Friday, 9 September 2011

User Experience: Petrol Pump

Objective: How to enhance the user experience at a Petrol Pump?

The Story:

I recently came across this problem statement, that was given to the manager of a Petrol Pump. I imagined myself to be that manager, and thought, thought hard! Then I browsed the internet to have a look at the variety of petrol pumps that we usually come across.

I also thought about some of the characteristics of a petrol pump :
  • Petrol is more of a commodity, with prices differing only between states. Some companies tried to create Premium products but I have seen commoditization even on those premium products. So, a person is largely indifferent on where the petrol is getting filled from! 
    • There might be exceptions: Example: People believe petrol available on highways might be impure and ruin their engines. 
  • Personnel at a petrol pump understand numbers, so one needs to indicate what and how much is required. And since, petrol or diesel doesn't usually have local names, language barriers are low. 
  • Services usually offered at a petrol pump: Petrol filling (obviously!), Air Check and Pollution check
  • Petrol pumps are businesses of scale just like hyper markets. 
  • Service design - 
    • How many vehicles can fit in at a time?
    • Maximum capacity
    • How will vehicles get in?
    • How will vehicles get out?
Now, my thoughts went on to how can one enhance the user experience given such characteristics of a service. And an important point to note is that, "Enhancement of User experience is not an end goal, it is a continuous process. One can add some components in a service that may seem to achieve the goal, but it will be momentary."

Without any proof, I dare to show how a user experience curve might look like, something like this decay curve over time!
Hence, my point here is not to build the perfect service, rather build relationships over time; relationships between employees and customers, that give the necessary feedback into the system to enhance further. Here we go with my observations on how some petrol pumps do that:
  • As soon as we enter some petrol pumps a person guides us to the shortest line, or stops us or the line to get shorter. He also indicates the approximate time required to wait. In India, usually it is 2 minutes!
  • We also observe arrows to indicate the manner in which our vehicles should enter the filling areas and out of it.
  • A friendly smile when we stop the car is always welcome!
  • While, our vehicles are getting their food, someone comes over to ask "Sir ji! Shall I clean your windshield?" So, by the time the refilling id done, your windshield gets a makeover!
  • If you are paying by card, there is an apprehension as the cashier takes the card along inside a queer building. To change all that some petrol pumps are now equipped with mobile card swipes for Visa to American Express! (American Express, although an express, is the least accepted card in India, according to my observations! That's why it needed special mention :) )
  • I would love if someone would be able to check the tire pressure as well while I am filling. This trend is yet to catch up due to some unknown reasons. But this would be really useful!
  • Extra lubricants, and oils within a hands reach is always better at the petrol filling station. Not many petrol pumps do that, hence causing that unnecessary delay in delivery the service
  • Petrol pumps are also the best places for driving directions (till the days when we will each get a GPS!) So, an intelligent, direction-informed attendant is a good resource at any petrol pump.
  • I think the idea of a supermart at a petrol pump has still not picked up in India. But, I have surely seen the potential for a small vendor selling ready snacks like chips, tetra pack of juices, cans of cold drinks etc.
  • And finally, if the person filling up my car gives that "I know you!" smile and the greeting then it makes us feel special! We feel like sharing our car troubles with him. We also give the person tips at times! And, as we embark on our journey for user experience, this is the just beginning.... ...

Friday, 2 September 2011

Jumping to Solutions

What do you think is the biggest challenge in an Ideation exercise?

Why do you think, most of the solutions fail?

Why does even research does not bring out all the issues?

How can you hold a brainstorming session to build a solution more fruitful and effective?

As we deal with these barriers and many more, we realize that there is a key to at least put ourselves on the right track. The key is obviously driven by the capability of the people working on the problem. But, as long as a conscious effort is made to remember the key, we would not lose our focus.

And, no we are not going to suggest that building a clear objective is the key. Although, we do not deny the importance of building a clear objective, but we are going to delve one level deeper. And we are going to explain it with the help of some examples.

So, what is this key? The key is to understand the underlying systems, components, players and influencers before jumping on to solutions. In other words, it is necessary to first understand what the problem is. 

Right Approach
Wrong Approach

Now, let’s go through some examples:

Example 1:
One of the big problems in South Africa that people were trying to tackle was human-elephant conflict. Elephants used to encroach on farmland and destroy livelihoods. In response, some farmers resorted to poisoning or shooting elephants.
Environment conservationists jumped to solutions for solving this problem. All kinds of modern technology solutions were proposed, and many trialled: Electric fences, RFID tagging, sensors and live-GSM-tracking among them. Most of the solutions failed since they were not replicable, scalable, and/or affordable.

Solution: Elephants run away when they encounter bees. According to this BBC article, early research in Kenya indicates hives can be a very effective barrier, so much so that 97% of attempted elephant raids were aborted. Where satellites, RFID tags and mobile phones failed, humble honey bees proved to be the answer. 

Also note how honey bees also proved to be an alternate source of income! 

Example 2:
Wimbledon had an interesting battle on and off the courts: against the pigeons. Each summer, as tennis players battle it out on the lawn courts, the authorities used to battle and stop pigeons from interfering with the play. Authorities armored themselves with all sorts of modern technology that was available: lasers and radio controlled aircraft to gas guns and ultrasound emitters. Now, we can understand what the courts would have looked like with all equipments, like a battleground?

Solution: Now, if we look from a pigeon’s perspective, all these high tech equipment might be dangerous, but nothing is a match to a bird of prey! Hence, Wimbledon’s answer doesn’t involve anything more high-tech than a bird of prey! A few laps by Rufus, the hawk, around the tennis courts are enough to scare the hardiest of pigeons away! (Source:

In India, we solve a similar problem of monkeys using langurs to scare them off!  

Example 3:
One very big cosmetics company in Japan received a complaint that a consumer had bought a soap box that was empty. Management of the company immediately traced the problem to the assembly line that conveyed all the packaged boxes of soap to the delivery department. For some reason, one soap box went through the assembly line empty. 

Management asked its engineers to solve the problem. The engineers worked hard on the first solution that came to mind, using X-ray technology. They devised an X-ray machine with high-resolution monitors. Two workers were deployed full-time to monitor all the soap boxes that passed through the line to make sure they were not empty. They managed to solve the problem but it was an expensive solution.

Solution: The solution was taken to the assembly line and the installation was started. Out of curiosity, one of the workers asked about the installation. On hearing the whole story, he told his engineering manager that the solution was much easier – install a fan- it will blow away all the empty boxes and the assembly line will deliver only full, heavier packages!

Conclusion: As our world is becoming more complex, our problems are becoming even worse! We have numerous methodologies to solve these complex problems, but we observe, increasingly that these solutions are not s effective or efficient as we would have liked them to be! The reason, which we also call the “key”, to get our final solution right to a greater extent is not to jump onto solutions. Some of the examples here might help us in realizing our shortcomings, hence, improving our methodologies and thinking!