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Monthly Archives: March 2016

Site review: Carspring

I like cars. I like marketplaces. I worked at carwow. It’s fair to say that cars and marketplaces is a good combination for me. I was therefore very excited when I came across Carspring, a UK based marketplace for used cars. My initial thought was “why do we need another platform for selling and buying new cars, we’ve already got loads of those!.” However, I then looked into Carspring and this is what I learned:

My quick summary of the site (before using it): Another site where I can buy or sell used cars. Given that lots of people in the UK own a car, there are currently about 40 million cars on the UK roads, I’m not surprised to see another player enter the market for used cars.

How does the site explain itself in the first minute? – “A car for every journey” is what it says at the top of Carspring’s homepage. The strapline below that intrigues me though: “Hand-inspected, personally delivered.” This suggest to me that Carspring does more than just being an intermediary which connects buyers and sellers. It gets really interesting when I scroll down the homepage and see a section titled “How it works”:

  1. Choose a Carspring certified and inspected car – Carspring guarantees that all the cars on their site will have gone through a 128 point inspection by the AA and an additional inspection by Carspring’s in-house team before they arrive at the customer.
  2. Select a payment method (finance or buy) – Interesting to see that customers can apply for financing through Carspring, given that this service is heavily regulated.
  3. We deliver the car straight to your doorstep – This reminds me of Shift, a US based online platform for used cars which also does delivers cars to your doorstep. I listened to a talk by Minnie Ingersoll, coo-founder and COO at Shift talking about door to door delivery of cars to their customers.
  4. Relax with our 14-day money back guarantee –  Especially when it comes to buying a used car, I can imagine that customers will feel reassured by Carspring’s 14-day money back guarantee.

 

Carspring 1

 

Carspring 2

Getting started, what’s the process like (1)? – After I’ve clicked the “Show all cars” button on the homepage, I land on a page which features a list of cars, with the top of the page saying “162 results.” I can see a “Sell a car” call to action in the top right hand of the page, which in my view could be more prominent in order to encourage more people to sell their cars through Carspring. There seem to be a number of cars that are “Coming soon” but I’m unsure as to when these cars will actually become available for sale. I believe Carspring could do a better job explaining what ‘soon’ means for each individual car and alerting the interested buyer as soon as the car has become available.

 

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Getting started, what’s the process like (2)? – I look at the product page for a 2012 Fiat 500, I’m presented with a rather large image of this car and a sticky footer encouraging the user to click on ‘buy’ or ‘finance’. There’s something to say for keeping the product page simple for the user to navigate, but the large picture and the footer feel quite overwhelming. As a result of the large image and the sticky footer, it’s not immediately apparent to me that this is a carousel which lets me see one more picture, that of the car’s dashboard. Having thumbnail images of the car e.g. its interior and exterior below the hero image would be more intuitive.

 

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I like how Roadster does its product pages, providing all relevant information at a fingertip. To be fair, the product page contains the same info that Roadster offers, but purely because of the way this detail has been laid out I feel I have to work harder to get to this information before deciding to buy the car.

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Getting started, what’s the process like (3)? – The filtering function on Carspring works well; the filtering options are clear and I can see at a glance the number of available cars per filter. However, because the supply of certain makes and models is still relatively small, filtering and sorting doesn’t feel as helpful as it could have been if there had been a larger number of cars on offer. For example, when looking at BMWs I started with 7 models and finished with 2 cars after I’d done all my filtering.

 

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Getting started, what’s the process like (4)? – Given that Carspring is a two sided marketplace it’s just as important that the seller of a car has a good experience. For me, Carspring’s biggest differentiator is that it inspects and grades your car. As a buyer, this gives me confidence about the quality of the car that I’m buying. As a seller, the process needs to be transparent and this will come from Carspring inspecting and grading your car upfront, providing sellers with a guaranteed sale price.

 

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How does Carspring compare to similar services? – Carspring does feel very similar to its US counterparts in the aforementioned Shift, Carvana, Beepi and Vroom. The points of differentiation between the various used car marketplaces seem minimal. For example, Vroom offers a 7-day money back guarantee and Beepi does the same within 10 days. What I liked about Beepi is the ability for the consumer to get in touch with person who’s certified the car in question.

 

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Did the site deliver on my expectations? – Yes. I can see Carspring’s model scaling rapidly, and I expect to see their car offering expand very quickly. The site lets users down in some places with usability issues that could be fixed fairly easily. I believe that the ultimate success of using Carspring won’t necessarily lie in the site’s experience, but will depend on the quality of the car delivered to a user’s doorstep. This ‘offline’ experience will determine whether people will come back to Carspring to buy their next used car and spread the word to their friends.

Related links for further learning:

  1. http://www.forbes.com/sites/edmundingham/2015/09/10/can-tech-start-up-carspring-disrupt-the-42bn-used-car-market-in-the-uk/#7f2e331712f0
  2. http://techcrunch.com/2015/05/12/carspring/
  3. http://blog.carspring.co.uk/what-were-about/
  4. http://www.engadget.com/2015/12/02/what-are-the-chances-you-ll-buy-your-next-car-online/
  5. https://www.carspring.co.uk/content-disruption
  6. https://www.carspring.co.uk/england
  7. https://www.vroom.com/how

 

 

 

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My product management toolkit (7): learning about user needs

A key thing I’ve learned as a product manager is to validate a proposed product strategy or user assumptions before committing a lot of time, money and effort to a specific product idea.

I believe there’s a lot you can learn as a product person about user behaviour without having to rely on a dedicated UX researcher. In fact, lots of the startups I’ve worked at didn’t have a dedicated UX researcher. I thus learned simple ways to learn from users and validate my assumptions. “User research” is a very broad concept, but for me it’s all about user behaviour and feedback throughout the product lifecycle. Let’s start with the first question to ask: “What are the needs of my (target) users and why?.”

Tool 7 – User research, learning about user needs

What’s user research? – I’ve noticed how people tend to use the terms ‘user research’, ‘user testing’ and ‘usability testing’ interchangeably. I’m personally not a big fan of using the term ‘user testing’ since it sounds like you’re testing the user. In contrast, you want to learn about your users; how they, think, feel and act. It’s easy to sit behind your desk and make all kinds of assumptions about your users and their needs, but these remain guesses until you actually get in front of your users. “Validating Product Research” by Tomer Sharon covers the key questions to ask of your users and provides lots of techniques to get answers. Sharon’s book is a must read for anyone wanting to learn more about how to best do user research.

What does it mean to be learning about user needs? – Too often I see products or features being launched based on a ‘hunch’ or on something that a competitor is doing. UX and product management consultant Melissa Perry refers to this as ‘the build trap’: companies going straight into build mode without taking a step back to find out whether a product idea actually fulfils a user’s needs. The sooner you figure out whether a feature or product is worth building, the better. This will save your company lots of time and money in case you learn that your customers don’t want pay for a product or that it doesn’t solve their problem.

When to learn about user needs? – In “Validating Product Ideas”, Tomer Sharon explains that learning about user needs can happen when ‘strategising’ – working out what to build and why – or post product launch. As part of my toolkit I spend a lot of time and effort on understanding needs, ideally before a single line of code has been written. It’s important to do generative research to understand the scale and nature of a user problem before evaluating potential solutions to solve this problem.

How can you learn about user needs? – There are number of techniques you can use to learn about user needs:

  • Interviews – When interviewing your (target) users, listening is absolutely key. I’ve seen product people making the mistake of using conversations with customers to confirm their assumptions, only hearing what they want to hear. When conducted well, interviews can be a very rich source of products ideas and learning about user needs.
  • Observation  One of the reasons why I always like to observe people in their own habitat is that it provides an opportunity to truly understand people’s current behaviour without your product or service. Does the user really have the problem that your product is looking to address? Is is as a big a problem for the user as you think it is? If so, why?  Reframer is a good example of a tool that you can use to note down your observations.
  • Diary study – With a diary study, participants document their activities, thoughts, decisions and opinions over a period of time. The main benefit of this technique is that it gives you a good insight into what your users actually do and think. As Tomer Sharon mentions, “it reveals behaviour that would be hard to remember in interviews or surveys.”
  • Survey – Online survey tools like SurveyMonkey and Typeform provide a quick and easy way to learn from a large number of users within a short space of time. The main downside of surveys, however, is that you’re limited in exploring the ‘why’ behind certain survey answers. Interviews and observation can be more effective in this respect.
  • Experience sampling Experience sampling is a technique that helps you to answer a high level business or strategic question. In an experience sampling study, research participants are interrupted several times a day or week to note their experience in real time; users are being asked the same question repeatedly to strengthen the validity of your findings. This method will enable you to learn more about users’ objective needs and reduces the risk of users speculating about expected behaviour.

Main learning point: One of the key things to learn as part of user research is whether a product or feature really meets your users’ needs and whether the user will pay for your solution. Finding this out as early as possible will help you in validating your assumptions and in understanding whether your idea solves a real user need.

Related links for further learning:

  1. http://melissaperri.com/2014/08/05/the-build-trap/
  2. http://www.leanresearch.co/book/
  3. http://www.wordstream.com/blog/ws/2014/11/10/best-online-survey-tools
 
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Posted by on March 20, 2016 in Product Management, User Experience

 

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Elliptic – Investigating Bitcoin transactions

The other day I wrote about blockchains, looking into this new technology. I then came across a company called Elliptic that specialises in “identifying illicit activity on the Bitcoin blockchain.” It made me realise how blockchains can be used for all kinds of illegal activity. Also, I can now see a clear link between digital identity management and blockchains.

Transparency is a key aspect of blockchains and, going back to the original purpose of blockchains, it helps Bitcoins to complete financial transactions through the chain. Naturally, there are lots of users who don’t like the transparency aspect and use anonymizing services to cover tracks when doing transactions through the blockchain.

I read an interesting article about how anonymous users and their transactions can still be identified, tracking users’ activity both in real-time and historically. There are a number of centralised services within the blockchain e.g. wallets and exchanges which have access to user and transaction info. Also, by doing an activity or user network analysis, one can find out more about the type of transaction and the identity of the users involved (see example in Fig. 1 below).

Fig. 1 – An example of a sub-network between the thief, the victim and three other vertices – Taken from: http://anonymity-in-bitcoin.blogspot.co.uk/2011/07/bitcoin-is-not-anonymous.html

 

Network analysis

The majority of Elliptic’s clients seem to be either law enforcement agencies or financial institutions. For example, one of the uses cases that Elliptic caters for is making sure that the bitcoins a client acquires aren’t derived from the proceeds of criminal activity. Elliptic says that in the past year it has been able to map the entire 35 GB transaction history of the bitcoin blockchain.

Interestingly, Elliptic has created a visualisation technology to provide a number of anti-money laundering (‘AML’) services. If you look at the sample visualisation below (see Fig. 2), you can can see how Elliptic can visualise ‘known’ entities e.g. exchanges whilst naming illicit marketplaces and money laundering services.

Through an API, Elliptic’s clients will thus get real-time alerts about any bitcoin payments linked to known thefts, illicit marketplaces and other criminal activity, which are all identified by name. As a result, financial institutions can effectively do real time compliance, adhering to compliance regulation as transactions take place through the blockchain.

Fig. 2 – “The Bitcoin Big Bang” visualisation by Elliptic – Taken from: https://bitcoinmagazine.com/articles/elliptic-launches-anti-money-laundering-visualization-tool-1435089559

elliptic-launches-anti-money-laundering-visualization-tool

 

Main learning point: As I mentioned in my previous blog post, the world of blockchains is a new one to me. Learning about how people can abuse this new technology is therefore just as new to me. Learning about how Elliptic helps financial institutions and law enforcement agencies to identify illicit blockchain activity has given me a first understanding of how one can work through to blockchain networks to figure out its users and transactions.

Related links for further learning:

  1. http://dupress.com/articles/trends-blockchain-bitcoin-security-transparency/
  2. http://insidebitcoins.com/news/sabr-io-identifies-illegal-activity-on-blockchains-willing-to-work-with-law-enforcement/34307
  3. http://fsroundtable.org/cto-corner-what-is-a-blockchain-and-why-is-it-important/
  4. http://www.coindesk.com/network-analysts-view-block-chain/
  5. http://www.financemagnates.com/cryptocurrency/innovation/elliptic-launches-bitcoin-big-bang-anti-money-laundering-tool/
  6. https://bitcoinmagazine.com/articles/elliptic-launches-anti-money-laundering-visualization-tool-1435089559
  7. http://anonymity-in-bitcoin.blogspot.co.uk/2011/07/bitcoin-is-not-anonymous.html
  8. http://arxiv.org/abs/1107.4524
  9. https://www.elliptic.co/financial-institutions/
  10. http://www.dfs.ny.gov/legal/regulations/revised_vc_regulation.pdf

 

 

 

 
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Posted by on March 15, 2016 in Data, FinTech, Open Data

 

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Blockchain – what’s all the fuss about!?

I love how blockchain has quickly become something that applies to lots of different things; from blockchain applications for Airbnb  to loyalty rewards to solar panels. Blockchain is quickly becoming one of those buzzwords, so it was good to get some clarification in a recent episode of the “Breaking Banks” podcast.

Blockchain started as a peer-to-peer electronic cash system, enabling anyone in the possession of Bitcoins to pay without the need for a middle man but has quickly become a way to enable a much wider range of transactions. From listening to the experts on the aforementioned podcast episode, I learnt more about the essentials behind Blockchain technology:

  1. Infrastructure or operating system – Blockchain technology effectively acts as the operating system or infrastructure to keep a Bitcoin or any other digital asset secure. Ethereum, created by twenty year old Vitalik Buterin, is a good example of a Blockchain technology platform.
  2. Shared ledger as proof of transactions without middlemen – Blockchain isn’t necessarily a consumer-facing technology. However, it does enable transactions between consumers. For example, there are plenty of private blockchains that provide a ledger of transactions to keep Bitcoin secure, allowing users to agree on who owns how many bitcoins. Each new block requires a record of recent transactions along with a string of letters and numbers, known as a hash, which is based on the previous block and produced using a cryptographic algorithm.
  3. Technologically binding smart contracts around digital assets – In the above mentioned episode of the “Breaking Banks” podcast, Bart Stevens and Brock Pierce from Blockchain Capital, a VC that invests in Blockchain enabled companies, talked about the future about how blockchains power ‘smart contracts’ between two parties. Consumers won’t have to worry about the underlying Blockchain technology, but just use the service that has been built on top of it. Abra, a digital wallet and remittance service, is a good example in this respect.
  4. Digital identity management – Digital identities is another key thing to think about in relation to Blockchain and the transactions it facilitates. David Birch, a UK based FinTech and digital identity guru, makes the case that Blockchains are all about managing and protecting digital identities. Especially as Blockchain technology starts getting combined with the Internet of Things, digital identity management will be a critical thing going forward.

Main learning point: I feel there’s a lot more to learn about blockchain technology, but the main thing I’ve picked up sofar is the way in which blockchains will make it easier and more transparent for people to transact.

Validating transactions in the Blockchain – Taken from: http://www.tfreview.com/blog/what-blockchain-technology

Blockchain 1

Related links for further learning:

  1. http://www.coindesk.com/airbnb-exec-use-blockchain/
  2. http://www.coindesk.com/blockchain-what-art-thou-buzzword/
  3. https://www.quora.com/What-are-non-Bitcoin-applications-of-blockchain-technology
  4. http://bitscan.com/articles/five-big-blockchain-applications-to-come
  5. https://www.cryptocoinsnews.com/peernova-raises-8-6-million-utilize-blockchain/
  6. https://www.newscientist.com/article/2079334-blockchain-based-microgrid-gives-power-to-consumers-in-new-york/
  7. https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg22129553-700-bitcoin-how-its-core-technology-will-change-the-world/
  8. https://www.cryptocoinsnews.com/ethereum-co-founder-vitalik-buterin-public-private-blockchains/
  9. http://www.blockchain.capital/
  10. http://www.coindesk.com/blockchain-regulation-not-payments/
  11. http://thefinanser.com/2015/06/the-finanser-interviews-dave-birch-digital-money-and-identity-guru.html/
 
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Posted by on March 11, 2016 in Digital Strategy, FinTech

 

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My product management toolkit (6): assessing product opportunities

Prioritisation. A lot of product managers will have a love-hate relationship with prioritisation; constantly having to choose between ideas and making tough tradeoff decisions. Whichever way you look at it, prioritisation is part and parcel of our job as product managers. Before you prioritise a specific solution, I’d always you recommend you assess first whether the problem is worth solving in the first place.

A few weeks ago I wrote about identifying and validating problems. I’m now going to focus on assessing the opportunity related to solving a particular problem. Is the problem worthwhile solving? Why (not)? Has the problem already been solved? If so, by whom and how? I’ve learned that a simple opportunity assessment or business case can be very effective in helping to decide on whether to create a product.

Tool 6 – Assessing product opportunities

What’s a product opportunity assessment? – A product opportunity statement is a simple template invented by Marty Cagan and is meant to help people concentrate on the ‘right’ opportunities. How do you know which opportunities to focus on and which ones to discard? How do you prioritise between ‘great sounding product idea A’ and ‘great sounding product idea B’? What are the grounds on which you base such a – typically difficult – decision? Marty Cagan’s product opportunity assessment helps us work through these thorny questions in a very systematic and structured manner:

1. Exactly what problem will this solve? (value proposition)
2. For whom do we solve that problem? (target market)
3. How big is the opportunity? (market size)
4. What alternatives are out there? (competitive landscape)
5. Why are we best suited to pursue this? (our differentiator)
6. Why now? (market window)
7. How will we get this product to market? (go-to-market strategy)
8. How will we measure success/make money from this product? (metrics/revenue strategy)
9. What factors are critical to success? (solution requirements)
10. Given the above, what’s the recommendation? (go or no-go)

By Marty Cagan – Taken from: http://svpg.com/assessing-product-opportunities/

The thing I love about this approach is that it enables me to compare product opportunities or ideas in a very objective and like-for-like manner. Instead of going for the first solution to a problem that “sounds right” or “seems cool” you’re taking a step back and assessing a number of (competing) market or product opportunities, using the same questions or metrics to do an objective comparison. I’ve found that going through the process of assessing a product opportunity makes it so much easier to have really focused conversations about product strategy or goals that you are looking to deliver on.

What a product opportunity assessment isn’t – An opportunity assessment doesn’t aim to provide a solution to a business or customer problem. In contrast, it helps answering the question whether it’s worthwhile solving the problem in the first place. Another way to look at this is to look at the value or outcome that you’re looking to provide to your business or customer.

When to do a product opportunity assessment? – Too often, I see business people or product managers jumping straight into what I call “feature mode”: coming up with a feature or a solution instead of first looking at the problem to solve (and whether it’s worth solving) or the specific business or customer outcome to achieve. I’ve learned a lot from Valve, a well known gaming company, and from American based innovation expert and author Tony Ulwick in this respect. Both Valve and Ulwick focus on outcomes instead of outputs. It’s not about creating feature X. It’s about the value that this or any feature generates for the customer and the business. Similar to creating a business case, a product opportunity assessment helps you and your stakeholders understand why a problem is worth solving (or why not) and the value that solving it will generate.

I recently came across another useful framework by my friends at Xing, a business networking platform aimed at German speaking users. This framework is called “ACE” and stands for “Assignment Clarification Exercise” (see below). Similar to Marty Cagan’s product opportunity assessment template, Xing’s framework urges you to think about aspects such as “context” and “outcome.”

Xing

Xing’s “ACE” Framework – Taken from: http://produktfuehrung.de/framework-no-9-auftragsklarung/

Main learning point: Especially in situations where you’ve got a lot of opportunities to choose from, assessing the opportunity using Marty Cagan’s questions helps you to compare opportunities or ideas objectively. Whether you create a full fledged business case or use Cagan’s template, the key thing is that you assess the problem you’re thinking of solving, the competition, your target audience, etc. You’re thus assessing the ‘context’ around a problem, understanding whether it’s a problem worth solving or prioritising.

Related links for further learning:

  1. http://produktfuehrung.de/framework-no-9-auftragsklarung/
  2. http://svpg.com/assessing-product-opportunities/
  3. http://www.stephenbungay.com/Books.ink
  4. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Outcome-Driven_Innovation
  5. https://hbr.org/2002/01/turn-customer-input-into-innovation
  6. http://www.valvesoftware.com/company/Valve_Handbook_LowRes.pdf
 
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Posted by on March 1, 2016 in Product Management

 

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