Intention Generation: Fuse and VRM


One of the most influential books I've read in the last several years is Doc Searls' Intention Economy. The concept is simple: customer demand is the source of commerce and yet business has done a poor job of finding ways to understand customer intention. Doc's ideas have given rise to a movement called vendor relationship management or VRM. The term is a play off of CRM, and leads to a key idea: customers need tools to manage their interactions with the people who sell them products and services.

When I write about social products, I'm writing about one such tool. Describing one of our experiments in building social products, SquareTag, I wrote:

The owner's side looks and feels like a Facebook wall where messaging and other interactions happen in the context of the thing itself. Things have profiles that they share with other like things. The profile contains pictures, product Web pages, manuals, how to videos, and other useful information. But the product profile is individual—made for a single instance of the product. It also contains information specific to that thing such as custom configurations, serial numbers, purchase history, maintenance history, and relationships to anyone or anything that is relevant. One of the most interesting thing that the product profile holds is notifications, reminders, and other interactions with the things and people it has relationships with.
From Facebook for My Stuff
Referenced Thu Dec 12 2013 11:33:29 GMT-0700 (MST)

Of course, the intention economy depends on many of our intentions being generated automatically. A few years ago, we put together a business travel scenario showing how events could be used to automate many of the mundane activites associatd with planning and taking a business trip. Here's a video that describes it:

We no longer use some of the nomenclature in the video like "personal event network" but you can see how events described in the video are really encodings of intention—intentions turned into semantically consistent, structured data that computer systems can operate against. It's funny that when I made that screencast, I had no idea how a car might customize itself based on events. Now that we've started working on Fuse, it seems perfectly doable.

Fuse, our connected-car product is an intention generator. Here's a few examples:

  • When Fuse sees your gas tank is nearly empty it can generate an intention to buy gas.
  • When Fuse indicates it's time for an oil change or tire rotation, it can generate an intention to have the car serviced.
  • When the vehicle raises a diagnostic code, Fuse can generate an intention to get the car fixed.
  • When insurance is up for renewal, Fuse can generate an intention to solicit quotes for a new policy.
  • Geofences could be linked to intentions.
  • Even a crash, sensed by Fuse's accelerometers, is an intention to seek emergency services.

As an intention generator Fuse could be seen as a brand-new way for companies to spy on drivers. But we don't think it has to be that way. If Fuse is going to generate intentions that can be acted on while preserving owner choice and privacy, it must also provide owners with two things:

  1. A way to see, select, and interact with vendors—both those who the owner has an existing relationship with and those who might be good candidates for future purchases.
  2. A way to use intentions and the make the choices that only the owner can make. For example, when my insurance is due, Fuse needs to ask me if I'm happy with my current insurance before going out to solicit bids.

Both of these features are about providing owner choice and putting the owner in control. In the terminology of VRM, the thing providing these features is typically called the "4th party" and refers to the system that is acting on the customer's behalf. When I speak of social products, I'm really describing our particular approach to building a VRM tool that provides these two necessary functions.

I believe this concept and architecture is critical to building a future world we will all want to live in. I frequently hear people describe connected products that just increase customer surviellance in service of advertising and digital marketing. If a connected product isn't putting the owner in charge of who sees what signals and when, then it's spying, pure and simple.