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!

 

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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:

Online behavioral tracking at a crossroads: will companies do the right thing?

April 14, 2008

There are two new vendor systems being introduced in the U.S. that will significantly enhance the type of information that will be made available to advertisers regarding the Web navigation and search behavior of users. 

(Nice place to visit but do you really want to answer questions there?) 

NebuAd and Phorm, are promising the first “consumer-centric behavioral targeting network.”  If their business model looks promising, expect to see similar systems put in place soon by old standbys like DoubleClick as well.  Essentially, these firms will be working with ISPs to track sites visited and searches performed by their customers and provide this information to advertisers in order for them to customize their ad pitches accordingly.

While these firms are poised to deliver the kind of contextual advertising experience long promised by the interactive properties of the Web, they are entering into some very dangerous territory when it comes to compromising the privacy of its users.  According to The New York Times, at least one of these firms, NebuAd, is being cagey about what and how it is going to alert the people it is monitoring, leaving it up to the individual ISPs to alert their users.  NebuAd has also so far refused to share information about its ISP partnerships.

Whatever side you might be on re: the privacy issues and relative merits of the different technologies used by these companies, their failure to act in a responsible way should be cause for concern: if these firms drop the ball on effectively notifying users they may be shooting themselves — and their advertising clients — in the foot.  And the wounds could be deep.

Already Phorm is under fire from advocacy groups in the UK for behaving like big brother.  Here is an example of what a viral video campaign could do to set off alarms in the U.S.:

There have been too many instances in which the failure of an industry to police itself of potential abuses (see our current mortgage crisis) has resulted in serious blowback from consumer groups and the general public.  These behavioral tracking firms, which are currently flying under the radar for the most part, may be in for some serious heat if they don’t take pains to police themselves.  This means coming up with a workable system for notifying Web users and providing them with a simple way for them to opt out of having their online behavior tracked (what some ad executives are calling “unavoidable notice”).

Rather than each company coming up with its own rules for disclosure, they should be establishing a consistent system with the help of a reputable third party non-profit oversight firm, similar to what Icann does with the contentious issue of Internet addresses. 

The NAI (Network Advertising Initiative), made up of several companies with interests in the online ad space, including Google, AOL and Yahoo, has committed itself to self-regulation of online data mining practices.  However, so far their consumer protections  don’t appear to go far enough, especially around the definition of “Robust Notice.”  The problem may be that they have too much of an interest in making these types of systems work to provide truly enforceable oversight.

Without stricter oversight, these firms and their advertising clients may find one of their worst nightmares coming true: sitting in Congressional hearings and having to answer questions to House members that barely understand how to send email, let alone the difference between a “cookie” and Internet protocol addresses (two of the ways that these companies are tracking information).

This should be enough of a disincentive for these firms to act now.  Advertisers, who will likely be an easy target if any potential abuses of this information become widely known, would do well to help pay for oversight if the tracking firms are unwilling to foot the bill.

Additional video:
Behavioral targeting 101 with Darren Johnson:
http://youtube.com/watch?v=PTyHM0SvAK8&feature=related 


It’s not that you’re painting the wrong picture, it’s the frame

April 11, 2008

I’ve been doing some research for an article I’m writing about the importance of breaking down the barriers that exist between user experience practitioners and marketing researchers, and I’ve come to  an important realization. 

As much as the experts rail on about the importance of making “customer experience” a core competency within organizations, things are not going to change until the stakeholders force a change in the “frame.”  

I’m not talking about HTML frames.  I’m talking about frames as they are used in langauge.  According to George Lakoff, professor of Linguistics at UCLA, Berkeley and founder of the the Rockridge Institute,

“a frame is a conceptual structure used in thinking.”  

Rakoff goes on to say …

“reframing is telling the truth as we see it – telling it forcefully, straightforwardly, articulately, with moral conviction and without hesitation. “

Some examples that Republicans have used to reframe issues in their favor (with the help of the much maligned GOP researcher Frank Luntz) include:

Old                                       New
Tax cut                                 Tax relief
Estate tax                             Death tax
Global warming                    Climate change
Logging/Clear cutting          Healthy forests initiative

Although Lakoff’s and his progressive institute’s main concerns are the framing of political language, particularly that used by Democrats to counter the Republican successes of the past eight years, framing can be used by anyone to score points for their side. 

Like the Democrats, most of the folks on “usability” or development teams have been using the wrong language to make their case, ignoring the power of framing when they speak to management.  When it comes time to ask for funds for “usability testing,” managers from the various business units who otherwise claim dedication to “usability” often come up short when it’s time to commit dollars.

I have a suggestion: instead of asking to fund “usability,” practitioners should reframe the issue by asking managers to support and enhance the ongoing satisfaction of the customer experience.  If a product developer asked a manager in one of big three car companies for money to improve the stabilization system in their best selling car in order to improve the driving experience wouldn’t she get the funds?  When film directors ask producers for more money to blow stuff up in their movies to improve the viewing experience don’t they usually get it? 

Those involved in creating online customer experiences have to start talking about the funding of their goals in broader terms.  They have to emphasize the importance of creating satisfying customer experience across all touch points with their customer, with the online experience as an essential piece that helps drive a stronger relationship with the brand.  And, as with successes seen in the political realm, this reframing has to be consistent and persistent.   That means using this new language in every piece of written communication and every interaction with stakeholders.

Reframing the issue in this way may go a long way to increased understanding of the importance of creating usable and persuasive interfaces for customers.

View the excellent PBS “Persuaders” series:  a must see for anyone communicating within organizations …
http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/persuaders/view/

George Lakoff’s lecture on “Moral Politics” and language targeted to values rather than issues:
http://youtube.com/watch?v=5f9R9MtkpqM


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.


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.