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

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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


Capturing the spirit of Web 2.0

June 8, 2009

The new world order?

As I head off to this year’s national UPA (Usability Professionals Association) conference in Portland, I got to thinking about all of the hype around Web 2.0 and how it is changing EVERYTHING.

Image from tangyslice.com

Image from tangyslice.com

As the above tag cloud illustrates, Web 2.0 can be defined in a number of ways and can be pretty confusing to the uninitiated. However, one thing is for sure: if you are a marketer and you haven’t embraced the idea of technologies that support customer collaboration, sharing, and control using so-called “social media” then you are in the dark ages.  Right?

Sure, you say, that’s fine for those cool new music sites and iPhone apps but what if I am selling shipping services, heart valves, or cupcakes, what then? I can set up a company or brand Facebook page, allow customers to digg a page on my website, or send them Tweets about new stuff we’re doing. But is that really taking advantage of all that Web 2.0 has to offer? And, what if my customers are reluctant to participate in these new social media?

Choosing a Web 2.0 strategy

One of the pitfalls of trying to keep up with this new world order is to be too reactive.  Companies want to stay competitive and may be attracted to some of these new tools or services and then try to fit them into a vague strategy that demands Web 2.0 type of interaction with customers. But which tools?  And what do customers really want?

Now, which ones should I pick?

Now, which ones should I pick?

The problem with this “follow the wave” approach is that you may be spending money on stuff that nobody cares about or that just isn’t a good fit for your company.

Whether you are already fully invested in Web 2.0 or just getting started, here are some suggestions for meeting the challenges of the Web 2.0 world:

1) First define your brand: Recognize that your customers still have the same needs they had before – i.e., they want to be listened to and treated well. Choose any new services or tools based on this simple premise and keep coming back to it. Ask yourself: does this cool new (tool, service, etc.) support great customer experiences and my vision for my brand?  If not, then maybe it’s not right for you.

2) Give and take: Provide a feedback loop that will bring you good information about how your customers are feeling about you and that makes customers feel as though you care about them. Don’t give them the tools for communication/collaboration and just sit back and watch. Stay in touch.

3) Build the spirit and sensibility of Web 2.0 into the online experience: Although your customers still have the same basic needs, that doesn’t mean their expectations haven’t changed.  Web 2.0 has raised the bar re: customer expectations of the quality of the online experience.

Use “polite interfaces” and/or “adaptive interfaces” that speak to your users in real life language and give your website and your brand some personality. Provide a level of personalization that creates real value. Even if you don’t offer popular Web 2.0 tools, you can create pleasurable and meaningful experiences for your online users in other ways that don’t require a large investment (I’ll go into more detail about this in a future post).

4) Learn from your mistakes: Don’t be content with the status quo. There is going to be something new right around the corner that your customers might want. If participation rates slump for a particular tool, move on. Be willing to adjust as technology and customer desires change.

5) Do research: William Goldman’s famous quote about the entertainment industry is relevant here:  “nobody knows anything.”  Don’t assume that your competitors have this thing all figured out.  The only real way of knowing  if you’re making the right decisions is to do research.

Once you embrace the spirit of Web 2.0 there are a number of ways of collecting and analyzing information that can provide insight and are cost effective.


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/