When the Product Becomes an Ad

When the iPhone first came out in 2007 and the gradual shift from feature phones to smart phones started, one of the common themes during this shift was that websites started to make mobile-friendly versions of their product. At the beginning, viewing web sites on a full-screen device (laptop or desktop) was much better than on your phone. On the phone, the text was tiny and it was hard to see any rich media. But as sites became more and more mobile friendly, it was delightfully surprising to see that some sites were better viewed on a phone than on a full-screen device.

One of the key reasons that sites were more delightful on the phone than on a laptop or desktop was that there were fewer (if any) ads on the mobile experience. One hypothesis as to why this came to be is because there is very limited real estate on a mobile screen as compared to a laptop or desktop screen. But as must be the case (revenue must be made), ads started to be integrated into the respective mobile web experiences.

Recently I noticed something on one of my favorite sites, espn.com, that caught my attention. When I visited the site on my iPhone, I saw that nearly the entire viewable area was covered by an ad:

Espn 1

Here, as the user, I had to touch the “X” in the top right corner in order to bypass this ad and actually view the site. This ad served as a gatekeeper standing between me and consuming the site’s content.

Espn 2

While it is understandable that ads must be integrated into a site’s design, especially a site that is content based and not selling anything, it’s another thing when each visit requires the user to get through an interstitial ad. It wouldn’t be a huge leap to compare this functionality to videos on YouTube that require the user to view an ad before being able to view the original video.

Jumping out of the digital space and into the space of physical products, I saw something that resembled this type of ad design. I noticed a Heinz ketchup bottle with an interesting label. Instead of just seeing the traditional Heinz name and product information, the ketchup bottle has a reference to the Trivial Pursuit game on the front label and a full explanation of the partnership on the back label.

Heinz 1

Heinz 2

One might argue that this partnership with Trivial Pursuit is fun and interesting and some users would get a kick out of this game being made accessible by the ketchup bottle. But the simpler explanation is that this is, simply put, an ad. And for me this was interesting because, similar to the ESPN example above, the majority of the product label is taken up by an ad.

So what to make of these ads in both the digital and physical space that seem to be getting larger, longer, and more pervasive? On the one hand, you can make the argument that they bring new sources of revenue to their respective companies. In fact, I’m fairly certain that in the ESPN case, they probably ran an A/B test that showed no decrease in usage when the full screen ad was introduced. And in the Heinz case, they probably did analysis that showed the same amount of ketchup would be consumed.

That being said, I still think there is a down side risk to this type of approach, and there is a potential to not be able to forecast or see that risk in the short term. The risk here, is a long term one, and is related to users’ perception of the quality of the product. In both cases, the huge prominence of ads may cheapen the product quality for the end user and open up the potential for users to leave the product for a competing product that has a more elegant and clean user experience. In the case of ESPN, an end user may get annoyed to constantly touch the “X” to close the ad and start to visit a competing site such as si.com. In the case of Heinz, users may be turned off by seeing logos for other products on the Heinz label and reach for a competing product.

Raising Prices and Improving Customer Retention

About a month ago, Netflix increased the monthly price of their subscription streaming video service for new users:

Screen Shot 2014-05-31 at 9.52.23 PMTypically, any time a business raises the price of a service, the natural reaction of the market is for existing users to decrease demand for that service and for an increase in subscription cancellations. However, Netflix did something clever that not only would keep these cancellations in check, but may even help improve customer retention.

By also announcing that existing users will keep their current rate of $7.99/month for the next two years, existing users feel special to be “grandfathered in” to this special low rate and have a financial motivation to not discontinue their existing subscriptions.


How Shiseido Ended Up Surprising My Mom (and me) After All

Last week, I wrote about getting a gift for my mom for Mother’s Day from Shiseido.com. I wrote about a couple of ideas I had for improving their purchase and post-purchase flow. My main complaint with their post-purchase flow was that they contacted my mom (the person who the order was being shipped to), instead of me (the person who the order was being billed to) when they had some questions with the order before processing the order. By contacting my mom through email before she received the package, they essentially ruined the surprise Mother’s Day gift. To say the least, I wasn’t too pleased. 

A couple of days ago, something happened that turned this somewhat negative user experience into a very positive one. I received a package in the mail that contained a Shiseido product, Eudermine Revitalizing Essence, and a letter from Shiseido corporate communications addressed to me:


To summarize, the letter acknowledged the negative user experience and mentioned that they sent the same complimentary product to my mom as well. Just to double check, I called up my mom and she had indeed received a second package from Shiseido with this product a couple of days after my original gift arrived in the mail. Like me, she had no idea that Shiseido was sending this product to the both of us to make up for the original experience with had — and she was very pleasantly surprised that her son was getting her yet another Mother’s Day gift. This amused me very much because, in the end, Shiseido did help me deliver a Mother’s Day surprise after all! Not to be one to take all the credit, I did tell my mom this was a gift from Shiseido to her (and not from me), but of course, she was still very happy to be getting another one of her favorite Shiseido products. 

How Shiseido Ruined a Mother’s Day Surprise

Recently I decided to get some skin care products for my mom for Mother’s Day. One of the best known brands out there is Shiseido. So I decided to go to their website, order a gift set, and have it sent to my mom for Mother’s Day. Through this process, I found their purchase experience lacking and was extremely disappointed in what happened during the post-purchase experience. 

As I was going through the purchase flow, two things captured my attention. The first was that Shiseido asks the user for an email address both during the shipping step and the billing step of the checkout flow. The standard checkout flow has a shipping section and a billing section, and the standard thing to do is to ask for the user’s email address during the billing section. The main use case where this matters is in the case of gifts. As the retailer, Shiseido should want to communicate with the purchaser of the items — not who the items are being sent to. 


The second aspect of the purchase flow that captured my attention is what happens on completing the checkout flow. Or more precisely said, what surprised me was what didn’t happen. After completing the purchase, I was shown a standard checkout confirmation (aka “thank you”) page. 


What I expected, in addition to seeing this page, was to receive an order confirmation email. Unfortunately, there was none. This is somewhat alluded to in the verbiage on the confirmation page “you will receive a shipping confirmation email…” which is somewhat reassuring. But the standard thing to do in this case is to send the user an order confirmation email to serve as a receipt for the purchase. If I close this page, and have a question about my order, what will I reference? 

The next part of this non-optimal experience with Shiseido.com occurred the day after I placed my order. I received an email from mom which was a forward of an email that Shiseido had sent her:


Essentially, there was something wrong with the order, and I needed to contact Shiseido to make it right. Upon calling their customer service number, I was asked to verify everything with the order: my billing address, the shipping address, and my credit card information (including expiration code, and CCV code). If not for the fact that it would be highly improbable for a fraudster to know that I had sent my mother a gift from Shiseido.com, the whole thing almost seemed like a phishing scam. I asked the customer service representative why I was being asked to verify everything all over again, and she said it’s because the shipping address and billing address did not match and that I had chosen the expedited shipping option. That being said, here’s what I think Shiseido did wrong, and should improve if they want to improve their business: 

1. It’s 2014, haven’t they heard of gifts? Of course the shipping address and billing address can differ. This is not a novel thing. In fact, in their purchase flow, I had the option to indicate that this was a gift.
2. As is the case with many gifts, many users will choose the expedited shipping option — again, this is not something new. 
3. Most importantly, if there is a problem with the billing information that needs to be reverified because a fraud alert has been triggered, the billing email address on file should be contacted — not the email address associated with the shipping address, as this inevitably will ruin many surprises. 

An Improvement to Kindle on iOS

Noticed something confusing as I was reading a book on my Kindle app on my iPhone. Even though I was on page 229 of 263, the bottom of the app said that I was only done with 64% of the book. I did the math and confirmed that, according to my page position, I was actually done with 87% of the book. 


Was this a bug? Well, not so fast. The other data point being displayed is location. And according to that metric, I was at location 3946 of 6164, which turns out to be 64%. Based on what I can see, it looks like the key difference between page numbers and location is that page numbers start and stop based on the actual book content while location includes everything — even the table of contents as well as the acknowledgments and index at the end of the book. 

As a user, when I see the % complete statistic, what I really care about is how far I’ve come so far, and how much longer I need to go to finish the book. Thus, this metric should be based off of the page percentage and not the location percentage. 



Bug in Gmail Message Time?

Every so often I come across a user experience that is most likely a bug but could also possibly be by design. Here’s a good example. I often write myself emails through Gmail to serve as future reminders. Essentially overloading e-mail and leveraging it as a todo list. After sending myself an email from my laptop this evening, I noticed that Gmail told me that I sent the email 3 minutes ago – even though I had just sent the email. After some investigation, I saw that Gmail uses two different data sources to figure out when an email was written and how long ago it was written. Let’s take a look with a sample email: 



As can be seen in the second image above, 7:54 PM is based on the actual and correct time (according to Google’s servers) as to when the email was written. “3 minutes ago” turns out to be based on my computer’s internal clock. This can be easily reproduced by opening up the settings in OS X and changing the computer time to some time different than the correct time. 

Schwab Site Has Pre-historic Browser Requirements

When I went to the Charles Schwab site to view retirement plans, I saw something that made me laugh out loud. According to the splash page, their browser requirements are Netscape 4.06 (or higher) or Internet Explorer 4.01 (or higher). 

I don’t know which would be more shocking to me: 

  • If someone actually still uses one of these ancient browsers
  • If their current site is actually usable with one of these ancient browsers