VW iPod adapter: Why won’t it just work the way I want it to?

March 31, 2008

This pretty much sums up a lot of users’ frustration with product/web usability.  You gotta wonder: why aren’t these guys talking to each other or to us?


When I came across this cartoon I couldn’t help thinking of the iPod adapter in my 2008 VW Passat.  After years of consumer requests, car companies are finally providing an AUX adapter so drivers can easily plug in their portable MP3 players.  If you are an iPod fanatic like me you might actually consider getting a new car just so you can get rid of that old cassette or FM adapter that used to be required to play your device.

You would expect VW to be on the cutting edge of providing satisfying user experiences to their customers, especially coming from a car company with the word “people” in their name (and an ad tagline like “Drivers Wanted”).  VW is so cool it has decided to offer a solution that is meant to only work with the iPod (the VW logo even shows up on your iPod when you plug it in).  Here is how the adapter works (or doesn’t):

–Your ipod is inserted into a small pillbox-sized compartment within your glove box.  No wires are needed in the most current setup since it plugs directly into the “male” end of the iPod adapter.
Broken: you can’t control the iPod from the iPod itself when it is connected.   Even someone on the passenger side must remove the ipod in order to see the screen and once removed it turns off.

–After plugging it in you can only choose from five playlists that you create ahead of time (numbered 1 thru 5) or play your entire iPod song list (number 6) .
Broken: You cannot listen to albums, artists or random songs.  You can’t reach playlists beyond the first 5, which are set up in alpha order (sorry ZZ Top fans).

–To “shuffle” songs, you have to start the iPod in shuffle mode and let it play one or two songs.
Broken:  If you don’t move the audio selector to “CD 6” quick enough to get it to start playing, the adapter turns off “shuffle” and you get an alpha sort of your music starting with “A.”  I like to hear ABBA once in a while but, please, not everytime I get in my car.

–While your music is playing, the read out in the dash says “Track 01”
Broken: there is no info shown re: song or artist

What’s amazing is that VW has completely thrown out the intuitive features and interface that Apple has painstakenly set up that makes the iPod experience so pleasurable. They’ve put “clumsy mitten-hands” on the iPod interface without any thought about user preferences or desires.

I can only conclude that these choices were made by engineers that were looking to add car audio features not currently offered by competitors but were not considering what people like about the iPod itself.   They would have been better off creating less car audio functionality and letting the driver decide how best to use their own iPod (i.e., just put an AUX jack in the middle console next to the driver that gives us easy access).  Instead, we end up with a very sad robot indeed.

The lesson here is that if you can’t match or improve on an existing well known interface, half-measures are worse than no measures at all.

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You gotta hand it to Apple: gesture-based “soft” interfaces are coming to a PC near you

March 27, 2008

Gesture-based interfaces are looking like the next new thing.  One of the key features that iPhone aficianados love to show their friends is the multi-touch feature that allows them pinch their fingers or expand them to scroll and
manipulate images on the screen.   And, companies like Sony Ericsson, Samsung, LG, and Motorola are coming out with a number of  new “iClones” that offer similar software-based interfaces.

Anyone that caught some of CNN’s recent coverage of the primaries (“The best political team on television!”) couldn’t help noticing Wolf Blitzer and other commentators showing off their gesture-based interface (called Perceptive Pixel) to manipulate the state maps in order to further confuse viewers re: the evening’s voting outcome.  Wolf, we know Tom Cruise (in Minority Report mode), and you are no Tom Cruise. 

 Meanwhile, Microsoft is focusing its efforts on their Surface technology which is to be available in hotels and casinos but isn’t promising any tabletop (or PC) gesture-based interfaces for consumers until 2011. 

However, with the introduction of the new MacBook Air, Apple has introduced the first multi-touch applications for the plain old PC (using the touch pad rather than the actual screen).  And, last summer Apple filed a patent to expand their multi-touch interface into a host of other uses including copy, cut, paste and other common editing operations.  Get ready to start seeing more of these gesture-based interfaces introduced into Apple’s product line.

It will be interesting to see how these new soft interfaces will change the way we all conduct every-day PC-related tasks once they go beyond the hipster iPhone crowd and into the mainstream.  It’s already clear that software-driven interfaces (like the iPhone) will soon be replacing the clunky hardware of the present.

And, as these interfaces become more widespread there may be a host of new user experience issues to consider, especially for older users or those handicapped with arthritis or other muscle ailments that affect dexterity.  Will people be divided into those who can “pinch” and glide their way through an interface and those how are stuck with that old mouse and keyboard on their desk/laptop? 

Sources/Fun and Games:

Why get a Macbook Air to start using multi-touch on your PC?  Try it remotely on your Windows or Linux PC – for free (works with iPhone and iPod Touch):
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mWnbFZ-N-gU&eurl=http://hackedgadgets.com/page/2/

See CNN’s “Magic Wall” (and watch Jeffrey Toobin try to impress the ladies!):
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ybkidUnbjcE&feature=related

Microsoft Surface – “the coffee table that will change the world” !!!: but when can I use it on my PC?
http://www.microsoft.com/surface/index.html

Design guru Bill Buxton explains it all: a multi-touch history
http://www.billbuxton.com/multitouchOverview.html

Jason Harris at Gigaom gives you the 411 on new soft mobile interfaces, including Google’s Android:  http://gigaom.com/2008/02/29/why-2008-is-the-year-touch-will-revolutionize-the-mobile-market/


Why Starbucks is like the Beatles and it’s tough to put the lightening back in the bottle

March 22, 2008

If you’ve been paying attention to the news lately in between sips of your Caramel Macchiato you might have heard that Starbucks is having a mid-life crisis.

(Customers are saying “all we need is love” )

It seems that the once high flying company’s stock has been on a steady downward spiral.  They are closing stores (in the U.S. anyway).  And, the company is getting whacked by a number of competitors including Dunkin Donuts and McDonalds (of all people!).  To reverse this slide, its CEO and founder Howard Schultz has announced an array of new initiatives that will “go back to their core” by brewing a stronger, richer blend, entering into a partnership with Conservation International to certify environmentally responsible whole-bean espresso products, and offering a rewards program for users of the Starbucks customer card.

These are smart initiatives but I’m afraid they won’t be enough.  You see, just as the Beatles were more than a band, Starbucks is more than just a coffee store.  They are a cultural phenom, one of those rare forces that were able to grab hold of the zeitgeist and change how we think about, drink and spend our money on coffee (or in the case of the Beatles, how we listened to, talked about and bought music).  Like the Beatles, Starbucks matured along with their audience.  And, their ego and ambition led to some pretty dumb moves in the process.

If you are old enough to remember the 90s, you may recall the excitement around the opening of a new Starbucks in your neighborhood.  This was not that different from the anticipation certain people felt in the 60s about the next new album or single by that band from Liverpool.  But as time went by, things changed.  

Although Starbucks didn’t “break up” they did have their own Yoko: Hear Music.  Yea, it was cool for awhile to have these alternatitve music CDs hanging around the store.  But then it became kind of annoying.  Paul and Linda went vegan and preached about the environment in their songs while flying between their manses in Scotland, NYC and the Hamptons.  Starbucks sang that same song while it built more and more stores and now rivals McDonalds in the amount of unrecyclable waste that customers toss out during each visit.   And similar to George putting out his triple album of stuff that wasn’t good enough to make it on the earlier Beatles records, Starbucks has filled their stores with lousy pastries and warmed over breakfast sandwiches.  They are still Starbucks but somehow they just aren’t as good as we remember them. 

Like Peter Fonda at the end of the movie Easy Rider, Schultz is now saying “we blew it.”  He went after the fast money and lost his vision, and with it the soul of his brand.  And customers started to look for something else to get excited about.  The chain is a victim of their own success: by essentially becoming like McDonalds it has given people permission to believe that McDonalds can play on their turf.

One positive aspect of this recent wake up call at the company is that a number of people who care about this stuff are actually talking about the customer experience and how Starbucks should focus more on the store environment and staffAnd, the company is (“finally” according to some critics) putting more focus on listening to their customers: Starbucks just introduced a new online community, mystarbucksidea.com, where Schulz and his managers will be able to interact with customers via their corporate blog.  Whether these changes will help improve the customer experience or their competitive position is tough to say. 

But, let’s face it, Starbucks can’t ever get that lightening back in the bottle.  The best they can hope for is to try to re-play their greatest hits in order to hold onto their fan base and consider themselves lucky if they get a surprise hit single once in a while (“(Just Like) Starting Over” perhaps?). 

Or maybe someone like Tom Petty will come along and form a supergroup.


iPhone as media platform: chicken or egg?

March 19, 2008

The positive buzz continues for Apple as a new study by m:metrics shows that iPhone users are significantly more likely to use every type of media on their phones when compared to other “smart phone” users.  This includes watching mobile TV/video, accessing social networking sites (e.g., Facebook), and performing a search or viewing news/other Web content.  And, iPhone users are more than 3 times as likely to use their phone to listen to music when compared to other smart phone users.

While this should generally be no surprise to anyone on the planet that has read about, heard about, seen, or used Apple’s “must have” appliance, it does raise some interesting questions that aren’t really answered by the press release (competitors take note).

The author of the press release casually passes over the contribution of “the attributes of the device itself” and emphasizes AT&T’s unlimited data plan as a key contributer to the increased use of media content …

“While the demographics of iPhone users are very similar to all smartphone owners, the iPhone is outpacing other smartphones in driving mobile content consumption by a significant margin,” said Donovan. “In addition to the attributes of the device itself, another important factor to consider is the fact that all iPhones on AT&T are attached to an unlimited data plan. Our data shows that once the fear of surprise data charges is eliminated, mobile content consumption increases dramatically, regardless of device.”

While it makes sense that the unlimited data plan could contribute to increased use (who passes up the all you can eat buffet?), the recent New York Times article nor the press release really mention much about the interface or user experience other than the fact that widgets for Google Maps and YouTube seem to drive usage of those apps. 

It would have been great to know more about the “why’s,” for example:
1) How much of iPhone’s media usage can be attributed to the user-interface itself? Not just the content widgets but the unique aspects of iPhone’s touch screen, screen size, etc.?
2) Conversely, is the lower incidence of usage by other smart phone users related to problems/issues with their phones’ interface?
3) How much of this usage is driven by self described “early adopters,” i.e., those who are predisposed to using rich media in the first place?
4) Is the iPhone driving usage or the other way around: what percentage of users are “first timers” – i.e., their iPhone usage is the first time they’ve used some of these media applications on a smart phone? 
5) How much is attributable to users accessing content via WiFi vs. AT&T’s network (many users have complained about the slowness of AT&T’s network)?

6) And, importantly, do these numbers represent claimed usage or as m:metrics promises in its About section, “actual mobile content consumption?” (According to The New York Times the results are from a survey of more than 10,000 adults.  Did the researchers sit over the shoulders of all 10,000 people to make sure they were using the applications claimed?)  How much of claimed usage can be attributable to overstated usage?  Look, if I shelled out $500 for a phone and someone asked me if I was using all the cool stuff that came with it I might be embarrased to admit that besides the music, I haven’t really gotten around to using all that other cool stuff.  

Claimed usage or not, these are impressive numbers and represent a cold slap to Apple’s competitors.  Now if they can just open up the phone to other wireless providers …

iPhone videos:

You can always listen to “Blender” (the Collective Soul album) but will the iPhone blend?:
 http://youtube.com/watch?v=qg1ckCkm8YI

Fun with iPhone’s SDK (just released in Feb):
http://youtube.com/watch?v=u5xA8-XvjNk

Can you use it as a hot plate too?
http://youtube.com/watch?v=jihVOLrZ4UA


A mobile app to help speed your trip

March 18, 2008

Kudos to Continental airlines for being the first to test their mobile boarding pass (Houston departures only for now).  But why are they keeping this on the down low?

 

According the New York Times, Continental is the first airline to test electronic boarding passes that replaces the usual paper boarding pass.  Their system creates a unique two-dimensional bar code (versus the more easily hackable one dimensional bar code used for paper) that can be downloaded and then scanned by airport personnel from your mobile device/cellphone.  Athough Forrester Research is claiming only “42% interest in using mobile phones as a boarding pass” (42% of whom?  mobile users who travel? Business travelers?), I think this is going to be in wide use once the airlines work out the standards with the T.S.A. and FAA.

The easy part is just letting users know about it, right?  Hmm.  You’d think that Continental would be making a big deal about this since they are first to market (since December ’07), so let’s go find out more about it.  Here is their home page:

It’s nice to see the BlackBerry icon although there is no specific mention on the home page re: this amazing breakthrough (only mentions of getting “flight updates”).  And, just a nit, the icon is located just below the fold on my browser.  Well, at least it gives me a good visual to start off  …

Now that I’m on the “Wireless Tools” landing page I have to do some real scanning to find the link (see above).  And note: although this new technology is considered a “special offer” by the company, the featured ads here (on right of page) are generic pitches for “low fares” and frequent flier miles.  A real missed opportunity.  Let’s click on that link under “Mobile Boarding Pass” …

 

Made it!  They provide a pretty good overview of how to get set up to start using your mobile device for check in.  And the benefit is right in the title: “truly paperless check in.” But, look at the breadcrumbs at top: why are they burying this page within the “OnePass News and Offers?”  This is real news for everybody – why isn’t Continental featuring this across the site — and especially within their own “Wireless Tools” section?  This new check-in solution represents a real opportunity to communicate to savvy fliers that Continental is a true leader in technology.  When another airline starts their own mobile check in service and does a better job marketing it, they could take away a lot of the mojo from Continental.

To wrap up:
Overall usability score: 7/10
Content score: 8/10
Markeing/branding score: 4/10

Some suggestions for Continental and other airlines once they get this going:
-Prominently feature a BlackBerry-type icon/link on the home page
-When users land on the mobile-related page make sure to feature this new technology, perhaps with a visual showing someone using it at the airport
–Make ad space contextual — i.e., lose those generic ads when you are only talking to mobile users and cross sell something specific to mobile technology
-Don’t bury the link so deep within a proprietary “offers” sequence/area.  Users are likley to pass it over within a section reserved for “specials” and “price off” promises. 

We weary travelers just want to get on that plane and move on with our lives.   Now the airlines can help us do it even faster.


A case for changing the CD case, not

March 17, 2008

Okay.  Enough is enough.  With all the innovations in packaging and so called greening of upscale products I still can’t believe I am purchasing music CDs in the same plastic jewel box used since I first got those early Pixies and Nirvana CDs in the “new” format. 

 

(photo: gearfuse.com) 

Around that time I was hired to do some research for an organization that represented the record companies/distributers re: said packaging.  To no surprise, people in our focus groups hated it and had few problems with an alternative paper sleeve, as long as it could hold the CD in place.  The jewel box (in the US anyway) continues to be the single most difficult mass produced consumer product to open – short of those plastic hang tag packages containing mice and other e-goodies that cut people open every day (a whole ‘nother story). 

The great graphic designer Tibor Kalman, no slouch when it came to recognizing satisfying user experiences, wrote a very funny humor piece for the NY Timesalmost 10 years ago — about this very issue.  Although some artists and small record labels are demanding, and getting, alternative paper packaging, this problem still persists (Starbucks is being slammed for “mainstreaming” their musical offerings, but at least their Hear Music unit has dedicated itself to the more friendly paper packaging).  When they do use paper packaging for limited releases, the big labels use it as a PR device to show their green cred rather than make it their standard practice for all CDs. What are the record companies waiting for?  What are they thinking?

I have some hypotheses/explanations that I hope will be in the spirit of Kalman’s efforts to enlighten us those many years ago:

Anticipation: by making it almost impossible to get to your music the guys in suits are just making that moment when you actually get to play the thing that much sweeter (I once had to wait over an hour and a half for the Rollling Stones to come on after the warm up band left the stage.  Evidently they do this often).

The “album” is dead – The time it takes you to open the CD case correlates roughly to the time you’re saving by not playing the other 8 weak cuts on the album that you probably didn’t want to listen to in the first place.

-Downloads Part I: Why Bother? – the phyisical CD purchase is probably going to be replaced by “0’s” and “1’s,”  say in 10 years or so, so why change anything?

-Downloads Part II: Punishment –  Record execs figure that approx. 50% of all CD purchasers have illegally downloaded some music in the past year.  Why reward these people when they actually purchase the product?  They should all be in jail where they can’t even get near their CD collection or Limewire!

Good for Self Defense –  How many times have you watched a scene in a movie where someone breaks a bottle and threatens to use it as a weapon?  Why not use a jewel case instead?  For those AA folks who don’t have a bottle handy just grab a CD case, hit it against your old Pioneer receiver, and you’ve got a lethal weapon at the ready.  This however, could backfire in that it could be used to thwart off the download police that have just come to arrest you for stealing that new Vampire Weekend single you downloaded from that site in the Ukraine.


Don’t plug that in. You don’t know where that gadget has been!

March 14, 2008

Here’s one of those little stories that might mean big consequences for electronics and software companies: today’s AP story featured on CNN’s technology page should be a wake-up call for those in the industry.

The solution? Maybe not ...

 It seems that mostly smaller, cheap electronic devices (such as the digital photo frame featured in the article) are getting infected with viruses – either unintentionally or by hackers – and passing the virus along to unsuspecting consumers’ PCs when they plug in the device. My guess is that we’ll see more news stories about this phenomenon as more gadgets enter the market from China and other places that lack strong quality control.(Image: gamespot.com)

The real shame is that these stories will be used to further blame the freewheeling global economy for creating stuff that we as consumers love so much but that the media and certain politicians use to blame when things go wrong, such as the recent problems with toxic Chinese toys. Cheap stuff often comes at a price, even if it isn’t at the cash register.

I agree that companies sending out or knowingly importing shoddy merchandise should be punished. But, in this case rather than continue to blame the manufacturers who can’t possibly control 100% of their testing prior to shipping out their gadgets, the focus should be on the software co’s running the applications. Sorry Microsoft but you guys need to be more creative about controlling this problem: “sealing the borders” by showing pop ups every minute on Vista doesn’t cut it and has created a user experience nightmare that has cost the company sales of its much maligned operating system.

Microsoft and their partners should be getting together and creating a Marshall Plan-like effort to re-tool their code rather than relying on third party sources like Norton and McAfee to do the heavy lifting. Lack of a seamless experience when it comes to keeping out unwanted viruses may just be the tipping point that moves consumers to the on-demand model that everyone has been predicting will happen for the last 5 years.

Let’s stop the blame game and come up with a vision for the future where we can plug in (almost) anything and not worry about unintended consequences.