Archive for November, 2008

The Numbers Game- How we oversell the wrong properties and usability suffers

Saturday, November 1st, 2008

Engineers are always trying to improve the numbers that define our products, whether it be the number of pixels for a camera, or the pages-per-minute for a printer, or the resolution of an oscilloscope.

Marketing will always seek to trump the competition by having a number that outstrips their rival, regardless of whether that number has any meaning to the end user. Customer surveys constantly find that ‘ease-of-use’ is much more important than quantative measurements like picture resolution or sound quality, but it is far more difficult for a marketing campaign to state and prove that the user experience with one product is superior to another – it is a more subtle message and require more marketing nuance. It is often a reputation that has to be earned over time.

Be careful that seeking better numbers lets you lose sight of what the user really cares about, which is a better overall user experience. When the world transitioned from records and tapes to CDs, the marketing people were telling us all about the improved quality of sound from digital media. To be honest, I think few customers cared. CDs allowed instant access to a specific song. They are smaller and easier to store than either of the other media, and less easily damaged. So ease of use was more important than sound quality. My proof for this thesis comes when you look at the next transition. People were more than happy to allow the sound quality to be reduced when transitioning to MP3s because that allowed for miniature MP3 players, no media to cart around, and easy access to extra information such as song title, artist etc. Users will follow a better user experience, and quality will not be an issue except for a few audiophiles, who only make up a tiny percentage of the market.

So what does this tell us about the future of other products? Blu-ray disks are having trouble gaining traction in the market, even after seeing off the rival HD format. Why? Well the user experience is the same as a DVD. We have not given the customer a compelling reason to upgrade their hardware. We have not made anything easier or better for the user, so they are not going to bite just for the sake of a few extra pixels. Blu-ray will limp along while the real user experience enhancement will come from video-on-demand and downloadable rental movies. Not driving to the video rental shop is a real user-win, and that will trump high definition every time. Most users will choose a faster download and less wait time.

Another example of dodging the numbers game is the Wii success storey. The designers did not follow the path of the Xbox 360 and PS3 which easily trump the Wii based on the screen resolution and graphics processing power, but the Wii won out on sales because they revolutionised the user’s means of controlling the game.

Camera manufactures blindly followed the herd as they increase the picture resolution. My camera takes 7 megapixel pictures, but I always keep it set at 5 megapixels so the pictures are smaller – I keep more pictures on the camera, and use less disk space to store them on my PC. Increasing the picture quality was actually damaging my user experience because the camera was full more often, and other operations such as e-mailing the pictures was more difficult.

Bear this in mind the next time you want to revamp your product to get more of what you already have. Do you want your 60 page-per-minute printer to do 70 pages-per-minute, or should you investigate why it sometimes takes the user ten minutes to resolve a paper jam (maybe they could be given better indication of exactly where the problem is when it happens). Saving the user time this way more than compensates for printing a little slower than the competition. But it is hard fro marketing to sell that message. They fall into the Gillette trap – think of a bunch of marketing guys sitting around saying that they have a razor with 3 blades, “What will we do next?”. It takes less imagination to simply give the customer more of what they already have – a fourth blade. But many customers will go ‘So what!’.

Apple regularly outsell higher spec products because their customers know that the experience with an Apple product will be better, and that is why they will buy an iPod that might have less memory than another player at the same price point.

So try to think outside the box of numbers, and come up with products that change the game.