A Product is a Conversation

I am in conversation with hundreds of products a day.  From my Fitbit to my iPhone/iPad to my desktop computer to my Honda CRV, I converse with the products in my life.  Alexa Show takes that even farther by letting me interact by voice.

Conversing with Products

Yet, none of these products KNOW ME or converse with me in the context of knowing me.  Many of these products even have cameras that can “see” me.  As Larry Keeley observed “the average automated urinal knows how to act when I am present much better than does any computer device.”  The urinal knows when I am present, knows when I leave, and knows how to act when I leave – by flushing any evidence of my presence.

As I shared these thoughts with my colleague, Arjun Chakravarti, he reminded me that the “product is a conversation” needs to use something like the Zaltman metaphor elicitation technique.  Professors at Harvard introduce the technique at the Mind of the Market Laboratory website:

“Managers have been saying for years that their organizations should be consumer-oriented and market-focused. Of course, expressing a goal and fulfilling it are not the same thing. Achieving this goal requires basing marketing decisions on a thorough understanding of current and potential consumers. Gaining this knowledge is not easy, but it is essential to gaining and sustaining competitive advantage.

“Business executives deal with a variety of interesting and challenging issues in managing their products and brands, including the following:

      • What basic value or equity does my product or firm have in the consumer’s eyes?
      • How can I build or reinforce this value?
      • How can I establish a loyalty relationship with my consumers?
      • How can I anticipate and understand consumer needs, especially those they find difficult to express?
      • How do the habits of mind among my managers influence their thinking about consumer issues?
      • What am I really saying about my product or company in my advertising and by my promotions?
      • How can I establish a consumer focus as an integral part of my corporate culture?

“Answering such challenging questions requires an in-depth, fundamental understanding of how current and potential consumers think and feel about a product.”

“Yes, exactly,” I respond.  “But this Zaltman thing needs to be IN THE PRODUCT!”

The Honda CRV is a little bit better then a urinal, as it knows by my physical key that I am getting in the driver’s seat and adjusts the seat to my needs.  However, I found out by surprise that the CRV sneakily knows me through a camera hidden somewhere around the driver’s seat.  If I happen to yawn (which I did as we entered Moab, Utah after a long day’s drive), the driver side display changes and warning sounds start going off.  The car commands me to stop for some coffee.

Honda CRV Attention Monitor

These product conversations are mostly mechanical and limited.  With the exception of devices like Alexa, the interactions and conversations aren’t usually saved or analyzed in ways to add value to and evolve the product.

If you search for phrases like “product as a conversation” there are lots of results returned but they are mostly about a product manager needing to be in conversation with their customers.  An early variant of this recommendation was in the Cluetrain Manifesto where they described the “market as a conversation.”

What if a product could really converse with me?  What if a product remembered me and knew that I was present like I described in “My Story Teller Knows Me?”  What if a product could understand my needs and suggest things to me without my asking?  What if a product could enter into a value exchange relationship with me?

A long time colleague, Rachi Messing, reached out to me a week ago to see how I was doing in the Age of the V.  Rachi lives in Israel and often visits when he comes to Seattle.  On a recent visit, he kept pulling out his cell phone and checking it every few minutes.  Instead of giving him a hard time for his distractions, I asked what he was doing.  “Oh, you might be interested in this.  It is a real time rocket alert app that lets us know if the terrorists have sent a rocket toward my home.  I am just checking to make sure that it was a short distance rocket and not one that could reach my home while my wife and family are there.”

On our most recent call, he shared what Israeli intelligence was doing to help combat the spread of the corona virus.

“Corona virus phone tracking doesn’t just tell governments more or less where their citizens are, but can also show the phone owners’ “micro-environment” and provide a treasure trove of information about their physical surroundings, a systems engineer behind key technology being used in the battle against the spread of coronavirus has revealed.

“The data we analyze is about the micro-environment a person is in,” said Shaashua, vice president for product at Neura, explaining that the average phone has 14 sensors that provide information about motion, acceleration, light, and other aspects of a person’s physical surroundings.”

I was dumbfounded at how much information was kept and transmitted from our cell phones and then how they can be analyzed for micro location analysis.  Using the micro location analysis they can determine whether you’ve come in contact with a diagnosed corona virus carrier and then suggest/demand that you go into self-quarantine.  Rachi was asking me how I thought that kind of privacy invasion would go over in the US.

I laughed and shared “the U.S. NSA already has all of that information and Google most likely does.  The only question is whether they have enough computing power to analyze movements of 300 million people in real time.”  Later, I found an article that shared the kind of analyses that are being published:

“If you have a smartphone, you’re probably contributing to a massive coronavirus surveillance system.

“And it’s revealing where Americans have — and haven’t — been practicing social distancing.

“On Tuesday, a company called Unacast that collects and analyzes phone GPS location data launched a “Social Distancing Scoreboard” that grades, county by county, which residents are changing behavior at the urging of health officials. It uses the reduction in the total distance we travel as a rough index for whether we’re staying put at home.”

Analytics for Social Distancing

The Tectonix GEO team went farther and analyzed the spread of people who ignored social distancing while in Florida on spring break and where those students traveled to afterwards.

Spring Breakers spreading corona virus

As I kept searching, I came across an article that confirmed something that I had hoped/suspected existed – the ability to track health symptoms from a wearable watch.

“But that doesn’t mean wearable devices are powerless to help in the fight against COVID-19. Just like your smartwatch’s heart-rate monitor can alert you to possible warning signs of atrial fibrillation or sleep apnea, it can also spot warning signs that might signal your body is fighting a flu-like infection—if you know where to look.

“Cardiogram co-founder Johnson Hsieh discovered the correlation after tracking his BPM during a bout with the seasonal flu in January. He noticed that his normal sleeping heart rate was about 10 beats per minute higher while his body was fighting the virus and returned to normal as his sickness subsided. The higher BPM was also evident during other parts of the day, but sleep is where it’s easier to spot.

“It’s due to vasodilation, which is a fancy medical term for the expansion of the blood vessels during inflammation. As blood vessels expand, signals are sent to your brain to increase your heart rate and provide additional blood supply to inflamed regions.

“A pretty clear signal in your heart rate when you have symptoms that would otherwise be measured exclusively by a thermometer,” said Harish Kilaru, head of product at Cardiogram. “When your body is fighting an infection, both your sleeping BPM and your resting BPM are higher.”

Forgetting the “big brother” and privacy issues with these stories, they illustrate positive aspects of our devices being in conversation with each other at the data level.  Even at this level, the collection of products provide valuable individual and humanity survival information – in real time.

The components of this array of products are fairly standard in interesting consumer and enterprise applications.  Take a relatively simple Fitbit network of devices.

    • The Fitbit Alta HR wristband
    • The Fitbit Aria 2 scale
    • The Fitbit app on my iPhone
      • Utilizing Google maps for geolocation information on my walks
    • My Fitbit account in the cloud
    • The analytics in the Fitbit cloud to analyze sleep cycles and resting heart rate and maps of my walks
    • The sharing of accounts in the cloud for family members to track
    • The weekly scoreboard of my Fitbit tracking community

Through a combination of bluetooth connections between our Fitbit wristbands and our cell phones, cellular data transfer while we are mobile, and wireless data transfer when we are home, these devices share the data of my exercise life with me and with my family members.  Being a group of Type A personalities, a natural competition to outdo the others happens.

Yet, the conversations that are held within this hardware software computing/communicating network are data conversations.  There is no conversation with me.  The conversations that our family has around our exercising are completely outside of the Fitbit data sharing environment.  Fitbit is in conversation with my quantified self but not the cognitive me.

What if I could add to the data conversations?  What if I could have a conversation with Fitbit products that goes beyond a data exchange?  And also goes beyond the features I might like to what are my higher order goals and how Fitbit is fitting into my goal pursuit (that Zaltman thing again)?  What if I could have a real value exchange relationship with my Fitbit data network?

As I related these thoughts to Rachi, he mentioned an app that a former colleague is developing to help stroke patients and their physical therapists improve the patient’s walking gait after a stroke.  I almost jumped through the Skype connection “how do I get a hold of that app?  Working on my gait is one of the big challenges I’ve had with my physical therapist?”

So I reached out to One Step to see if I might get an alpha version of the iPhone app.  I was “approved” for the app.  The product manager sent this reply:

“I do think OneStep could be of help to you, certainly.  The OneStep app works like this: we are developing your phone into a mobile gait lab! This means you can simply record walks on your phone in the app, and we will analyze your gait and specifics about your walk. If you record one walk per day, even inside your home, or outside on the trails, every two weeks of recording we will send you a full report about your walk. And if you want, we can send it to your therapist as well! (Are you still in touch?). That way they can stay updated with your progress. If you don’t want us to send to your therapist, we can also have one of our own therapists look at the report and give their thoughts.
“You can also use it independently of any PT – and keep track of your healthy steps and get your gait reports directly on your phone.
“The app is still in development, so we will gladly appreciate your feedback throughout the next few weeks or months that you use it. It’s great to have you on board! “

The good news is that I have an app that can help with my physical well being AND I am in conversation with the product manager.  Even in its early stage of development the app will provide value.  And there is an exchange of value.  But this conversation is labor intensive on both my part and the product manager’s part.

This introductory email conversation raised several more questions:

    • What is the product?
      • Is it a product or a service?
      • Can I really make use of this product on my own or do I have to work with my physical therapist?
    • Who is the user?
      • Me?
      • The therapist?
      • The insurance companies?
    • Who pays for this?
    • Who receives what value?
      • Is there fair reciprocity in the exchange of value?
    • Why can’t the conversation be built into the product?

Another set of former colleagues built a user research product called dscout to provide In-Context insights in near real time.   I remember being astounded when they shared one of their early successes.  They talked about a popular retailer with over 70,000 members in their loyalty club.  The retailer was frustrated with how long it took and how expensive it was to field a research project to answer questions about how to improve their in store merchandising exhibits.  So the dscout team demonstrated in real time how to field a research study during their two hour meeting.  First they identified with the retailer’s loyalty app dashboard which members were in one of their stores that very moment.  Then they texted those members by cell phone to ask them to go to the men’s section of the store and take a photo of the shoe display.  Then they asked the loyalty members a couple of questions while they were at the shoe display.

Within minutes the retailer had qualitative and quantitative data to answer a shoe merchandising question they had debated for weeks.

Over the years dscout has added video responses to their survey questions along with automated speech to text and text analytics of the user’s responses.  The time and cost to field user research studies AND analyze the results AND make decisions is dramatically reduced.

What if user research capabilities were an integral part of every product?

The product then becomes a channel for value adding conversations.

A product is a conversation.

This entry was posted in Ask and Tell, Biodynamic, Design, Flipped Perspective, Learning, Product, Transactive Content, User Experience. Bookmark the permalink.

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