." [Clay Shirky's article is peppered with great insights about the intersection of information-sharing platforms and culture.]
  • [from steve_portigal] Banana museum splits for new digs [] – The 17,000 items, everything from a "rare" petrified banana to a banana-shaped boogie board, was lovingly collected over 38 years by Ken "The Bananist" Bannister. The Bananist, who sells real estate for a living, kept it at his International Banana Museum in the Mojave Desert town of Hesperia. Plans are for the museum, listed by the Guinness Book of World Records as the largest collection dedicated to a single fruit, to reopen in January in this dusty town on the edge of the Salton Sea. Garbutt, who unlike Bannister was never much into bananas, is busy learning everything he can about the potassium-rich fruit that can be served in a variety of ways, including fresh-peeled, deep-fried or frozen and dipped in chocolate. He plans to open the museum next door to Skip's Liquors, which his family has owned since 1958. He says he hopes it will boost business there.
  • [from steve_portigal] G.M. Backtracks on Chevy Memo [] – [The nickname, when authentic (we're looking at you "The Shack") is a powerful way of people to take ownership of a brand meaning. GM inadvertently unleashed some real passion around this issue] Responding to negative reactions to an internal memorandum discouraging use of the word Chevy, General Motors moved on Thursday to explain its strategy and to reassure consumers that it still valued the popular nickname for Chevrolet. The memorandum asked employees to “communicate our brand as Chevrolet.” For decades, Chevrolet and Chevy have appeared interchangeably in advertisements, and the Chevrolet Web site uses both terms. But after a strong public reaction to a report in The New York Times on the note, G.M. issued a statement on Thursday that said the memorandum had been “poorly worded.” The statement said that the memorandum reflected Chevrolet’s strategy as it expanded internationally, but that the company was not “discouraging customers or fans from using” Chevy.
  • [from steve_portigal] Angry clowns decry armed robbery by impostors [] – [An interesting and surprising example of protecting brand identity] About 100 professional clowns who make money by performing on public buses marched through Salvadoran capital Thursday to protest the killing of a passenger by two imposter clowns. On Monday, a man was shot five times in the face and stomach when he declined to give money to two assailants dressed as clowns who boarded a public bus. No one has been arrested. The protesters — wearing oversized bow ties, tiny hats and big yellow pants — marched down San Salvador's main street in an effort to both entertain and educate passersby. Several held signs insisting that real clowns are not criminals. "We are protesting so that people know we are not killers," said professional clown Ana Noelia Ramirez. "The people who did this are not clowns. They unfortunately used our costume and our makeup to commit a monstrous act." (via BoingBoing)

ChittahChattah Quickies

  • Don Norman on Ethnography and Innovation – Some great commentary on Norman's piece (discussed here as well) including the very exciting revelation that Edison did something very much like ethnography!
  • General Motors – The Lab – It’s a pilot program for GM, an interactive design research community in the making. Here you can get to know the designers, check out some of their projects, and help them get to know you. Like a consumer feedback event without the one-way glass.

    We work on ideas that will influence our future vehicles. We want to share our ideas, inventions and pre-production vehicle designs. We want to build the right cars and trucks for your future. We want your opinion.

  • Iceberg Digital Book Reader for the iPhone – Digital books as content, as hardware, as a platform, as an OS, as an app? Interesting to see a range of approaches appearing. Iceberg use the iTunes store to sell the books, which seems like a brilliant strategy, leveraging a storefront/distribution platform that already exists.
  • Steal These Books – From Wikipedia page about book theft, a set of articles that describe what books get stolen from bookstores (independent, chain, and campus) and libraries.
  • Archaeology’s Hoaxes, Fakes, and Strange Sites – A large set of links to articles about fake archeological-type stuff (discoveries, artifacts, and the like). How and why.


Most companies would like their products and services to be something consumers have a relationship with; more than just a consumable good. Emotional relationships between people and things are one of the holy grails of product development.

Yet, in our research, we hear over and over from people that they simply don’t think this way about many of the products in their lives (particularly electronic goods).

Cars, however, are different. Cars get discussed fondly, wistfully, and passionately. They get named. They have histories.

As testament to cars’ tremendous resonance, look at the popularity of the Fast and Furious movies. And of the new Transformers film, which features vehicles as both heroes and villains, and which just bagged the highest weekday opening gross in movie history–despite being described (before the opening) by many in the media as a bad movie.

A number of factors about cars–perhaps the way they contribute to our personal histories, the level of complexity that lends them “personality,” the patina they acquire over time–transform them for many of us from mere objects into relationship material.

Camaro t-shirt, official licensed GM product, bought for $7.50 at Crossroads Trading used clothes

But products that are more towards the consumable end of the spectrum can also evoke emotions and create a sense of relationship. I think about Topps Bazooka bubble gum from my childhood–one of the most literally consumable products–and how evocative it remains, many years after I’ve ceased being a “user.”

Topps Bazooka Gum, photo by Sarah Lillian on Flickr

What’s it like for you? What are the ingredients that differentiate between just using something, and having a richer type of experience?

Related posts:

Object Love, Object Lust…
Packaging Surprise
Rage With The Machine
Miata Farewell

Getting around

Man and boy, Chicago

The US auto industry now has its own crisis news page.

In a recent Daily Show interview, Jon Stewart and UC Davis transportation expert Daniel Sperling pondered the idea of using this crisis as an opportunity to put money into building a new, more sustainable transportation infrastructure.

A friend of mine has put down a deposit on the Aptera, but is unclear about when his car will be coming.

While all of the alternatives to gas-powered vehicles have their pros and cons, the current personal transportation model is providing clear feedback that it’s time for some divergent thinking on this topic.

What do people really want and need? Are there viable paradigms besides the “car-in-every-garage” (e.g. Zipcar, etc.)? How are systems as complex and socially/economically ingrained as the auto industry and vehicle infrastructure best addressed?

Related posts:
This year’s (business) models
Rage With The Machine
Cultural reverse engineering
Parody as time capsule

How long to plan for growth/change?

From Arizona Adds Digit to License Plates to Keep Up With Growth

The increase in motor vehicles has exhausted the 10.6 million or so combinations of characters on the state’s six-digit plates, said Cydney DeModica, a spokeswoman for the state’s motor vehicle division.

So Arizona is joining New York, California and other more populous states in adding a seventh digit. The extra digit allows for 106.48 million possible combinations – three letters followed by four numbers – which should accommodate a growing population through 2040.

2040 doesn’t seem that far off when it comes to making sweeping changes to infrastructure. Do they know what they might do after that? Or do popular growth (or motor vehicle ownership) predictions not hold valid beyond 30 years? Seems like a perfect problem for long term thinking, the absence of which created technology challenges such as the Y2K bug.

Of course a key difference here is that the Y2K bug failed to address a definite event (the year 2000 would eventually be reached, at a predictable time in the future), whereas the growth in Arizona cars may follow a trend but it’s far from definite as changes in weather patterns and oil prices could conceivably change the trend dramatically by 2040.

Rage With The Machine

Biodiesel-fueled coupe made from old semi truck, Half Moon Bay, California

lawnmower-race-sequence.jpgLawnmower Races, Half Moon Bay, California

I went to a huge auto and machine show recently at a small airfield down the coast from San Francisco. I really love this kind of stuff, but my machine lust was battling thoughts of carbon footprints, sustainability and global economics that made it a little difficult to see the event as entirely wholesome.

Living in and trying to navigate this consumption/sustainability paradox is the conundrum of the day for anyone who loves things.

Nokia’s Jan Chipchase gave a talk at Adaptive Path a couple of weeks ago, and showed a model of the Remade mobile phone concept. The Remade is produced almost entirely by upcycling, a Cradle to Cradle concept whereby potential trash is transformed into something valuable and useful.

Appearance model, Remade mobile phone concept, Nokia. (picture from

The extruded aluminum body of the Remade model seemed really tough, and made me think about what it would be like if products were built so well that they rarely broke.

Would that be the most sustainable approach to the object cycle-making things that lasted, and using them for as long as they lasted?

It’s a complex picture: there’s technological evolution constantly rendering our stuff obsolete, there’s the need for producers to continue to produce and sell what they make, and then there’s that crow/magpie thing-our persistent desire to add new objects to whatever we already have sequestered in our nests.

Thinking about a system this complex always leads to big questions. Here are some of mine for this round:

  • What is the relationship between remaking how objects are produced and shifting cultural attitudes toward consumption?

  • Can producers profitably focus on business models that take advantage of long use (for example by focusing more on post-purchase relationships and less on product replacement)?

  • Can it ever be as cool, sexy, and fun as buying new things to use our things for years and years, so that they acquire a patina, shape themselves to our bodies and our personalities, and bear scars that tell stories?

Or will that leave something fundamental in our natures (our crow-selves??) unsatisfied?

Context is everything

Designing Sustainable Mobility is an event recently held at Art Center in Southern California. In Northern California (i.e., Silicon Valley) an design-y event about mobility (sustainable or otherwise), is going to be about wireless communications (i.e. cell phone stuff). In Southern California, it’s about cars.

Although, now that I think of it, a conference about sustainability and wireless mobility would be interesting, since I don’t ever hear of the two things put together.

This Week In Globalization

We have some time before we can expect to be driving Chinese cars.

Despite growing anxiety that the Chinese would quickly seek to conquer yet another important industry, it now looks as if it will be at least another several years before Chinese automakers start exporting large numbers of cars they both design and make. They had intended to start selling their own brands in the United States as soon as 2007 but have pushed off their plans by a couple of years.

And now, some Chinese auto executives admit, it could be as late as 2020 before they will be ready to take on the world auto market.

That’s not to say that the Chinese will not follow in the footsteps of Japanese automakers, who first sent over chintzy cars that were roundly criticized, only to set new standards for the industry in later years.

Still, despite China’s manufacturing prowess, it is, for now, proving a lot harder than automakers here anticipated to make cars that appeal to Western tastes.

Here’s a story about who these Indian engineers are, or aren’t. Frankly, I was glad to see this article, not for protectionist reasons, but simply to acknowledge that we’ve got dramatically different cultures around work, collaboration, education, success, and everything else, and that’s obviously going to play out in the hiring/working space.

India still produces plenty of engineers, nearly 400,000 a year at last count. But their competence has become the issue.

A study commissioned by a trade group, the National Association of Software and Service Companies, or Nasscom, found only one in four engineering graduates to be employable. The rest were deficient in the required technical skills, fluency in English or ability to work in a team or deliver basic oral presentations.

And finally here’s yet another story about Americans working for Indian firms (I last blogged about it here)

For the job seekers, India represents a new kind of ticket. Katrina Anderson, 22, a math major from Manhattan, Kan., accepted the Infosys offer because, she said, it provided the most extensive training of any company that offered her a job.

An added bonus was the chance to travel halfway around the world. “Some people were scared by the India relocation,” she recalled. “But that pretty much sold it for me.”

When she finishes the training in January, Ms. Anderson, a graduate of the University of Notre Dame, will return to the United States, to work in the Infosys office in Phoenix.

For the Americans at Infosys, culture shock combines with surprising discoveries. Mr. Craig and Ms. Anderson admitted to having their stereotypes of India quickly upturned. Mr. Craig expected elephants and crowded sidewalks; Ms. Anderson expected stifling heat and women who covered their heads.

The Infosys training center, with its 300 acres of manicured shrubbery, is a far cry from the poverty of much of this country. There is a bowling alley on campus, a state-of-the-art gym, a swimming pool, tennis courts and an auditorium modeled on the Epcot Center.

Mr. Craig, who still calls home nearly every day, says he has made an effort to teach himself a few things about his new, temporary home. He has learned how to conduct himself properly at a Hindu temple. He makes an extra effort to be more courteous. He has learned to ignore the things that rattle him in India – the habit of cutting in line, for instance, or the ease with which a stranger here can ask what he would consider a deeply personal question.

“I definitely feel like a minority here,” he said, sounding surprised at the very possibility.

Ms. Anderson has tried to ignore what she sees as a penchant for staring, especially by men. She has donned Indian clothes in hopes of deflecting attention, only to realize that it has the opposite effect. She has stopped brooding quietly when someone cuts in line. “I say, ‘Excuse me, there’s a line here.’ “

Anthropomorphic Gearhead Gnarlyness

You’ve probably seen the extensive promotion for the new Pixar film, Cars.
Maybe you even thought they looked a little familiar?


Apparently, Chevron thought so as well. Here’s an ad from the entertainment section of today’s paper.

It’s pretty clever, I had to look carefully to see if it was a tie-in but it’s not. It’s a pretty bold move by Chevron to assert their identity and poke at Pixar, but also pretty smart.

Written in small text along the bottom left is meta-comment pointing out that this is a cool ad, and that you could cut it out and hang it on your wall. With the obligatory scissors-and-dotted-lines icon to show you how to cut it out.

Semi-persistence of memory

The New York Times offers some nice cultural insight on the phenomenon of decals in car rear windows as tributes to the departed. Decal Junky, cited in the piece, has six pages of memorial decals.

Arturo Ramirez of Cathedral City, Calif., who expressed his grief over the death of his friend Ernie Zamorez in a car crash in October 2004 by having 50 car decals printed at $5.50 apiece, said he sees the tributes primarily on cars of people with Latin American backgrounds. Trips around the Coachella Valley and Los Angeles freeways, however, turned up other backgrounds as well. “In Loving Memory of Rocco DeJoseph” read one decal on the back of a blue Saturn, positioned next to a decal proclaiming “Italian Princess.”

Those who study the way societies process death see the decals as yet another iteration of an increasingly mobile and transient America. “We try to keep track of our dead,” said Thomas Lynch, an undertaker and poet in Milford, Mich., who has written two books on the culture of death. “We’re the only species that does. There’s a need to name the loss, to give it some texture.” The decals, Mr. Lynch said, are “bringing the cemetery to the freeway.”

Gary M. Laderman, director of the graduate division of religion at Emory University in Atlanta and the author of two books on funeral customs, said the decals bring a do-it-yourself mentality to memorializing death. “It’s part of the post-60’s consumer empowerment, where everything can get caught up in commercialization,” Professor Laderman said. “Before, it was left to the funeral home. Now you take the production into your own hands and have it your way.”

In Southern California, where so much of life is conducted in cars, many people say it makes sense for death to be reflected there too.

Leanne Fuller, the girlfriend of Ernie Zamorez, said decals were the most efficient way to get word out about his death. “He had friends from high school who didn’t hear anything in the news, and they see the car and know he died,” she said, adding that she will keep the decal on her Honda Civic until it falls off.

Videogames to promote car brands

New York Times story about car manufacturers using video games and other gimmicks to promote new models

DaimlerChrysler’s research found that one-third of all gamers are 35 to 49, with an average age of 28, up from just 18 a decade ago. Women also have increasingly picked up on gaming, particularly online, in which they play against other people around the world. “There’s a growing wave of women gaming,” Mr. Bell said. Even though many of the corporate-sponsored games mimic ones that do not carry a commercial message, they are primarily a sales tool – just like traditional television campaigns.
But unlike television, which is virtually impossible to track in terms of actual sales, Mr. Bell said he has been able to match people who download games with sales results. For example, of the first 1,000 people to buy the Jeep Wrangler Rubicon when it was introduced, he found that 500 of them had downloaded and played the computer game created for the new model.


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