Imagine presenting a business plan that sets out the task of persuading Americans to get rid of their cars. Sounds crazy doesn’t it? But Zipcar appear to have done just that, and the best bit is that their success comes from them focusing on user experience above all else. In the words of their CEO, Scott Griffith, “at core we’re an IT and marketing company – we just happen to have a lot of cars”.

Griffith explains that they looked honestly at a candid list of all negative aspects of car hire, and fixed every single one.

Problem. I need to hire a car to get to the car hire place to pick up the hire car.
Solution. Ziplots are small car lots scattered strategically through densely populated areas with the ambition that customers shouldn’t have to walk more than 10 minutes to pick up their car.
Problem. Hire cars lack charisma. I wouldn’t choose to drive a Chevrolet Aveo.
Solution. Extensive user surveys were carried out to find out what Zipcar’s demographic aspired to drive and then they went out and bought those cars (and vans) including Minis, BMWs, Smarts andToyotas.
Problem. When I pick up a hire car I have to wait in line to fill out excessive forms – and it’s the same information on the same forms every time.
Solution. The process of picking up your car is automated. You reserve on the website, or by text message, or iPhone app and then the car you’ve chosen is sent a wireless command to allow your ‘key’ to open the car during the time you’ve booked the car.
Problem. When I pick up the car the guy doing the paperwork tries to up-sell me a more expensive insurance policy. I feel pressured and I don’t know if it’s worth it.
Solution. Included in the cost is a Liberty Mutual policy that offers very extensive cover – usually more cover than most car owners have.
Problem. When I drop off the car I have the hassle of having to find somewhere to fill it up with fuel.
Solution. Fuel is included – all Zipcars have a card in them that can be used to fill the car up.
Problem. The best hire car deals are for durations of at least 2 or 3 days but sometimes I just need to pop down to the supermarket.
Solution. Zipcars can be hired by the hour, and it’s really easy to extend your hire period while your out and about.

I love this pragmatic approach to the design of a business. It’s an extension of form follows function, the modernist methodology I was taught as an architecture student. Where the large car hire companies rely on marketing to drive market share from each other, Zipcar concentrate on the user experience to create a new market.

Five things make it all possible.

  1. Zipcar is new. When they started out they weren’t in the business of car hire which allowed them to start with a blank sheet of paper removing any assumptions about how a car hire company should work. Instead of a product marketing department they created an Experience Team.
  2. Being an IT company has allowed them to use innovative technology directly – when they come up with a good idea they can go ahead and do it. They learned from and openly credit the likes of Amazon and Netflix for doing much of the pioneering work in creating technology to deliver great service.
  3. Growing concern over environmental issues in our daily lives are becoming more and more evident, from LEED accreditation for buildings to hybrid only parking spaces, and people have finally begun to consider the impact of car ownership. The environmental credentials of Zipcar are not to be sniffed at. Each Zipcar takes 15 to 20 cars off the road, and at last count they had 6,000 vehicles.
  4. Our retail experiences are becoming more reliant on self service. Self service culture started with ATMs outside banks and has grown to self service checkouts at supermarkets. Being able to book and pick up a Zipcar without having to wait on hold or stand in line to complete forms both keeps costs down and provides us with a better experience.
  5. Digital social networking, and the internet in general, have allowed the creation of widespread communities that are highly connected and tech savvy. Zipcar is a ‘car sharing club’ and it’s members are called ‘Zipsters‘ (as are all staff).

Another big key to Zipcar’s success the heavy use of user testing and a fast feedback loop to create aniterative design process that’s more often seen in software development than business process design. Zipsters are quick to post their experience on user forums and Zipcar pay close attention to what is being said and the resulting feedback is fed back into the design process.

This focus on user experience and the dedication to user testing requires executive support and maybe this is Zipcar’s trump card over the big hire companies who rely on consultants. At the UX Week conference in San Francisco last month Don Norman asked an audience of a thousand user experience professionals how many of them were in executive position. The sad answer was two – and they were both execs for organisations with less than ten people.

There will always be some city dwellers who won’t/can’t let go of having their own car, but the implications of this new paradigm shift were underlined when Griffith met with a Toyota executive over from Japan who admitted, “I’m not sure we’ll be selling cars in cities in twenty years”.