April 30, 2017

More Words by Yours Truly

If you’d like to read more posts by yours truly, follow the Flexport Design blog over on Medium. I’m pretty proud of what I’ve written so far. I’d love you to check it out.

Flexport Design BlogFlexport Design Blog

March 23, 2017

Dear Patrons,

We are experiencing significant delays on your Muni line due to: Choose your own reasoning

A) We removed much of the overhead cabling to improve the views around the city for upcoming festivities.

B) Four Metro trains broke down and caught fire simultaneously blocking all traffic in and out of the Muni Metro subway system. No, we don’t have any way to move or bypass these trains. We designed our tracks without a way to bypass stalled electric trains. (Did you know electric trains can stall out? We just did!) In our defense, though, we thought Italian-made electric trains would rarely break down!

C) Someone spilled some water in one of the stations and now the power is out in the entire subway system.

D) AT&T upgraded their cellular services in the Bay Area and no longer support 2G EDGE service which we relied on for GPS tracking. Thus, we have lost track of all Muni vehicles. Yes we were told for years this would happen, but we just kept saying Update Tomorrow” for the past few months.

E) Our tunneling project for the Central T subway is now a crime scene. It was actually a long con for several of Muni officials to steal everything in the Apple Store. They have escaped onto Caltrain. Which has hit a pedestrian and is now holding in all directions for 2-3 hours. 

F) We tried to install Norton Anti-Ransomware and it bricked all of our Windows ME machines. We can’t open fare gates or turn on the trains right now.

G) We had a meeting with the General Manager of Cincinnati’s historic subway system and took some of their advice a little too close to heart. 

H) We forgot to clean the trains and buses for a few days and it seems that a troupe of small animals have taken shelter. They are well armed.

We apologize for the inconvenience. We never planned for any one part of our transit system to ever stop working, so we have no alternates to suggest. Thanks for riding Muni.

Sincerely,

The San Francisco Municipal Transit Authority

January 25, 2017

What do you call a dark pattern that isn’t that dark?

Today, when opening a link from the Gmail iOS app that I recently installed (as per my usual behavior, I’ve been hopping around emails apps regularly) I ran into this odd behavior by the Gmail app.

Gmail’s annoying browser dialogGmail’s annoying browser dialog

When opening a link from the app, Google has inserted an interstitial dialog box asking you which Browser you would like Gmail to open.

First, I don’t have Chrome for iOS installed. Thus, showing me this dialog asking me to choose browsers is an advertisement for their browser. This would be fine if phrased as Look, we have Chrome for iOS now!” But it isn’t.

Second, the dark pattern emerges when you see that their default setting for this dialog is to ask me each time.

Google thinks it’s appropriate to remind me each time I click a link in their email program that they have a web browser they would also like me to download. That way it becomes a conscious choice to open Safari and not download Chrome. It’s an annoying and ugly user experience choice. Ugh.

Understand, this small tweak will increase downloads of their Chrome for iOS app, but this dialog is not automatically dismissed after selecting Safari once or twice. (Which I think was their original behavior, which has changed.)

If I had Chrome installed, I also might feel differently. Google could ask upon opening Chrome if I would like all Google apps to use Chrome as the default browser, then save those details to my Google Account. That setting would then propagate to Gmail and other Google owned apps. (Perhaps, even third parties authenticated with my Google account could sync that detail down.)

I know it’s not as bad as Microsoft’s dark pattern usage that got them into a court case with their users, but this is pretty damn annoying.

January 21, 2017

User research is glamorous

Ni Hao from your product and design teams in Flexport Hong Kong. Keep it locked for more seamless shipping from your favorite manufacturers.

December 13, 2016

Maven Drive

General Motor’s Take on Carsharing

With dozens of startups focused on reducing the need for personal car ownership, at least in urban areas, what’s a car maker to do? Join them, of course.

Here is a detailed review of a startup inside General Motors that is working to compete with the likes of Zipcar, Getaround, and other urban car-by-the-hour services: Meet Maven Drive.

Err, or is it Drive Maven? Both domains work… and the app just says Maven. Let’s go with Maven.

Car Sharing Primer

Car sharing platforms lets members rent a car by the hour or day, and include gas and insurance in the rate. During these multi-hour reservations, members can drive up to 180 miles per day, and return the car to where you found it. The cars have home” parking spots in in major apartment complexes, big parking garages, and in neighborhoods around the city. Some are even available at the airport and commuter train stations.

Members get quickly vetted for major driving infractions during sign-up and then are provided an app and a membership card that makes it easy to reserve and access any car on the platform.

Hourly rates run between $6–15 per hour or about $60–120 when reserved by the day. At first glance it can seem more expensive than a standard car rental. However, the last-minute availability, simple reservation process, and all-inclusive nature makes up the difference for those living in major cities.

For example, I rented a Zipcar for a two day trip to Yosemite over Christmas 2015. Zipcar rates don’t experience the massive fluctuations of standard rental car agencies, so for around $200 I reserved a tricked-out Mercedes-Benz SUV. I didn’t pay for gas, insurance, or a daily FastTrak toll rental fee. Better yet, I got to pick it up and return it in the basement of my apartment building.

I could have rented the same vehicle for around $80/day from a traditional rental car company, but I would have had to cough up for gas, their additional insurance, a FastTrak toll transponder, and the cost of getting to and from their airport location.

Zipcar has several hundred of cars within San Francisco’s city limits, as does Airbnb-like-serivce Getaround. New players like Enterprise Car Share have around 100 cars around the city, and Maven Drive has just under 30. Why Car Sharing Matters

For those not living in a major city, let’s imagine that having a car wasn’t totally necessary and was completely painful. Parking, expensive gas, insurance, tickets, and major congestion are all stacked against you.

Having a car in San Francisco is like living in car hell.

Parking is a small scale disaster — opening a weird market for apps that provide valet-parking-on-demand. Rush hour has crept out of the freeways and into most roads; featuring extended hours too. It can often last from 7am until well after 9pm, with little or no midday break. Above and beyond the congestion, driving feels perilous. Heading through SOMA or downtown makes you feel one step away from being in an accident with a lost Uber driver, getting sideswiped by a Muni bus whose driver doesn’t give a fuck, or accidentally running over a bicyclist that’s weaving through cars and running red lights.

I lived in downtown San Francisco for over two years, in an apartment building that charged over $400/month for parking. Mind you, this wasn’t even in the core downtown financial district, which can be even more costly. In my current residential neighborhood, street parking is as vicious as mall parking on Black Friday.

Current driving alternatives include the overburdened San Francisco public transit system, biking in dangerously-placed bike lanes, or utilizing transportation network apps like Lyft and Uber.

Public transportation in San Francisco is the cleanliness of New York’s MTA, the whimsical reliability of Boston’s MBTA, and all the likelihood of getting from Point A to Point B of the Cincinnati Subway, which was shuttered in 1948.” — Claire McNear of SB Nation.

Why You Should Trust My Review

This year alone, I’ve driven 5,637+ miles so far in Zipcars across nearly a hundred reservations. I am definitely a heavy user, and have been since 2012.

I have tried Zipcar and Enterprise Car Share, plus have experience with the standard set of rental car options from traditional companies like Avis, Hertz, and Budget.

Signing Up for Maven Drive

I was cooling down outside the Renegade crafts and arts fair in San Francisco a few weekends ago. In the back corner of the overcrowded festival, Maven had a large booth and a shiny, black car to entice passerby. Normally, I wouldn’t jump at the chance to try out a new car sharing service. I’m oddly loyal and protective of Zipcar, but I had a bit of an incident recently with them: Someone broke into my Zipcar during my reservation, and my account has been suspended for the past few weeks while they complete an investigation.

While at the fair, I signed up and was approved to drive about 24 hours later. My first reservation would be a day trip to San Jose. Humorously enough, I needed to get the police report for my Zipcar’s break-in.

The sign-up process for Maven isn’t involved, and is completed entirely by their responsive website. (In the app, it loads up a webview to complete the flow.) I have nothing against webview sign up flows — many companies use them — but I will always give gold-stars and brownie-points to those who implement a native sign up flow. For example, Simple.

Booking My First Reservation

The following Monday afternoon, I reserved a Maven car from 7:00pm for 24 hours.

Booking the car was simple enough, but it should be noted they have significantly fewer cars in the city than other options. Even Enterprise Car Share had more cars when they first marketed their service in San Francisco. The majority of the locations sit near the Civic Center / mid-market neighborhood of San Francisco’s downtown. To me, the primary market would be those who work or live in downtown, making these starting locations an odd choice. I ended up choosing the UCSF Parnassus location — which is a midpoint on my daily commute. Considering the low number of members, I could reserve nearly every vehicle whenever I would like to.

The primary New Reservation flow involves picking a location as a starting point and then filtering by time. It ranks the available cars by distance from the original locations. It’s not a bad flow, and is aligned with my mental modal. However, a lot of the UI details are unpolished, and alternate flows for seeing all available cars bring out the worst in the app.

A map with misaligned popovers (Left), an incredibly overwhelming filter shade (Center), and the booking screen (Right).A map with misaligned popovers (Left), an incredibly overwhelming filter shade (Center), and the booking screen (Right).

Reservations made on Maven, until recently had, to be cancelled before 24 hours out. (Meaning reservations you book for later in the same day could not be cancelled.) In the time since my trip and the publication of this review, they have changed their cancellation policy — reducing it from 24 hours out to 30 minutes before your reservation begins. I’m really glad to hear that they are iterating with the feedback from their users. It shows a level of commitment and increases trust within their driving community.

Pricing

Price-wise, Maven is competitive to other car sharing services. They feature the same $35 annual fee as Zipcar and Enterprise Car Share, which was waived as an incentive for those signing up at the arts fair I attended.

Unfortunately, they don’t have overnight discounts (flat rates for renting cars during the weeknight hours when they aren’t commonly used), don’t offer lower prices in the late evening (Zipcar’s rates are halved after midnight), and don’t have pre-paid incentives.

Right now I pay Zipcar $50/month which wavies my annual fee, provides $50/month in driving credit, and 10% off all reservations. Frequent trips can be more palatable when I can use a flat rate incentive, like Zipcar’s Overnight rate, which is $30 in San Francisco.

Start Your Engines

With my reservation made, I was off to find my Maven vehicle. They had branded signs on the outside of the garage, which were necessary considering the limited in-app instructions of how to get into the underground parking location. I wish they had included photos and even overly descriptive text on getting to the car. I feel so frustrated when I can’t find the car and my reservation has already started.

My home screen during my reservation.My home screen during my reservation.

Maven’s entire driver experience is keyless. You use their app to begin and end the trip as well as locking and unlocking the vehicle. The app communicates with Maven’s servers to authenticate itself and then appears to communicate using Bluetooth LE with the vehicle from then on.

Just like a real keyfob, pressing unlock twice opens all the doors. Because Maven uses a combination of Bluetooth LE and internet based communications with the vehicle, the app allows you to remotely heat and cool the car. Just set the temperature before getting out and Maven can turn the car on, without starting the engine, so it’s heated or cooled when you get back. It’s a neat touch.

I would prefer Maven to not require Bluetooth connections to lock and unlock the vehicle, instead also allowing those actions to be completed over cellular data. I love the proximity based technology, especially when cellular service is limited, but it is flaky enough that I want a backup option.

Driving

To my complete surprise, I loved the car I rented: a Chevy Malibu. It was astonishingly modern, and featured a comfortable faux-leather interior. The car itself was brand new, smell and all. It was peppy and fun; something I never thought possible from a Chevy Malibu. Color me impressed.

This vehicle was equipped with Apple’s CarPlay interface. It was my first time using CarPlay and was quite pleased with the experience, compared to the alternative; Chevy’s built in infotainment system is badly designed — no surprise. Being able to escape to CarPlay was a big bonus. Maven even keeps cables for your iPhone or Android device in the car, so you don’t have to remember to pack one or fish one out of your bag. This Chevy featured a large capacitive touchscreen, and despite a dearth of multi-touch features like pinching-to-zoom, and a laggy overall experience, it was significantly nicer than any infotainment unit I’ve used. Maybe the bar for these systems is so low anything better is considered godly.

All of Maven’s cars feature Wifi hotspots; providing 4G LTE speeds service during your reservation. It’s run by Cisco Jasper on AT&T’s network and is unlimited, free, and a really unexpected — but welcome — addition. Unfortunately, there is an occasional delay from when the Wifi network is available to when data is actually functioning, which can leave you struggling to get navigation or music working right off the bat. (I had to disable my phone’s Wifi and wait a few minutes before re-enabling wifi.) I hope this delay can get shortened or eliminated, but that is Chevy’s responsibility. Maybe a software update can at least delay when Wifi network’s SSID is broadcasted to after the internet connection is confirmed?

Stop and Start

I had a number of errands to run the night before my longer day trip, so I was getting in and out of the Chevy frequently over a 2 hour period.

At each stop, I had to launch the Maven app, wait 2–3 seconds for it to start and then perform the lock action. It quickly became quite tedious. The app stays connected to the car while driving and is fast compared to unlocking. Annoyingly, each time you exited the vehicle and close the driver’s side door the car honks three times. From what I can surmise, the car is alerting you that you left your keys” inside. There is no keyfob to take with you, yet the car honks every time you close your door.

Loading the app takes an extra 2–3 seconds each time to sign in (left), and you then wait for the app to communicate with your car (right). The entire process is about 7–10 seconds if all goes well.Loading the app takes an extra 2–3 seconds each time to sign in (left), and you then wait for the app to communicate with your car (right). The entire process is about 7–10 seconds if all goes well.

When unlocking the car, you have to reopen the app, which shows the login screen and a spinning dial every time. It’s an annoying wait for the app to initialize beyond a standard splash screen. Then you must tap the Key icon at the bottom and wait for the car and your phone to communicate with each other.

Sometimes this works well, other times it can cycle a few times and you’ll press yourself against the side of the car trying to get your phone to connect. While waiting you see this blue bar at the top as it searches for your vehicle. It flashes green and your lock/unlock actions become enabled once a secure connection to the car’s transmitter is established.

This communication delay is usually around 4–5 seconds, totaling 7–10 seconds from launch to unlock. It’s enough to introduce a little bit of friction in an experience that is usually instantaneous. This felt akin to how switching cable channels went from instantaneous to having a 3–4 second delay with the introduction of The Guide. Using a RFID card feels faster, even if they really aren’t. (I think it’s because you are performing an action rather than just waiting for a spinner to connect.) Plus, other services let you take the keyfob with you during a reservation, eliminating this process.

Introducing an Edge Case

Maven must be storing a per device fingerprint for unlocking the vehicle over Bluetooth, as you are not required to have internet service to unlock the vehicle. Unluckily, I was able to enter an interesting edge case during this trip. One of my errands was to get my phone fixed at the Apple Genius Bar. During this appointment Apple swapped my device out for a replacement iPhone. This meant that my Bluetooth MAC address changed midway through a reservation, and I’m sure the new phone didn’t sync any access tokens.

Unfortunately, Maven didn’t plan for this to happen. The app, despite being signed in on my new phone, was unable to establish a connection to my car. Instead, cycling through connecting” and the must be close to the car” messages.

I sat outside in the cold waiting for a couple minutes as it cycled through it’s connection steps. I tried cycling device power, Bluetooth, and singing in and out of the app. Eventually, I called Maven’s support team, flummoxing their agent. I didn’t have my original device to unlock the vehicle, and powering off the device, cycling Bluetooth power and walking in/out of range didn’t help. I repeated the uninstall and reboot process, which was paired with an refresh on the representative’s end. I was finally able to gain access and had no other long connection problems throughout the reservation.

This might seem like an edge case, something that shouldn’t be taken as a priority. That’s fair until you realize that people lose phones, buy new phones, and phone batteries die regularly. If your device is the only way to access the vehicle, you could end up in a tricky situation. I was standing in the cold for about ten minutes working with the representative to diagnosing the issue. I would hate to think about losing a phone or being stuck with a dead device.

OnStar

Maven is supported both by their dedicated representatives that you can call for General Questions or Issues” and OnStar. Inside their help tab in the app, you are pointed first to use the OnStar button built into each car for immediate assistance. Secondarily, and in smaller text, is Maven’s direct support line and email.

For those unaware, OnStar is a service by GM that provides car owners with a built in, one button connection to an agent to assist in emergencies. Their agents are notified if the car has been in a crash, and reach out proactively to check in and call paramedics. They can track your car if it’s stolen, and they provide assistance if the car breaks down or has an alert light come on in the dash. The connected Wifi hotspot feature, is rolled into OnStar’s service, as is the ability for them to find and program in GPS directions for you. (The last feature feels a bit like giving up on built in infotainment interface design, but I will accept the safety-while-driving reasoning as a cop-out.)

I called OnStar on the first day to get help with the Wifi feature, and she was happy to help point me to that feature, but to be honest I was given the impression that OnStar wasn’t really meant for these kinds of questions.

Filling Up

Just like most car sharing programs, fuel is built into the reservation cost. Maven vehicles have a fleet service card stored in the driver’s side visor that can be used at most chain gas stations. Swipe it at the pump and you’ll enter a Driver ID number and the current milage from the odometer.

I needed to fill up on my way back from San Jose, and I realized after swiping the card at the pump that I didn’t know my Driver ID number. Zipcar’s Drive ID number is just the first six digits of your Zipcar Account Number, and it’s stays the same from reservation to reservation — making it easy to memorize.

Maven has the Driver ID linked to each vehicle independently of which member is driving. It’s certainly one way to do it, and you can supposedly get it from the Fuel button on the active reservation page in the app. Unfortunately for me, the Driver ID / PIN and Billing Zip Code just stated: Contact OnStar.

I assumed this wouldn’t be hard, but you know what they say about those who assume… they have to listen to hold music.

I hopped back into the car and pressed the blue On” button near the review mirror. I was connected to a very upbeat agent, to whom I said: Hi, I’m driving a Maven vehicle and need the Driver ID number to fill up the vehicle. Actually, first, do you know what Maven is?”

A long pause as he thought about it: …Yes.”

Okay so I need the Driver ID number for this fleet card to be able to fuel up.”

Another long pause. I imagine he’s frantically searching through his operations guide to figure out what to do: …okay… what is your name, birthday, and billing address”

I provided my information and after another long pause reconfirmed, Could you get that number and billing Zip code for me?”

A third pause, Sure, let me look that up, can I place you on a brief hold?”

Sure!”

The agent disappeared for a few minutes and came back a bit confused about what exactly I was asking for. I ran through the process laid out for refueling a Maven vehicle. He went back on hold for a few minutes and then asks some clarifying questions:

Do I have the fleet card?” Yes.
 Did I check in the app?” Yes, it said to contact OnStar for this number.
 Did you call Maven?” No, because the app says to contact OnStar.

Back on hold. The music is quiet and the voice mentioning the OnStar agent will be back momentarily” is one of the most calming voices I have ever heard.

He surfaces briefly to give me an update that he is talking to a team lead, and then I’m back on hold.

Finally, he comes back and said: Do you have a pen and paper?” Success! With the PIN number located I followed up with the billing zip code. He said the billing zip code should be the Zipcode of where I found the car. I was skeptical and just hoped that it wouldn’t be required at the pump. (It wasn’t.)

Refueling shouldn’t have taken 15 minutes long, and I get that the agent was probably dealing with this question for the first time. However, each time I was asked to contact OnStar for support, it felt like I was asking them to do more than they initially signed up for. They were the ones that called Maven’s agents for me, and they were the ones that attempted to figure out who the hell I was. Full points for being so nice and pleasant and dedicated to figuring this out.

I imagine Maven sent a memorandum to the OnStar team which outlined: Maven is a thing. People rent cars through an app. If they call you, help them, or call us. Sound good? Good.”

End Trip

Near the end of the reservation, I used the app to extend the end time by one hour via the app. This worked seamlessly, and I ultimately returned the car with about 25 minutes to spare.

Unlike other services, you must manually end your Maven reservation. Zipcar ends the reservation automatically, so this added step is an annoying bit of friction. After circling the block trying to find the parking garage entrance, wishing again for more directions of how to park in the app, I found myself standing for 10 minutes in a parking garage, praying for cellular signal. To me, it appeared that the app needed to be open and connected to the vehicle and my cellular service to end the reservation.

The app didn’t time out, just sitting and spinning after tapping End Trip. I ended up force quitting the app twice and stepping closer towards the street, eyes on my vehicle and the spinner hoping it would end the trip. It eventually worked and I was presented with a brief survey.

This entire End Trip” step was not remotely necessary. It’s clearly possible for Maven to know if the vehicle is running or if it’s not at its home location. There is no need to have me end my reservation manually, and the consequences if I forget to do this extra step are steep: $50 in initial late fees, plus reservation time. I could easily see myself forgetting and walking away, not using my phone for a couple hours while racking up expensive penalties.

Oddly, my phone sent multiple push notifications to alert me to end the trip 5 minutes before and after my scheduled reservation time. It was odd to receive these notifications, since I had already ended the trip; I think the inconsistent internet connection confused the app.

After I ended the trip, quick survey of my experience booking and using Maven appeared. I think I was generous for my ratings, as I really liked the car and was mostly amused with the difficulties I had. Then again, I like trying these new experiences and working through problems… so I’m not the average user.

Thanks for Returning Your Vehicle

The entire Maven was a bit hairy at times, but not something I’d give up on completely. I don’t know if I’ll switch away from Zipcar for my car sharing service of choice at the moment, mostly due to significant differences in vehicle availability and better pricing for my type of driving (late nights and on weeknights). However, for road trips and long day trips, Maven is a strong competitor.

If I could change anything about the app, I would like to see it feel less phonegappy.” This is the term I use for apps that feel like they were built using a cross-compiling service. They feel not-native, and are often built with Adobe PhoneGap or another similar tool. There were minimal native iOS interface elements, and I’m pretty sure it’s something they built once and deployed for both iOS and Android.

It’s not necessarily bad, but I expect higher of a company backed by GM. Well, actually, I take that back. This is totally the experience I expected from GM: a sub par, non-native app, an experience that was pretty rough, edge cases that weren’t solved for, and mildly confused support agents.

I wanted Maven to be better.

To Julia Steyn, the VP of Maven at GM, and her 40 or so employees:

I hope you guys can read through this feedback with an open mind. There is a lot of potential here. Especially for a company with the resources of GM. I really want you guys to succeed, and I think that Zipcar and Getaround could do with a another strong competitor.

Play into your strengths: keep adding brand-new cars, keep them super clean and maintained, integrate better with OnStar, and keep finding inventive ways to make the entire experience fun. Start to build out a really strong engineering and product team back at HQ. Build native iOS and Android apps, and get few strong designers who can be given the space and authority to clean up the UX/UI and service design. Build out a web app for managing my account and making reservations.

I’m happy to provide more detailed feedback, if you guys would like. (You already have my info.) Remember, Zipcar did not start with a perfect experience. I started using it nearly a decade into the company’s history. Maven is getting there fast.

Good luck out there.


This post was written by Quintin Carlson. He’s currently a product designer at Flexport, designing how planes, trains, boats, and trucks move goods from one side of the world to another.