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

Advertisements

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



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?


Wrap Rage: can gadget makers finally get it right on clamshell packaging?

November 17, 2008

When companies can’t (or won’t) figure out how to improve the user experience customers will always find workarounds.  So it’s been with the deservedly maligned “clamshell” packaging.  Anyone that has purchased electronics on a hang tag knows how difficult (and dangerous) it is to open this type of clear hard plastic packaging.  But is selling power tools to open them really the best solution?

Try Openin!
Is this really the best way to enhance the user experience?

I can’t help but recall an old Saturday Night Live “advertisement” for a drug called “Try Openin” in which cast members try desparately to open a bottle of pills. This was a bit of satire that allowed us to laugh at the still fresh-in-our-minds poison Tylenol scare  that led to tamper-free packaging of all pharmaceuticals and over-the-counter medicines.  Back then manufacturers had a strong motivation to make their products tamper-resistent.  But, did this set a dangerous precedent?

Despite sending thousands of people to the emergecy room each year due to incidents related to opening plastic packaging, it’s easy to make fun of the issue.  Consumer Reports even has an award, the Oyster, for packaging that takes the most time and effort to open.  It’s understandable that companies have to balance the needs of retailers and the marketplace’s desire to see the actual product but are they paying enough attention to the user experience?  Apparently not.  In this same article from CR, I came across this quote from a professor of Packaging Science (no kidding) at Clemson University …

“In the end packaging is perceived by industry as a necessary evil, and manufacturers don’t want to spend more on it than they have to, even if it means compromising usability.”

It’s truly mind boggling that manufacturers and marketers find this to be an acceptable compromise for the purchasers of the products they work so hard to design and market.  This is not rocket science guys and btw, why is it taking you so long?

There is hope
It seems that Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon, got the message after spending hours trying to open presents for his kids at Christmas.  According to a recent Amazon press release …

SEATTLE–(BUSINESS WIRE)–Nov. 3, 2008–Amazon.com has launched “Frustration-Free Packaging,” a new initiative designed to make it easier for customers to liberate products from their packages. Amazon is focusing first on two kinds of items: those enclosed in hard plastic cases known as “clamshells” and those secured with plastic-coated wire ties, commonly used in toy packaging.

Amazon is working with Mattel and other companies to get them to ship products to them in cardboard boxes.  This seems like a no-brainer since, unlike other retailers, Amazon doesn’t have to display their products nor worry about theft due to easy-to-open packages.  According to a recent New York Times article some of the other players besides Amazon that are trying to make some changes include:

Microsoft – will feature computer mouse packaging in Best Buy stores that has an easy open plastic zipper similar to that used in freezer bags
Sony – is trying out an easy open adhesive that makes a loud velcro-like noise to deter thieves

Hats off to these guys but where are the other leaders on this important consumer issue?  Just think of the power that companies like Walmart and Apple have to change the dynamic (Apple has already proven with the iPod that it can make packaging more a work of art than a “necessary evil” yet the company continues to feature tons of third party products in traditional clamshell packaging in its retail stores). 

And what about the PR benefits of so called “green packaging?”  Packaging innovation has the potential to be the new reason to buy, especially in tough economic times.  According to a 2004 article from ergoweb, making packaging more user friendly is not just a consumer safety issue — it could be a real competitive advantage to companies willing to provide innovative solutions:

… when paint manufacturer Sherwin-Williams introduced a plastic paint container with a twist-top cap, making it far simpler for the customer to open, hold, pour and carry than traditional metal paint cans which have to be pried open, the can became a quick hit with buyers and left other paint manufacturers scrambling to copy the paint container’s ergonomic design.

Alas, even in this economic downturn it is unlikely that consumers will purposely stay away from products because of poor package design — but they may be attracted more to those building a better mousetrap to hold their electronic goodies.  It’s really up to corporate leaders like Bezos to recognize the importance of creating better user experiences.  And, if the carrot approach doesn’t work, maybe this suggestion from a blogger in Pensacola Beach, Florida will do the trick …

We think the simplest, most effective way of ridding the planet of hard-to-open packages would be for one of the TV networks to launch a new reality show — one where the CEOs of consumer products companies are put on a desert island and, to earn the right of return, they have to open their own products on camera, using only their bare hands, toes, and teeth.”

Hey, why not make it a Christmas special?  The ratings would be through the roof!

 


Note to Apple: iPhone copy and paste is not a “feature” it is a business

September 26, 2008

There is no question that the iPhone has revolutionized the smart phone market.  With the recent release of the 3G, Apple has managed to create one of the most pleasurable experiences for users of any electronic device while being responsive to issues from users re: the first generation iPhone (at least re: GPS).  However, I’m still astounded that Apple has yet to offer one of the most important features that BlackBerry users have taken for granted for years: copy – or cut – and paste when editing email or other documents on the handheld.

iPhone copy and paste

iPhone copy and paste

Even more astounding is that Greg Joswiak, head of product marketing for Apple, believes that copy and paste functionality is not a priority for the iPhone (!).  Not only are they losing customers by delaying this, Apple is putting developers on hold who could be developing a workable office suite for the iPhone.
As a long time BlackBerry user that has switched over to iPhone, I am one of many who miss this most basic function (If you’ve ever used your smart phone to type a 35 character long URL you know what I mean).  Until Apple gets its act together on copy and paste, we’re going to have to settle for workarounds, poor (and time consuming) imitations, and unapproved  “proof of concepts” or open source apps created by the developer community. 
For those willing to use a Web-based app to copy and paste …
Preston Monroe’s iCopy is the closest you’re going to get.  It’s a good stop-gap solution but as Monroe admits, there are some drawbacks including the fact that it doesn’t work with every page of text (sorry BBerry users), you have to reload the page to paste, and the text you paste is added to a URL and sent over the internet – providing an insecure environment for your personal information.  Here is a demo  …
As for “proof of concepts,” here are a couple that are worth mentioning …
From loneysandwich, here’s a mockup of what it might look like to Copy and Paste on the iPhone, using the magnifying loupe and a second-finger tap.   Nice job – but we expect that many users will have problems navigating effectively with the second finger – working the magnifying loupe is difficult enough (I’d love to see a UI test with Sumo wrestlers using this feature) …
MagicPad from Proximi is a rich-text editor that is now available in the App Store. MagicPad allows users to create text documents in which they can change fonts, text sizes, colors, and even add bold, italic, underline, and strike-through effects to their text.  And unlike the earlier proof of concept mentioned above, the user only needs to use a single finger to highlight text to copy, cut and paste. Unfortunately, MagicPad doesn’t solve many of the issues I have: you can only copy and paste items created within MagicPad – not between existing Apple applications on the iPhone.  However, for the price of a Mocha Latte ($3.99 at the App Store) it’s worth checking out.  Here’s a brief demo from the folks at Proximi …
While the developer community works to create workarounds and other apps, Apple is losing business every day from potential BlackBerry users who are getting locked in to 2 year contracts with their Pearls, Curves and Bolds.  RIM is also looking to release the new Flip 8220 BlackBerry in the U.S. The new flip phone will provide some extra “cover” for those frustrated by those exposed keys, and create yet another reason not to switch to the iPhone.
Apple made a big mistake in years past by focusing all of their Mac sales efforts on the education market and not listening to corporate and small business customers.  It took them years to recover.  Let’s hope they get wise and come up with an elegant solution soon for Copy and Paste.
Also check out:
Zac’s White’s OpenClip project – you can find a video demo and Zac’s updates re: iPhone copy and paste within iPhone’s SDK framework here:
There is hope (and some clues re: Apple’s firmware update) but no timeframe set:
A UI design suggestion based on the 15-year old Newton interface:

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.