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

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:

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.


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.