Product Assignment : Smart Refrigerator

I recently worked on an assignment to design a smart refrigerator, which I thought I’d finish in a weekend. However, then I did some research about what’s already happening in the market, which obviously opened up a few more tabs in the browser and this weekend assignment turned into a project worth spending time on. So, I am sharing the notes I had prepared. Let me know your views and what you would like to add to your variant of a smart refrigerator. I would also enjoy some feedback from any commercial refrigeration services. Maybe you could find a way to adapt my refrigerator so that it could be used for grocery or retail purposes?

Also, as you can infer, this assignment is part of my self study and journey to become a better product manager. In the last couple of years, I have gained a broad perspective on this function. I’ve just tipped my toes, so to say, and there is so much more to learn. So, I’ll try to write more on product management as a theme. This also gives me a new chapter on the topics to write about on this blog, which otherwise had sort of taken a backseat in terms of relevance, as most of my life updates are now broadcasted on Instagram and Twitter (and increasingly on private watsapp chats) because who reads blog posts anymore?!

Problem Statement

Design a fridge for the millennials.

Market research has come back saying that millennials need to have an interactive smart fridge. IOT is the buzzword they want to capitalize on. Design the product to meet this requirement from purchase, initial configuration, features etc. Be as detailed as possible. Try to define metrics/KPIs to measure. Call out any assumptions. Estimate the ROI of the product you are making.

Assumptions on the key requirements of the users

  • Married Couple & Family
    • Both working – optimizing on time and coordination is the biggest need for this cohort, this couple would like to save time in ordering and preparing food, so that maximum time can be spent with each other.
    • One partner working – since one partner is stay-at-home parent/home-maker, considerable time is spent in the kitchen by that member; focus would be on entertainment and equipping her/him with data and content to improve family’s health and quality of life.
    • Families with kids and/or others livings at home – With kids and other people at home, the added features can be around their health and safety. Also shared notes and communication can be a potential need.
  • Single residents – Primary need is to optimise on time, help save time in ordering and preparing food. Since single residents would tend to have smaller houses, another dimension would be to offer auxiliary services such as a coffee maker within the fridge to save space

I am prioritising the family use-case, as the high cost of the refigertor right now makes it unviable for single home owners.

Model Unit

  • Samsung RF28N9780SG/TL
  • Capacity ~ 800 Litres
  • Retail Price ~ INR 2,50,000
  • Retail Price without touchscreen, internet connectivity ~ INR 1,50,000

Usecases –

  1. Food Catalog : The fridge should be able to catalog the food inside it for easy remote access via the door panel and mobile app without opening the fridge. This can be accomplished by scanning the barcodes on the food items to pick relevant info, plus clicking pictures. All this can be done by the phone app, no scanners or cameras needed in the fridge. Search post cataloging can be voice enabled for both the door panel and the phone app. Long range plan – retailers would start printing QR codes which capture all relevant info to automate this cataloging. This helps in 2 ways –
    1. Save time and effort in grocery shopping, can just check the app to recall what’s stocked in the fridge
    2. Helps save power consumption and maitains food freshness when the door is opened fewer times
  2. Expiry Date Alerts : Alerts can be set to trigger reminders X days before the expiry to help consume food when it is still healthy. The door panel & phone apps can have a dedicated section “Expiring Soon” to help monitor these food items
  3. Recipe Recommendations : The door panel app can pull up step-by-step video recipes, some of which can even be stored locally for availability without internet. Voice control to play and pause per step would help further. Recommendations basis the major ingridients available in the fridge can be a section for quick selection.
  4. Video Streaming : In addition to the recipes, the door panel app can pull up videos and music from popular OTT channels basis the subscription plans of the user. The door panel would effectively be the entertainment hub for the kitchen.
  5. Grocery Ordering : Basic feature set would be to run the grocery ordering app of choice on the door panel tab, but a smarter version of it could pickup the stock count and patterns from the food catalog to build the cart, maybe even order some of the common regularly ordered items such as milk, fruits, etc as they are about to get expired.
  6. Ice on-demand : The integrated water and ice dispenser unit in the fridge can now be connected to the door panel tab and phone app to switch on the freezer on-demand. Typical usecase being need of fresh ice before guests coming over, while there is nobody at home to freeze the ice.
  7. Defrosting on-demand : Having separate sections in the fridge can allow for maintaining different temperatures in the containers at any given time. The freezer iself can be split into 2 components – one section which can continue to be at required temperature and the other one which can hold items which need to be brought down to room temperature at a certain time by a remote trigger or pre-set config. This would help in natural thawing of the meat and other related items, which currently needs to be done manually.
  8. New integrations : These integrations are not digital in nature but hardware components that can be added to the fridge panels,similar to the water dispnser. Remote control by the door panel and the phone app further add to the utility which is difficult to achieve in standalone equipments.
    1. Coffee/Tea maker : The water dispenser unit can be extended to a coffee/tea make. On the inside of the fridge, a storage unit can made to hold the coffee/tea powder which can brewed on-demand using the same water supply as the water dispenser
    2. Water heater : The water cooling unit can do more than just cooling the water, it can also heat it to a pre-set temperature!
    3. Rice cooker : Similar to the coffee maker, a storage unit can hold the rice and mix it with the same supply as that of the water dispenser to prepare steamed rice
    4. Toaster : A section holding the bread slices can be connected to a toaster to have it ready on-demand. Phone app and Door panel can be used to trigger the loading of the toaster at a configured time.
  9. Smart Connectivity Hub : The door panel tab would support a pool of digital applications like a regular android tablet, supporting common usecases of shared notes, calendars, to-dos, mails, music, budgeting and other apps that are available on the user’s phone. The handsfree audio/video calling feature can be particularly useful while cooking.

Prototype of the new smart fridge

Key applications to be designed for the display tab and phone app

  • Food Catalog : Add new items, check for contents, expiry date alerts
  • Recipe Finder & Player : Find recipe by search, recommendations basis stock
  • Grocery Shopping : Buy new items manually, recommendations basis stock
  • Operate the fridge : on demand ice, defrosting, toasts, rice, tea/coffee, etc
  • Other apps : as per installation from playstore and sync with phone devices

Key metrics to measure product success, ROI

  • Purchase : measuring the sales funnel – lead > oppurtunity > open deal > closed deal across online, retail and wholesale channels. KPI here would be the % success rate for each stage of the funnel to track conversion and pipeline health. If you’re unfamiliar with a sales funnel, here are some great free sales funnel templates that could help.
  • Usage : Usage of the key 4 features (first 4 points of the section above) can be tracked by recording anonymous data from the devices directly. This data would help analyse if the features are being used as intented or not on parameters such as frequency, timing, duration. The variation from expected behavior would infact be the leading indicator for intervention and feedback on improvements.
  • Feature Support : Each application in the display tab and the connected phone app would feature a section for direct feedback and complaint registry which would help in understading the specific issues. This section would also be the input for all customer support and related follow-up conversations.
  • Repair & Replacement : Basis the feedback and support requests received, the support tasks would need to be monitored as well. The whole journey from support ticket issuance > assignment of a service personnel > actual service > closure of the support ticket can even be mapped on the door panel to increase transparency in the process. KPI here would be keep the service TAT as per SLA.
  • Referral : To foster high NPS and organic growth of the product, referrals can be incentivised. The door panel can have a special app to generate voucher codes to be used for referals, which upon successful redemption can provide benefits in terms of cashbacks and/or waivers on due EMI payments, complimentary service packs, etc.

GST simplified for a business owner

If you’ve been following the national news, you must be aware of the big tax reform coming up next month. The numerous existing taxes are getting consolidated into a single overarching tax – Goods and Services Tax. India is not the first country to implement the GST. For example, in Canada GST was introduced in 1991. You can learn more about GST in Canada by contacting some of the top lawyers in toronto. But no other country faces such complexities as India does. If managed successfully, it would become one of the biggest accomplishments of the current government as there is no doubt that this is the most ambitious GST reform ever attempted, both in scale of operations and the intricacies of execution.

There are lots of resources just a google search away, if you’d like to understand the background of this reform, i’d recommend this guide by Zoho to get started. Cleartax has launched an e-learning course for those who want to understand the concepts in a video format. I’ve even attended a couple of events to learn from the perspective of the finance community, the speaker from Capstone was amazingly talented at summarizing my views with an analogy –

What the current world looks like –

What the government promised when it promoted the slogan – One Country, One Tax

What we’re actually getting –

Apart from the rules that are changing, the modus operandi demands an upgrade as well. I believe that’s what is more relevant for people to understand, because you can still go to your CA for consultation on the rules and ensure compliance at all steps, but the CAs are not equipped right now to transform the back-office operations of their clients to ensure the work is happening as per the new world order. A lot of the large firms will get their processes upgraded by contracting Big4 consultants and Xero accountants, their mid-sized cousins will opt for smaller consulting firms. The bulk of the business owners would still attempt making these changes by themselves because that’s how they’ve been doing it. The local entrepreneurs are the real multi-tasking gurus who don’t mind getting their hands dirty.

I’m working on creating an ecosystem of connected google sheets that can be used as a make-shift processor for accounting and taxation needs of a small scale firm. This system would ingest monthly sales/purchase transactions, and create the tax sheets that can then be submitted on the GSP portals which inturn are nodal points that connect to the GST server. This process eventually would have to be automated as there 4 filings to be made each month, 36 per year; plus an annual return. However, if you find that your business becomes too advanced for this make-shift processor, you could always look for some outsourced accounting services who could help you with different parts of your financial work. It can be easy to fall behind on jobs like these, so sometimes getting help can be one of the best ways to keep up. Of course, you could always keep using the make-shift processor if you wanted to.

Anywa, let’s understand a bit more about these returns conceptually and the framework under which they would be filed, and then I’d talk more about the google sheets in a follow-up post..

Simply put, each month, the registered business owners would have to file the records of their sales, purchases and applicable tax for the previous month. One added monthly return would be for the TDS. This isn’t a new compliance expectation from the government, one just needs to think back to when we were all forced to apply for pan card seva, but when you look closely, there are 2 key features that really highlight the new approach adopted by the government –

  • Monthly frequency would make it further harder for business owners to evade taxes, people who used to fraudulently adjust their aggregate sales and purchase volumes would have lesser time to do so
  • The sales records that are to be uploaded will have to match the purchase records of the customers (as filed by them), thus interlinking the records at a digital level would make it impossible to get fake tax credits without involving multiple other parties

Let us now use an example to understand how this reconciliation process works:

Suppose MK Kitchen Knives (recipient) purchased 10 tons of steel from GH Steelware Inc. (supplier) which is also registered for GST. The two companies will reconcile their transactions, and the recipient will claim the input tax credit, as follows:

  • GH Steelware Inc. will file the GSTR-1 report (Details of outward supply).
  • The details furnished in the GSTR-1 will be auto-populated in the GSTR-2A (Details of inward supply) for MK Kitchen Knives, where they will be able to see the transaction details.
  • MK Kitchen Knives will then check the records and make any necessary modifications/additions. Once the changes are made, this information will be automatically pulled when they will file the GSTR-2. The correct input credit will then be credited to their electronic credit ledger.
  • GH Steelware Inc can then use the GSTR-1A form to view and accept the changes that MK Kitchen Knives made in the GSTR-2.
  • Finally, once GH Steelware Inc. has filed the monthly returns (GSTR-3), MK Kitchen Knives will be able to avail the input tax credit and apply it to future output tax liabilities.

Below is the application framework that’s been setup by the GSTN – the central body that essentially owns the GST server (in blue). It is expected that up to 3 billion rows worth of data (each invoice/bill being a row of its own) would be uploaded and downloaded each month. To manage this massive flow of data, the government has created clusters of nodes, the GSPs, to allow multiple people access portals where they can interact with the system in their own customized app without compromising on the security. Thus, the GSPs act as an intermediary between the government and the individual taxpayer, shown in the central box below. Some 200 companies have registered themselves as GSP already and soon more will follow. These include the Big4 and their smaller cousins, along with traditional IT companies and young fintech startups. GBox Capital is a good solution for many start-ups.

But as a business owner, the stick man on the left in the above diagram, what matters is that you’d have to ensure that you’re able to upload the GSTR-1/2/3/7 forms on a GSP portal of your choice each month. Since you have to do this exercise each month, the only sensible way is to ensure that you don’t simply rely on an accounting application but instead deploy an ERP that generates the GSTR return documents in the needed format automatically from the transactions data. These files can then be downloaded in CSV format for uploading on the GSP portal of your choice, and the rest of the data processing is done on the GSP-GST server.

The solution proposed above is the bare minimum you’d have to do, and this too would involve changes in mode of operations. This solution, however, is suitable only for small scale companies which can afford to manually track their filings. For large scale operations, the GSPs are expected to roll-out their own version of ERPs and tax applications that will allow users to file their tax returns automatically from their transaction data. This, however, comes at a cost of placing confidential data in the hand of a few GSPs but one way or not, any company can’t avoid this overhead going forward.

It’s amazing to see this level of the participatory and transparent approach of the government. It is the endeavor of GSTN to build the GSP ecosystem, ensure its success by putting in place an open, transparent and participatory framework for capable and motivated enterprises and entrepreneurs. In my last post, I spoke about designing new systems from bottom-up to keep up with the new delivery channels of optimum CX and through GSTN, the government has earned my respect in this regard!

I am motivated to participate in this ecosystem starting with helping small business owners migrate to GST world by digitizing their accounting, with a google sheet package to begin with and then as I get better understanding of the ecosystem, have an idea for a mobile ERP that would allow small business owners to evolve to a new world order where transactions are done and accounted for without fear of compliance and boring paper-work. It’s time finance became as fun as sales!

Thoughts on building customer experience

Customer Experience is the new buzzword in digital startup communities! A lot is getting written on inculcating it in the company DNA and consultants are advising companies on how they can improve their operations to create customer delight during their interactions. The challenge with CX is often it isn’t as refined as financial metrics in its measurement. I would say it is hard metric to define as it is still building up and wasn’t always as big a priority as it is in today’s world. But whichever way you want to focus on it, the opportunity lost is huge if you don’t focus on it. This survey estimated $62 billion is lost by U.S. businesses each year following bad customer experiences. In the a supply constrained world, there were 2 broad ways of surviving in the market –

  1. Create innovative products or service that nobody else (or a very few people) are offering and customers will flock to your stores
  2. Be efficient in operations and absorb good margins from business and thus fight the competition from other innovative companies

But in an overcrowded market for commodities where too many players are competing to meet the demand of a customer, the only way to shine bright in the crowd is by attracting him and then retaining him. Thus, the world saw the rise of online marketing teams for hire like which were tasked with attracting new customers and maybe keep pulling back the dormant ones as well. However attracting new customers kept getting costly with time and there isn’t an infinite market to keep expanding to. Thus, retention takes over as the priority when acquisition starts showing signs of saturation.

Any effort that creates a positive experience is an effort towards retaining that customer and that’s what I would hold the CX team responsible for. It is my opinion that a lot of teams only expect CX teams to create wow moments for customers to delight them, but what’s actually needed is an audit of the interactions a customer has with the company and make sure there are no negatives. My intention for writing this post is not to reveal a hidden secret or to prove mathematically the ROI you can get over your investments in making your CX better, but to highlight some key philosophies that I believe in regarding CX..

A steady above average CX curve is better than a sine curve that gets a surge from freebies and dips when commitments are not honored

We’re at the inflexion point where the customer expects to see his touch points with the companies digitally as fluidly as he expects his personal touchpoints with his family and friends over a chat app. In the new digital world, the companies which are using technology as a lever to gain efficiency don’t have a very distinct offering for the customer, just that they are able to pocket better margins by playing smartly. I believe it becomes super-important for them to pay attention to customer experience early on as it can become an added value proposition they have at the front end for customers over their traditional once-innovative incumbent competitors. An ideal time series plot of the CX line should be a flat line slightly positive rather than a sine curve. That’s what builds transparency and trust in the system and cements the relationship that ensures the customer comes back again in future to transact.

Use technology to increase transparency in your operations, honor commitments and share updates as often as possible to build trust

However this process needs to be redesigned with a long term vision and integrated deep beneath the layers of processes that govern the day-to-day working of executives. You can not hack into this system by deploying last minute Jugaads. If we go back to CX curve, a momentary hack is only a crest following a trough and the CX curve will come down again due to a systemic fault elsewhere. Not all customers are patient enough to give you multiple chances, not all customer relationships are repaired by offering a freebie following a screw-up. Thus, we need to get out of the hustle mindset that has become ever so ingrained in the way young firms operate under the pretext of the urgency to outgrow competition. The shortlived growth brings upon bigger problems that later become 10x difficult to solve at bigger scale of operations.

Becoming digital is not same as creating an app that mimics the offline operations, redesign processes instead of hacking for short term

The only way to create sustainable business that retains its customer is by being transparent all the time, given the business is offering the right product/service at the right price point. Digitizing the interactions and sharing updates adds to the trust and prevents situations where a enraged customer needs to be pacified by personal assurances, all these last minute rescues can go worthless if a clear plan of action is not shared with the customer or is not adhered to after promising. Taking a specific example, banks today have created phone apps that allow the customers to transact online without having to visit the branches, but they haven’t replaced the old system yet. The internal systems are not tracking the interactions a customer has with the bank and thus the executives which are tasked with handling customer queries are often clueless about the problems of a customer even if all interactions were digital and could have been tracked by the bank. Thus, interactions right now still encounter troughs and crests in terms of experience. Compare this with the CX that Uber app delivers by designing their processes around the interactions and not merely treating it as a database they can refer when a customer calls up for a complaint.

Scale is not an excuse to go down on personalization, and offline retail still wins over big chains when it comes to customer experience.

The streamlined behavior then needs to be retained at the bigger scale as well, scaling up makes things complex – true, but that can’t be an excuse to make things less efficient than how they were previously. Banks today are spread geographically and between the online and offline world, they are a good example of how over-expansion and cold unemphatic control by processes alone can add to frustration when fires are breaking out, no one is willing to take the responsibility and there isn’t a clear system in place to identify non-adherence of processes and customer dissatisfaction. Things get done faster when you can hold someone accountable and blame bureaucracy without pointing fingers, thus digitization needs to be used as a glass pane that allows customers to see you’re working on their case and not as a shield to shy away from accountability in the name of complex processing..

One last note that I’d like to share is that as companies grow up, the interactions it has with its customers become increasingly standardized as processes set-in. In the trade-off of expansion and cost of operations, executives which are the face of the company for the customers are often compromised on quality and their sense ownership as it is expected that the set processes would guide them and situations where exceptional decision making is needed can be forwarded to managers which can specialize in this decision making for multiple locations. While all this makes sense from a financial perspective and companies do it to optimize their costs, but it should not come at a cost of alienating the customers and making them feel as if they dealing with a robotic teller instead of a business partner who understands and reciprocates. I personally am a big fan of unorganized retail segment in India which is a big contrast to the way the US operates in this segment. I think while it is important to optimize on cost, but personal touch can never be replaced. A dedicated small scale entrepreneur whose life is dependent on the sale he makes from his store cares much more about his customers, knows more about his products than any executive working at a big store. And the fact that small retailers still exist means that customers value experience over price. Maybe micro franchise is a model that’s building up because of this as it is a hybrid that has the needed intelligence and processes of a big retailer but the entrepreneurial spirit and personal vested interest for growth of a small retailer.

I’m excited about the digital transformation that’s reshaping a lot of business, especially retail sector, be it shopping stores or banks. I’ve heard that many companies have decided to implement digital transformation into their business through the use of event-based architecture. You can click here to learn about event based architecture to see if this is something that your business would like to introduce too. This will only start to improve the business in all areas, especially their productivity. The transformation projects can really outgrow expectations when the CX component is seen as an integral part of the central process design and not merely as a coating on the transaction layer between Us and Them..