Kindle Fire Under Fire: Really Jakob?

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

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