For the past month I’ve been prototyping something and am ready to push it out there for wider consumption: Future of Transportation weekly.
FoT started accidentally — as a way for me to compile my weekly notes about things happening in transportation, logistics, automotive startups and the like. After I started sending these to some friends and they responded positively I realized I should just turn it into a distribution list. Like my blog, I use writing of this sort to help me think. So as a subscriber to my list you are probably going to learn something going on in transportation and how I think about it, but I’m definitely going to learn something from writing it.
I send each out on Sunday evening. Sign up here.
Yesterday my friend Ed Aten launched Merchbar, which he describes in typical Aten gusto as ‘the best way to discover and buy merch from the bands you love.’ I think of it as all of the t-shirts, hats, coozies, bandanas from the artists you care about. I would guess that in time this goes beyond music too, but music is a great place to start. As it turns out, in the rare instances I wear t-shirts, it’s typically an artist or label I love, like this Ghostly shirt or this DefJam hoodie. I don’t own these Britney Spears fingerless gloves but I might need to fix that so Zoe thinks I’m cool.
Since Ed is one of my favorite builders and thinks about things in ways I’m unable to see, I asked him to do a short interview about building Merchbar. What follows is our conversation. You can download the app today from the iOS App Store.
What does Merchbar do well that nobody else does?
We give fans one place to discover merch from nearly all of their favorite artists by bring together over 100,000 items from 3,000 artists. But we don’t just list it, we editorially curate great gear as well as use their music library and preferences to create a personalized list of great merch for each user.
What is the benefit of having an app for this as opposed to just Googling or Amazoning something?
First, Amazon doesn’t have what you want. There’s a report that of the top 200 artists, Amazon doesn’t have anything from half of them. For the other 100, more than half of the goods they have are counterfeit. That’s not great.
Google can occasionally direct you to an artists store, but more frequently you end up on an unknown website that you don’t know anything about. There’s no trust and when people do commerce online, trust is key.
Finally, you have to know what you are looking for. We’ve found there’s a huge amount of fantastic merchandise (like this holiday sweater for example) the average fan would never go searching for.
Discovery and adjacencies have always been a huge part of how I find music, so it only follows that music merchandise would eventually do the same. What makes for a good experience around adjacencies without making the user question your motives?
I think the key is to adopt the user’s motives as your own.
Real world stores have done a great job of this. Going into an apple store doesn’t feel transactional because they are building an education and shopping experience. Tons of effort goes into making a great setting for shopping.
"Shopping" is a different word than "buying" for a reason.
Buying is what you do at Walmart on the way home from work because you are out of toilet paper. Shopping is what you do with your friends on a Sunday by choice because its fun. Its an experience. It makes you happy.
We spend a lot of time thinking about and experimenting with how we can help fans have a great experience discovering that coozie.
That’s pretty interesting to draw the divide. I believe you are identifying that this market actually has a funnel to it, whereas most people just blindly assumed merch was a bunch of assorted transactions. Knowing that means you can actually explore how things connect, why people like to see and buy certain things, etc. Has testing revealed any adjacencies or overlaps that surprised you?
I won’t comment on other people’s assumptions since we intentionally, continually try and challenge all assumptions no matter where they came from.
One assumption we’ve challenged is the idea of a directional funnel: People start at the top and either move down towards buying or they are out of the funnel.
Everyone thinks of funnels like this while we all know there’s a whole world beyond that traditional funnel - the places people buy traffic from.
No one says “this person has been on Facebook for 3 years and hasn’t bought anything”. They say, lets target those people and buy to put them in our funnel. Then they move through the funnel or don’t count.
We look at it a bit different. If we earn people’s trust. If we earn their loyalty. If we earn people’s attention. Then when they find something want to buy or they have a need they will buy from us. If we give fans a fun place to discover and shop they can stay in the top of the funnel as long as they like - eventually they will come through.
Its not that we don’t want sales. We are a business - We want, and need, to make money for our artists and partners, but relationships that are only built on conversions are just transactional. That seems like the opposite of the relationship fans want with artists.
PS No adjacencies have surprised me. :)
I do admit that sometimes I just browse Amazon. I suppose this sounds just as crazy as hanging out in a mall. I’m looking forward to browsing and discovering things on Merchbar. Can I construct an outfit that is head to toe with my favorite artists? I assume there is an Andrew WK mouthguard or something.
Depends on the artist and how you like to dress.
Some artists have enough merch to clothe you and your ultimate frisbee team from head to toe. Other’s have a really select offering of merchandise.
Andrew WK should absolutely make a mouthguard… and a neck brace.
I guess it should come as no surprise the depth of Kiss merchandise on Merchbar. It just keeps scrolling and scrolling. What I found interesting is that beyond the common t-shirt and hat, there are a lot of different strategies at play for merchandising artists. In a world of uniformity this seemed striking to me. Which artists are doing interesting things with merch that I might not be aware of right now?
There are artists that view merch as an opportunity to make cool stuff and have for a long time. For them, their merch isn’t just unique and fun, but is part of their overall identity.
There are a bunch of groups having fun with it, but:
Krewella has a bunch of awesome merch and I really love the attention to detail they put into their gear. This Krewella hat is a great example of that. Everything about it is custom. From the stitching to the seam protectors on the inside of the hat.
Queens of the Stone Age made a great Nug Jar.
Foo Fighters made a great motorcycle jacket that would be awesome even if it had nothing to do with the Foo Fighters.
Last one - Modern Baseball made some really great flip flops for their fans.
Honestly there’s hundreds more. Its one of the big things we’ve learned doing this - that there’s a lot more great merch than people realize.
Thanks Ed and good luck on the launch. You can download Merchbar here.
It’s likely that some will remember this era of automotive innovation for user experiences gone wrong. Some manufacturers are tightly coupling their HMI (human-machine interaction) to that of a mobile phone OS, some not enough, others committing new sins that the devil himself never imagined.
What is clear within any 2015 model year product is that there is a lot of experimentation going on. And since many vehicles look the same on the exterior (based on a combination of aerodynamics, global design studios and a market that rewards similarity), I’m often finding the interior is the best place to actually get a feeling for a company’s point of view.
This point of view is actually much more difficult to ascertain than the old manner of testing and judging products. The ‘classic’ manner of vehicle testing did in many ways focus on HMI, but often only in a mechanical context (how the driver interacted with the weight balance of the vehicle, its engine, braking, steering, suspension, etc).
But this new era of vehicle experience as defined by HMI relates more to interior software and hardware as it does what’s under the hood. Getting a handle on this requires an incredibly longer time on task, with all manner of use cases and third party devices and services (phones, apps, networks) to be brought under consideration.
Unfortunately the publications that I used to love for car reviews haven’t considered this evolving driver experience to be important and don’t cover it nearly enough (sometimes calling this entire field, somewhat derisively, ‘tech’ and giving it short shrift). The downside of that means it’s quite difficult to understand if a car is good for you without actually owning it; user reviews are thus proving to be more important than traditional media until this gap is closed.
Nobody has cracked the code on testing in this manner yet, but I know someone will at some point. I like the work from car writers like Damon Lavrinc at Jalopnik and Wayne Cunningham at CNET. Outside of vehicle-specific media, the teams at design firms UsTwo and Teehan Lax are worth following. In fact Jeff Teehan’s rant about depressing car interfaces last year still brings a smile to my face because it is so on target.
Last week in Detroit I had the opportunity to drive the new 2015 Cadillac Escalade and it was positively brimming with new types of user experiences that I’ve never seen or felt before. The car is a rolling example of the expressionistic tools available to a designer today that go well beyond form.
In the Escalade, the driver’s seat is actually mapped to vehicle alerts such that edging closer to the right lane on a highway will vibrate the right side of your rear end, the left side the opposite; backing up out of a driveway into an obstacle vibrates the entire rumpus. Seat vibrations aren’t new to vehicles but mapping them to specific alerts and warnings is quite revolutionary. It is another way in which designers are putting their point of view on the vehicle in ways unseen to the exterior.
Unfortunately the new Escalade is also saddled with a number of user experience ills — including the hard-to-use and slow-to-react Cue touch display system — but as I said we are in an era of great experimentation. At least Cadillac is committing sins of commission and not omission.
This new era of experimental HMI will be so exciting and so frustrating. We ought to care more about how to translate that work to consumers to make smarter decisions.
(Photo: Dome Zero prototype from the 1970s)
I wonder how new uses for vehicles in the collaborative economy will shape how we judge them. Most of the current analysis of a vehicle’s worth is through the lens of ownership and I believe that be too narrow. For example, today Consumer Reports and the major car magazines put a heavy value on 12-month tests which are often indicators of durability, reliability and what I would describe as ‘livability,’ pointing out the little ways that the vehicle fits or doesn’t fit into our average, daily lives over a long time phase.
But new systems are available today that are shifting the unit of time we need to interact with a vehicle and of course the ownership and usage model at large. This means our view of a vehicle’s worth is likely to change.
Take, for example, the Daimler-owned Car2Go car sharing network that is available in 11 U.S. cities (esp popular in the Northwest). When it was announced that the service would only use the Smart Fortwo, I was among many who doubted it because I viewed that to be a grossly underwhelming car to buy. But then a funny thing happened: the Fortwo has proven to be perfectly adequate for this particular type of car sharing network. It’s small (easy to park), easy on fuel (cheaper for Car2Go and its users) and easy to spot in a parking lot (a problem when you’re using something for a short trip and find yourself in a crowded parking lot).
The architecture of the network plays into the Smart’s strengths, too. The Car2Go Smart cars can’t be booked far in advance (such as with Zipcar), which means people tend to use these for spontaneous trips for commute rerouting or quick errands. Contrast this with pre-planned big cargo trips (to Costco for example) which would expose the Smart’s tiny cargo capacity. Since you can’t do that with Car2Go, it somewhat brilliantly hides the car’s flaws and highlights its benefits.
As more types of car sharing are brought to market, we will see more currently unloved vehicles exposed as, actually, good cars. I know of one manufacturer that is actively studying car sharing usage as a product development tool — in time imagine a vehicle that is designed to target a specific part of the sharing stack. This might be a completely new form factor or one that is highly modified in the service of its end use.
Thanks to author Edward Niedermeyer who visited us car people at Stanford some weeks back and helped me germinate on this idea a bit.
We’ve made it another year and thus another couch kit. This is my home base for all the various streaming and twitter lists I follow to keep up with the race. What’s new for this year’s LM? Almost everything: a ton of new rules (see the videos below), new cars (Porsche is back in LMP!), new drivers. It should be either the most boring race of all time or the best yet.
On a personal note, my absolute favorite moment working for the factory Corvette team happened 10 years ago this month when we won GTS at Le Mans. Never before had I been a part of a team like that, under the coaching of The Doctor, and the fight with Prodrive was unbelievably well matched. I’m going to wear my LM24 ring all month to remember it.
(Note: this page updates frequently as links head back to the garage for repair. If you have a new link or comment, leave it in comments.)
Start time: 3PM CEST (9AM Eastern), Saturday June 14
US TV Coverage: Coverage on Fox Sports (formerly Speed) is not complete, and it does jump around a bit between Fox Sports 1 and Fox Sports 2. The full schedule:
(all times Eastern)
Timing / Scoring:
Other Useful Info:
New poster is below. Not sure how I feel about the new Le Mans logo.
Just awesome: 1977 qualie onboard with a Porsche 936
People ask me what driving will look like in 10 years and I always tell them I have no idea. What interests me more than what driving looks like is our framework for thinking about driving. What does that feel like in 10 years? Right now we take a lot of the driving experience for granted in the U.S., including the following assumptions:
All of the above will remain true in 10 years, but each and every one will start to evolve dramatically during that time period. All of the things I’ve listed are currently in the sights of entrepreneurs who are chasing down a radical future where our assumptions are upended.
Truthfully, many of them will fail.
But our entire way of thinking about these things will change, not in a solitary event but gradually like a tide. The reason for this has as much to do with the mobility entrepreneurs and their startups as it does the surge of technology literacy in the U.S: We will continue to expect technology to provide drastic improvements to all areas of life.
Recently Damon Lavrinc wrote a manifesto about this change, which I think will likely be one of the landmark turning points for this discussion. It has an eye toward the literal ‘experience’ for those who care deeply about driving being a personal (and highly manual) exercise of tires and engines and speed and things like they always were.
Putting it on Jalopnik was an act of civil disobedience itself, but the comments indicate it’s a conversation even the most ardent enthusiasts are comfortable having at this moment — mostly because we have suddenly arrived at a time where these futuristic-looking concept vehicles are both on sale and fantastic (see also BMW i8, Tesla Model S).
A few weeks back at Stanford we hosted the biennial conference for the Society for Automotive Historians and they capped their two-day session with a keynote by our friend and recently retired Nissan designer Masato Inoue. Masato-san started designing traditional things like the original Maxima but later in his career he spent a lot of time and effort thinking about mobility systems, EVs and a new way forward. His last big project before retirement was as chief designer of the Leaf EV.
In talking about EVs and systems, he said something quite beautiful: new systems bring new challenges, but they also bring new joys. One specific example he pointed out that hit home with me was the inherent stillness of an EV — with no vibration and very little sound, it can act as a rather effective tool to experience things near the vehicle. His cottage in Japan has a very quiet forest road nearby and he can drive his Leaf under 5mph, turn the windows down and hear everything around him. Thinking about EVs as a replacement for today’s vehicle is therefore permanently flawed; it’s just something else entirely and there will likely be things about it we don’t like but many new things we do.
Our idea of driving is evolving. It’s just happening a lot faster now than it ever has.