Design for Collaborative Consumption

By Meriel Lenfestey

At Foolproof we spend much of our time supporting traditional businesses in optimisation and innovation. We help our clients incorporate new platforms and shape multichannel experiences for their customers.

Occasionally we are asked to help shape the customer experience for a whole new commercial model. One I’ve been immersing myself in for several years, and which is building momentum, is the model of collaborative consumption (as opposed to hyper consumption).

Collaborative consumption describes the rapid explosion in traditional sharing, bartering, lending, trading, renting, gifting, and swapping, redefined through technology and peer communities. From enormous marketplaces such as eBay and Craigslist, to emerging sectors such as social money lending (Zopa), home lending (Airbnb), car sharing (Blablacar) and resource sharing (Ecomodo), collaborative consumption is disrupting outdated modes of business and reinventing not just what we consume, but also how we consume.

These (often start-up) businesses are challenging the norm in many ways, and dealing with some tough challenges including identifying effective revenue models and building complex technical systems on a shoestring. However, I want to focus on the customer experience challenges they face.

Customer experience is particularly important in this sector. The business plans are predicated upon driving behaviour change. A good general rule is that mass behaviour will only change when it offers an experience which is a notable improvement upon current experience. This experience is the product of three things:

  • Short term interaction: The ease of interaction, the confidence the interaction inspires.
  • Reasons for believing: The clarity of communication around the money it saves or makes, the community feeling it builds, the doors it opens, and the social capital it builds.
  • Context: Economic, social and environmental pressures.

Short term interaction

These systems support inherently complex transactions, both functionally, and legally. There is no precedent for this kind of peer to peer transaction – which means that there is no pattern to follow which users will be familiar with. The principle challenge is to find the right balance between hiding the underlying complexity from the users for ease of use, whilst surfacing enough to drive confidence.

Ecomodo has taken a largely handholding approach, with strong guidance at every step, as well as built in a number of features to drive confidence. These include lending circles (restricting lending to circles of people with whom lenders have a basis for trust); insurance against accidental damage and loss; and fuzzy location specification to protect members' locations whilst enabling effective local searching.
All the companies behind the services hope that these kinds of features provide compelling reasons to stay with the service, and pay the associated fee, rather than bypass.

Reasons for believing

Collaborative consumption is different things to different people. For some it is purely a way to drive extra income or to save money, for others it is more about meeting like minded people, for some it is about getting access to stuff which was previously unobtainable due to cost or access, and for others it is about doing good for the environment, or for their community. Not all of these are relevant to all services, although a site like Ecomodo does face all of these. This creates a tough marketing challenge. Attempt to communicate all and they may communicate nothing.

Perhaps the site which has achieved this the most effectively is airbnb, which needs to communicate the first three. They capture their user’s attention through the aspirational, professional photos of homes which are clearly distinct from the more traditional holiday accommodation providers. They prioritise a link to a very effective video which clearly communicates the principle reasons for believing for renters and rentees.

The experience extends into the face to face conversations between renter and host, which airbnb has little control over. My host, in Iceland, not only provided my good value accommodation, he also guided me towards unusual places to see, and even lent me his 4 wheel drive car so that we could reach off road locations. That’s an experience no hotel would have offered. Consequently, I have talked about my experience many times since – and now here I am blogging about it. The social capital that creates is immensely important to collaborative consumption services.


When a new experience must aim to be a notable improvement on the old experience it really helps if the old experience is seen to be broken in some way. Blablacar took off in France during the public transport strikes in 2010. This was enough to get it to critical mass after which it grew on its own momentum through word of mouth.

This is an area I believe will affect all our clients in the coming years, either directly through offering peer to peer services, or indirectly through the new interaction and experience expectations which it creates.

What do you think?