Pump Up The Volume

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How can we make consumption a more, not less, mindful experience?

That’s the question that came to me at a gas station pump this weekend. It was Sunday evening and I had stopped at a service area on the Mass Pike after dropping my oldest daughter off at college. I was a bit tired (like many drivers on these long interstate highways I would assume) and didn’t think much about the annoying din on the gas station pump as I filled up.

But then something about the moment sparked me—and I suddenly felt a crazy surge of anger and bewilderment when I realized that the top portion of the gas pump sported a small television set that was loudly broadcasting GSTV: Gas Station TV. When drivers on the Pike fill up they have no choice but to tune into this four and half minute loop of canned crap—the commoditized content culled from ABC, ESPN, and other entertainment sources. All of it interrupted by 15-second commercials.

What’s wrong with this picture? Never mind the resentment I felt about this private sector encroachment on a public byway. I had already paid my fee to use the Turnpike—a closed path mind you—and was now being rented out as a captive set of eyes to this fuel notwork.

What really bothered me about this intrusion was the complete disconnect between the new attention-grabbing noise in my face, and the real value that could have been designed in that space. In Sustainability by Design, John talks a lot about design, and problems. Let’s assume that new products and services are fundamentally responses to problems. They help close the gap between the current state of consumers, and the desired state of these individuals.

GSTV had nothing to do with a problem of mine—it’s not like I was sitting in my car and thinking “gee I wish I could find an abbreviated version of mindless tv somewhere close.” In fact, the intrusion of this material was itself a problem for me—it was annoying and distracting and unpleasant. All it did was distract me from a fairly important set of actions I was doing—which was filling my car, and in this case, checking my oil.

Once upon a time we had station attendants who helped you care for your vehicle as you traveled along. These experienced hands have been replaced by automated systems. The need for expert assistance persists.

What’s lost here? If the folks with the authority to rent out this space, to design the user experience at the service stations, had re-framed the problem, then I might have experienced something very different when I stepped out of the car. Here are a few things that come to mind:

  1. Real-time traffic conditions for the road ahead.
  2. Real-time weather conditions for the road ahead.
  3. Information about where frequent Turnpike users might be able to car-pool with others.
  4. Touch-screen videos showing people how to check their oil, trouble-shoot common problems, and so forth.
  5. Reminders to check their wiper fluid and anti-freeze and to replace the cap for the gas tank.

Wrong product. Wrong problem.

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