Kindle Fire Under Fire: Really Jakob?

December 12, 2011

KIndle Fire Under Fire

Kindle Fire Under Fire or Biased Attack?

Alas, another one of our heroes has fallen in our estimation.

Coming off of two weeks of user experience interviews in which we tested a client’s software on touch screen devices, I read a recent article in The New York Times about the Kindle Fire with keen interest. In his Personal Tech post, the author, David Streitfeld, builds his case that the Kindle Fire is doomed based on an analysis of Amazon user reviews posted on the retailer’s website, and a study conducted by usability guru Jakob Nielsen. Nielsen, a highly regarded expert on UX (and considered by many to be the founding father of usability), tested the Fire and concludes…

“I feel the Fire is going to be a failure. I can’t recommend buying it.”

Strong stuff. I was imagining a rigorous test of the device among several current and new users, perhaps a take-home evaluation so users could try it out and see what it could do (as we did in our client’s unrelated product test). Although Nielsen doesn’t specify the time users spent with the device (you can read his article here: Kindle Fire Usability Findings), he does specify the sample size. Guess how many? 100, 20, 10?

Try n=4.

I know. I had the same reaction. Can you call a complex, deep-featured device like the Kindle Fire a “failure” after only 4 in-person interviews in a UX lab? I agree with Nielsen that “qualitative studies generate deeper insights,” but with 4 people? And to be that definitive in your conclusions you would think those four people lived with the device for at least two weeks to see just how much of a failure it was for them. Yet it is clear that this was a lab test performed to “collect video clips.” Nielsen goes on to say in his own article …

“Our studies of Kindle Fire weren’t intended to advise consumers on whether to buy a Fire device. Our goal was to discover design guidelines for companies that are building websites, apps, or content that their customers might access on a Fire.”

If this is true, why the definitive “failure” quote that made its way into an article read by millions who might be considering buying the Kindle Fire? I am especially peeved by this, after having just conducted several interviews with users testing a product that had a much narrower feature/functionality footprint. Nielsen should be taken to task for making such broad conclusions based on so little data.

I was also disappointed in The New York Times for taking short cuts when making such broad claims. Building most of your article around online user comments, which tend to trend negative, a lab study among 4 users and a few off-the-cuff remarks from one “expert” is just sloppy journalism, especially when you get to pick and choose the comments that help build your case.

Full disclosure: I just bought the Kindle Fire last week and although there are serious problems with its user experience, I am finding it quite enjoyable, especially once I discovered how to open the device and sideload some additional Android apps. I now have the Nook and Kindle e-reader running on it. In order to get non App-store apps on the iPad 2 you’d have to jail break it. Amazon makes opening up the Fire easy with a single menu toggle.

Whether you agree with Nielsen’s assessment or not, the Times article should be a wake-up call to any of my colleagues who feel a desire to give comments to the press based on such light “qualitative” data. The paper’s standards obviously aren’t quite up to the ones we strive for in our own studies, I’m afraid. And, the piece caught one of our most esteemed researchers looking rather flat footed. The last quote in the NYT article is from Nielsen again:

“If I were given to conspiracy theories, I’d say that Amazon deliberately designed a poor Web browsing user experience to keep Fire users from shopping on competing sites.”

Hmm. Not only is this questionable since Amazon allows you to “open” the device up to competing apps and competing browsers, but given Nielsen’s own admission that “Apple is one of the companies that sent the most attendees” to his conferences, you might conclude the same re: his review of the Kindle Fire.

UPDATE: 12/13/11

After some harsh responses from critics Jakob Nielsen has posted a rebuttal.  His insights into the user experience are sound but his argument re: the small sample is still unconvincing. Check it out yourself: Rebuttal to Critics


Does Facebook want to be a public utility?

August 4, 2010

“When I say utility, I mean we are trying to provide people with utility. Our goal was never to build something cool. It was to build something useful.” – Mark Zuckerberg, CEO


In the wake of Facebook’s recent privacy setting change debacle and last week’s public outing of 1/5 of FB’s user info by a well known hacker, there is a question that needs to be addressed that will have a profound effect on the future of the company:

Does Facebook want to be a consumer-based company or a public utility?

Facebook - the public utility

In its headlong rush for growth and aggressive goals for “opening up” user information for use by its advertisers, it is evident that Facebook put aside the needs of its users and their concerns for privacy.  A recent poll shows that a full 80% of Facebook users are concerned about the privacy of their personal information on the site.  But what is even more telling is that polls prior to the introduction of the confusing changes in privacy settings last May showed that a majority of users already had these concerns.

Rather than enacting policies and making statements to address these concerns, Zuckerberg seemed to do an about-face from his past statements about maintaining strict controls over the privacy of its users’ information.  Back in January 2010 he said:

“A lot of companies would be trapped by the conventions and their legacies of what they’ve built, doing a privacy change for 350 million users is not the kind of thing that a lot of companies would do. But we viewed that as a really important thing, to always keep a beginner’s mind and what would we do if we were starting the company now and we decided that these would be the social norms now and we just went for it.”

This seems like a particularly naive statement: where is the data to back up his idea that “social norms” dictate an opening up of personal information to be shared by all?  Independent survey data certainly did not support it.  Zuckerberg’s recent statements sound a lot like he stopped thinking about the company as a choice for consumers.  Instead, he has taken on the mindset of an 80s-era public utility CEO: we will decide what is best for our users unless and until the government steps in and regulates us.

As a user experience practitioner it is hard for me to accept that those updated user settings were vigorously tested (see this excellent chart created by The New York Times showing FB’s 170 privacy options).  A skeptic might even say that they were pretested to make sure that they were as confusing as possible to the average user.

Still, Facebook provides an incredibly powerful experience for many users (myself included) and its user base continues to grow, just passing the half billion mark. It is understandable that the company needs to increase its revenue from advertisers to fulfill its business model and reach profitability.  The question is, can the company continue on this same path without the full trust of its users or will it be bested by another technology – maybe someone we haven’t even heard of yet?

The answer to this question is inextricably tied with the first one I posed at the beginning of this post. The future success of Facebook will be highly dependent on whether Zuckerberg and co. are able to demonstrate that their users come first and advertisers second. Some suggestions:

Test and re-test: There is a way to set up privacy settings that can satisfy both users and the needs of advertisers.  The only way to get there is to do user testing across a broad range of user personas, including those based on attitudes re: “trust.”

Hit the road: Zuckerberg should communicate to the world beyond his FB page posts (yes, old media still works – why else write an op-ed for The Washington Post?) and speak directly with users about the company’s goals for the future and its plans for securing users’ data.

Be patient: the company is sitting on a goldmine of information that can be beneficial to users in discovering cool stuff and allow advertisers to reach their target users more effectively.  But it may take some time to work out a system that will please everyone.

2010 may be remembered as the year Facebook and its young CEO grew up.  Or it could be remembered as the beginning of the end.  Only its users will decide.


The language of emotion

June 8, 2010

While traveling  to present at this year’s Boston UPA mini conference via ferry I came across a wonderful editorial by David Brooks in today’s The New York Times.  Here is a curiosity: a Republican bemoaning the state of “liberal arts” and humanities studies in US colleges.  Evidently, in the last generation there has been a precipitous drop in student enrollment in the arts, while technical and business majors are growing.  This trend is expected to continue as the possibly years-long economic recession grinds on.

Brooks makes the point that continued study in these less-than-technical arts programs is essential for the creation of breakthrough technologies.  According to Brooks, besides improving people’s ability to read and write, the study of the humanities …

… will give you a familiarity with the language of emotion. In an information economy, many people have the ability to produce a technical innovation: a new MP3 player. Very few people have the ability to create a great brand: the iPod. Branding involves the location and arousal of affection, and you can’t do it unless you are conversant in the language of romance.

Brooks could not be more on the money.  Creating great technologies and great interfaces requires a combination of technical skill and creativity – creativity that is informed by a deeper understanding of the human condition.  This means an understanding of your customer that goes beyond a simple “test” of what’s in front of them as they interact with your technology; it requires an understanding of what’s going on in their heads — and possibly their hearts – as they do it.

This is what we practitioners mean by testing the user experience and what we at DIG strive for in every project we do for our clients.  And, it’s something that I’ll be talking about tomorrow during my presentation at the UPA event.  Companies that create usable products and interfaces will continue to make money.  But the real winners will be those that understand how to deliver experiences that move the soul (not just the needle) and provide real meaning for their customers.

For those of you that can’t make it to Boston on June 9th, here is a link to the slides: Fast, Cheap and In Control: Using an Online Diary/Focus Group Methodology to Gauge Meaningful Experiences


Reasons to be grateful: “random acts of generosity” for ecommerce

June 22, 2009

Interesting article in Sunday’s New York Times Magazine about Hyatt’s new “random acts of generosity” marketing approach:  by offering their guests random freebies like free massages and drinks during their stay, Hyatt hopes to win over grateful customers and keep them loyal.  From the article …

Its even better to give ...Jeff Zidell, the vice president who oversees Hyatt’s Gold Passport program, underscores the importance of surprise — both that the favors are “unexpected” and that there’s no discernible pattern to which customers will get them.  The hope seems to be that these grateful customers will reward the chain with future business and also spread positive word of mouth.”

Building generosity into ecommerce

Companies building online interfaces for e-commerce should take note:  inserting seemingly random acts of generosity into the online experience could add up to big wins in terms of enhanced user experience.  Some of the ways companies can do this might include:

  • Save some “specials” or “giveaways” for later in the shopping process, perhaps during check out rather than promoting them up-front.  Specials might include price off or free shipping, a discount off of an additional item, etc.
  • A free coupon for their next order inserted into the package or even a free (low cost) item included right in the box.  Sort of like getting a “free” prize in the Cracker Jacks box, only you weren’t expecting it.
  • A follow up email after the purchase of a high ticket item with a generous offer attached.
  • Random “notes of kindness” sent via email to loyal customers with a coupon offer attached – even if it isn’t attached to a particular sale.

As Hyatt and the researchers that have studied the role of gratitude as it relates to customer loyalty have  discovered, customers like it when companies offer them an unexpected benefit.  And these random acts can add up to big benefits for your company at a time when customers have less money to spend and more places to spend it.



Capturing the spirit of Web 2.0

June 8, 2009

The new world order?

As I head off to this year’s national UPA (Usability Professionals Association) conference in Portland, I got to thinking about all of the hype around Web 2.0 and how it is changing EVERYTHING.

Image from tangyslice.com

Image from tangyslice.com

As the above tag cloud illustrates, Web 2.0 can be defined in a number of ways and can be pretty confusing to the uninitiated. However, one thing is for sure: if you are a marketer and you haven’t embraced the idea of technologies that support customer collaboration, sharing, and control using so-called “social media” then you are in the dark ages.  Right?

Sure, you say, that’s fine for those cool new music sites and iPhone apps but what if I am selling shipping services, heart valves, or cupcakes, what then? I can set up a company or brand Facebook page, allow customers to digg a page on my website, or send them Tweets about new stuff we’re doing. But is that really taking advantage of all that Web 2.0 has to offer? And, what if my customers are reluctant to participate in these new social media?

Choosing a Web 2.0 strategy

One of the pitfalls of trying to keep up with this new world order is to be too reactive.  Companies want to stay competitive and may be attracted to some of these new tools or services and then try to fit them into a vague strategy that demands Web 2.0 type of interaction with customers. But which tools?  And what do customers really want?

Now, which ones should I pick?

Now, which ones should I pick?

The problem with this “follow the wave” approach is that you may be spending money on stuff that nobody cares about or that just isn’t a good fit for your company.

Whether you are already fully invested in Web 2.0 or just getting started, here are some suggestions for meeting the challenges of the Web 2.0 world:

1) First define your brand: Recognize that your customers still have the same needs they had before – i.e., they want to be listened to and treated well. Choose any new services or tools based on this simple premise and keep coming back to it. Ask yourself: does this cool new (tool, service, etc.) support great customer experiences and my vision for my brand?  If not, then maybe it’s not right for you.

2) Give and take: Provide a feedback loop that will bring you good information about how your customers are feeling about you and that makes customers feel as though you care about them. Don’t give them the tools for communication/collaboration and just sit back and watch. Stay in touch.

3) Build the spirit and sensibility of Web 2.0 into the online experience: Although your customers still have the same basic needs, that doesn’t mean their expectations haven’t changed.  Web 2.0 has raised the bar re: customer expectations of the quality of the online experience.

Use “polite interfaces” and/or “adaptive interfaces” that speak to your users in real life language and give your website and your brand some personality. Provide a level of personalization that creates real value. Even if you don’t offer popular Web 2.0 tools, you can create pleasurable and meaningful experiences for your online users in other ways that don’t require a large investment (I’ll go into more detail about this in a future post).

4) Learn from your mistakes: Don’t be content with the status quo. There is going to be something new right around the corner that your customers might want. If participation rates slump for a particular tool, move on. Be willing to adjust as technology and customer desires change.

5) Do research: William Goldman’s famous quote about the entertainment industry is relevant here:  “nobody knows anything.”  Don’t assume that your competitors have this thing all figured out.  The only real way of knowing  if you’re making the right decisions is to do research.

Once you embrace the spirit of Web 2.0 there are a number of ways of collecting and analyzing information that can provide insight and are cost effective.


Letter to GM: it’s time to get serious about the user experience

December 3, 2008

 
Rick Wagoner
General Motors
300 Renaissance Center
Detroit, MI 48265

cc: Allan Mullally, CEO Ford; Robert Nardelli, CEO Chrysler

Dear Mr. Wagoner,

By now you are probably tired of hearing every so called “expert” who has studied, analyzed or written about the auto industry – or simply driven a car — give you advice on how to survive this recent crisis, but I just wanted to tell you one more thing.  Like the advice given to Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate: “Plastics” my advice can be summed up in a word (okay, two words): “user experience.”

As you struggle to consolidate your brands, close factories and dealerships and figure out a way to continue operations before you run out of cash I urge you, no, I beg you – please do not forget to invest in satisfying your customers’ experiences. 

Your recent decision, along with your esteemed colleagues at Ford and Chrysler, to fly your private jets to Washington to ask American taxpayers to fork over billions to help you continue operations not only set the wrong tone, it is indicative of your company’s inability to understand the emotional needs of your customers and those that left the fold years ago to buy from your European and Japanese competitiors.

Having worked on advertising campaigns for a couple of automakers (US and Japanese) over the years I have some sympathy for both you and your dealer network in these trying times; I know how difficult it is to research, manufacture, market and sell products that have a long product development cycle.  However, the experience also provided me with keen insight into how customers are often left out of the process.  Going forward, here are a few suggestions that I hope you will consider:

  1. Hire a ‘Chief Experience Officer’ immediately: this would be the senior executive responsible for understanding customer experiences across all communication touchpoints among all of your audiences.  Make sure this person reports directly to your CEO.  And, give him/her veto power over dumb decisions (like flying private jets to important public meetings or killing popular programs while ignoring your fan base).
  2. Keep us in the loop: stay in touch with customers over the next year or two about what your plans are, even if it means having to tell us bad news.  If there’s going to be pain, own up to it.  You won’t be fooling anyone by communicating via the typical corporate-speak – or worse – by giving us the silent treatment.  Two-way communication has to be part of the new GM paradigm.  Which leads to …
  3. Be a good listener:  don’t rely solely on your research department for insights.  Put someone in charge of reading blogs, emails and snail mail from customers that has the ear of your CEO.  Keeping an ear to the ground while putting your nose to the grind stone is difficult, but an absolute job requirement in this new economy. And blaming the press for the public’s “misperceptions” about GM’s lineup of fuel efficient cars (as your Vice Chairman Bob Lutz has done) isn’t going to cut it.
  4. Don’t be afraid to look overseas: Your brand Opel is a well respected name throughout Europe.  Right now Saturn is the only division that has announced plans for using the Opel platform (the 2010 Saturn Aura is essentially the Opel Insignia) - but ask 100 people on the street and I’ll bet you’ll have trouble finding 1 person that might know about it.  With Saturn going away, don’t lose sight of Opel for helping you create cars in the US with some European sensibility and style.
  5. Do something fun that surprises people: when was the last time someone beyond the gear-head crowd thought “Wow, GM gets it.  They know how to reach me by doing something fun?”  Think Mini Cooper, and the VW Beetle.  Fun is the intangible gift that keeps on giving and can create a positive halo acrosss all of your models.  And don’t say “Chevy HHR.”  The 60′s was Detroit’s heyday for youthful, fun design, not the 50′s.  Some ideas: how about a US version of the ’66 Vauxhall XVR or an updated 60′s era Opel GT? Or what about making the Chevy Volt fuel efficient, fun to drive and affordable?
  6. Walk the walk (don’t just talk the talk): When you introduced Saturn to the world back in 1990, you promised a “different kind of company, a different kind of car” and really tried to create a new way to approach the customer.  Now it looks like you will be closing or “consolidating” the Saturn brand.  What happened?  You wrote the words but forget the music.  You and your predecessors gave up on Saturn’s mission after only four years  by making the division just another GM brand and failed to provide the kind of experiences — and cars — that could compete effectively with the Japanese.  

If you start to rebuild your company and your product line from the bottom up (i.e., putting the customer first) I’m confident that you can become a leader again in cars, not just trucks.  But, I’m already bracing myself for the slogan “A new GM” and the multi-million dollar ad budget that will go along with it.  Don’t make the mistake that Microsoft is making with Vista.  Why not demonstrate the change and trust the customer to create the label this time?


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