Mar 23, 2009

I Will Pay for Usability

The last phone that I purchased was the Samsung Blackjack II.  I had never owned a Windows Mobile device before, but I had been wanting a smartphone-like device for some time.  At the time this had Windows Mobile 6.0 on it.
I gave it one month.  Things that I observed that irked me to no end:
  • The browser was sort of silly...  felt like it was a checkmark on the features list... "Has Browser of a sort".
  • It took 9 keystrokes to call someone in my contact list (no exaggeration).
  • Buttons were too small w/ no auto correct.
  • There is a Start menu with things you need to get to a lot, and then in there is another "folder" with options that you actually need to get to more often.
  • Try calling "1-800-GOOG-411" on a Blackjack.  Just try.  You cannot enter letters using the keyboard in the dialer and the numbers don't show the corresponding touch-tone letters.  So unless you have either memorized the letter layout on a touchtone phone or have another phone with the letters on the buttons close by, you aren't getting anywhere.
  • To unlock the phone, you press "power, asterisk, 1".  The power button is on the top, almost requiring this to be a two-handed operation, aside from the fact that the asterisk and 1 keys are impossible to find on the tiny keyboard, especially when driving.
The thing in a nutshell was, though, that this was not a good phone or a good PDA or a good computer.
The whole thing came to a head when my wife was trying to call someone on my phone while I was driving and after several minutes of frustration trying to dial someone in my contacts list she said "you must get rid of this phone."  My wife is the Keeper of The Money, so for her to say I need to get rid of my phone and pay for a new one is darn rare.
When I used the Blackjack II I would always think about Alan Cooper's book The Inmates are Running the Asylum.  Most people I talk to who own one say it's "great", but what they don't realize is that they are comparing bad to worse.  Cooper calls this "Dancing Bearware":
"The sad thing about dancing bearware is that most people are quite satisfied with the lumbering beast. Only when they see some real dancing do they begin to suspect that there is a world beyond ursine shuffling.  So few software-based products have exhibited any real dancing ability that most people are honestly unaware that things could be better - a lot better."
The thing about the Blackjack was it was cheap: I paid $30 for it.  A friend of mine, Nicolas Webb, had just bought an iPhone for $400.  I thought he was nuts.  After playing with it for about 15 minutes I was hooked.
This is obviously a common reaction.  Bruce "Tog" Tognazzini of the Nielson Norman Group, a usability expert and a sometimes harsh critic of Apple design decisions, put it like this:
The iPhone really is a study in "delight." It really is wonderful that, in an industry rife with companies striving for mediocrity, one company is still doing things right. Those of us who flocked to Apple in the beginning did so not to build computers, but to change the world. Apple is once again doing just that.
Apple is now entering the consumer electronics world, where the lackluster attitude of "we'll fix it in the next release" is not good enough. The iPhone proves they are more than ready.
I think "delight" is a very accurate description of the experiences I have with the iPhone.  Pulling up a map of a friend's new house to get directions, then being able to add that address to their contact information with two clicks directly from the map is a "delight".
I can think of no better advertisement for the iPhone's usability than my 17 month old daughters using it.
There's not a snowball's chance in hell my daughter would have been able to do that with a Blackjack II.
I've since decided that it's worth it to me to pay extra for something that will not frustrate me.  It's not always the case that something has to be expensive to be usable.
I like to grill on charcoal.  Not those briquette things... the real charcoal.  I don't own one of those fancy propane grills.  One of the things that turns people off from charcoal grilling is that you have to make fire.  If you do it wrong, you'll be missing some eyebrows and your steak will taste like gasoline.  This is why I use a Weber Chimney Starter for my charcoal.
It's well-designed, with a conical grate which increases the surface area the burning newspaper will contact the coals, ensuring they light the first time every time. It also features a second handle, decreasing the chance you'll lose your red-hot coals on your foot.  It's well-built and will cost you a cool $10 at your local Home Depot, putting it right in line with other chimney starters price points, but far superior.  I never have to buy lighter fluid and my steak tastes like steak.  I would pay more, but in this case I didn't have to.
The bottom line is I and many people like me will pay to be delighted when using a product and I hope more manufacturers take note of this and stop producing Dancing Bearware and start producing products I can't wait to use.
Or pay for.

1 comment:

  1. I do not own an iPhone, but as soon as they get off the pot and put a real camera with a real flash in the thing, I am on board. That said, I approve of, I second, and if you permit me, I third your mild rant about usablity. Moreover, how about clean _functional_ designs do indeed "delight." My recent experience with is one such example. When sold out to the corporate b'aches and go rid of my customized music station, I was left searching for something. Pandora, recommended to me by a cooworker, was just what the doctor ordered. Within a few minutes I had created a custom station filled with my favorite artists. What is more, Pandora participates in the music genome project that in effect takes your tastes and compares it to similar music from lyrics to tonal quality to arrament and hundreds of other "music genes." Not only did I get heat my age old favs, but I got suggested somethings that I had NEVER heard that are just fantastic. And all for FREE in a simple, strait forward, easy to use web interface. Hear hear to usabily, and hear hear to functionality.