NN/g Home AskTog Interaction Design Section Kindle vs. iPhone/iPod Touch
AskTog, January 2009
The Kindle and the iPhone, in particular, are new members of a small and exclusive club: Products that, once you have them, you will never relinquish. Still, as is the nature of revolutionary products, there are rough edges just begging to be smoothed. This column is about those rough edges.
Bruce Tognazzini was hired at Apple by Steve Jobs and Jef Raskin in 1978, where he remained for 14 years, founding the Apple Human Interface Group. He went on to be a Distinguished Engineer at Sun Microsystems, Chief Designer at WebMD, and is now in partnership with Jakob Nielsen & Don Norman.
These two terms are not interchangeable. Human/machine interaction focuses on the elements of physical and behavioral interaction between human and machine. It is the stuff of button pushing & keyboard clacking & pointer pointing, along with the computer's measured responses.
The user experience is different. It is bigger, encompassing events from the potential buyer's first glimpse of the device to the effort required to recycle it at its end of life.
The Kindle has an overall quite wonderful user experience, even though the first generation's human/machine interaction was a disaster.
The iPhone/iPod Touch, on the other hand, offers exceptional human/machine interactionrevolutionary, in factbut that interaction is coupled with a user experience that varies from good to almost hostile.
Any attempt on the part of the reader to hold the first Kindle electronic book as they would a real book results in its flipping pages as rapidly as a teenager handed a copy of Modern Maturity. The industrial design is coated with giant buttons that you simply can’t avoid, even with practice over time.
Don’t even think about casually walking with it still turned on! By the time you get where you’re going, it will have flipped forward or backward 25 or 50 pages with no possibility of an Undo. (The unspoken rule for Undo, of course, is that developers don’t have to provide it if really serious damage will occur. Delete a character, and you must provide Undo. Delete a file and, oh, well....)
It gets worse. The first Kindle was also designed to slip the bonds of its cover, so that you can test it's free-fall capabilities several times a day. (A thin strip of Velcro at the bottom middle of Kindle & cover will address this failing.)
The Kindle was either never tested, or they decided to ship it anyway. Either scenario reflects badly on the industrial designers and product team, as does the choice of white as a color: the Kindle screen, state-of-the-art for readers, is is a dingy gray in color, resulting in less than ideal contrast between background and character. The white surround not only advertises this unfortunate failing, it constantly draws the user's eye away from the reading surface.
Setting aside the first-generation Kindle’s human/machine-interaction shortcomings, everything else about the greater user experience is wonderful. It is a joy to flip on the built-in modem and find a couple hundred thousand books just begging to be bought. You can browse and download the first few chapters of any books you want before ever committing to an order. Even when you've committed to downloading the full book (for a fraction of it's print price), you're given the chance to cancel the orderthe designers realized that people make mistakes.
It's grand that my wife and I can read the same book at the same time for one low price without having to resort to tearing the book into chapters, as we did with our paper copy of The Da Vinci Code. It's equally grand that a decade from now, when we want to reread a chapter we marked up on the first go-round, we can redownload the same book, at no cost, into our new, paper-white-screen Kindle and find the same mark-ups we made a decade before.
It is just as marvelous that, when we leave for travel to exotic destinations devoid of English bookstores, we no longer look like refugees, weighted down with all our worldly possessions in the form of 15 or 20 books between us. Not only can we carry several hundred books inside our Kindles, we can buy more anywhere along the way, eliminating that frantic rush to a bookstore the night before flying to Beijing or driving into Alabama.
The user-experience of the Kindle, beyond it's disastrous industrial design, is really remarkable for a first-release product. It reflects its birthing at the hands of people who love books, love reading, and understand what the experience of buying, reading, and collecting books is all about.
Reams of material has been written on the virtues of the iPod Touch/iPhone human/machine interaction, and I won't belabor it here. The interface represents a fundamental breakthrough. Even typing, a bit of a challenge for me the first week or so, became fluid enough for me that I chose to write this entire article on my iPhone on a flight to Londonit was easier than having to get my computer out of my carry-on. The iPod Touch/iPhone interface is the gold standard for small-device interfaces and, based on the paltry offerings of the early imitators, likely to remain so for a while yet.
(Blackberry Storm users: Please don't write. You won't change my mind about your product.)
As great as the iPhone/iPod Touch may be, many aspects of the user experience are pretty miserable.
The sales period extends for the first 72 hours of a product's life cycle, what we used to call the period "before the check clears." During this time, the customer is deciding whether to buy, paying, and, post-sale, deciding whether buying was a mistake or not. This latter process is called "overcoming cognitive dissonance.” At the end of the process, the mind will have come to the conclusion that either that the whole thing was a colossal blunder (“I’ve been tricked!”buyer’s remorse), or the buying choice was obviously good and should never have been questioned at all (“my, aren’t I the clever one!”). The first 72 hours of my experience with the iPod Touch consisted of a series of tortures.
I spent weeks trying to buy a Touch. Apple Stores would claim they had one, but were sold out when I got there. They refused to sell over the phone for pick-up. There were long lines at cash register (a problem Apple has since addressed nicely by replacing the registers with roaming sales people armed with portable terminals).
Why is all this important when you have customers as motivated as myself? The last step of this sale is the first step of the next. Customers left with bad memory of this sale less likely to subject themselves to the next. (In my Websites that Sell course, I cover the psychology behind this critical point in detail.)
Most people don’t accidentally “fall by” an Apple Store. They’ve either read about a product, or, more likely, a friend has told them about a product. The telling friend, with a portable product like the Touch, is likely to have shown them the product, too. And that’s a real problem with the Touch. The iPod Touch is beautiful to behold, as long as you don't touch it. If you do, it immediately takes on the graceful countenance of a motel-room crime scene, with sufficient fingerprints for an entire season of CSI. OK, it's true: I'm cantankerous, dipping over into curmudgeonly. Still, Apple has known of the fingerprint problem for years, and periodically chooses to ignore it,
(They didn’t with the original iPhone, which featured a brushed-metal back that hid fingerprints. They returned to high-gloss metal with the iPod Touch. The iPhone 3G has a glossy plastic back, but it still doesn't illuminate fingerprints like the Touch.) Apple appears to exclusively focus on making products that look good on display when rotating slowly below tiny little spot lights. What Apple fails to appreciate is that most customers learn about products from their friends, and that a CSI-like appearance doesn’t help sell.
The Touch came with no song, no video, and no picture. Even a cheap wallet comes with a picture of a family, so customers will get the idea. Most customers remove and discard the picture, replacing it with their own, unless they were in the market for a new, more attractive family. iPod owners could, likewise, discard sample pictures, etc. Instead, they are left with a $300 to $500 hole in the wallet and absolutely nothing to show for it, at least not until they get to iTunes, where the real nightmares begin. “But this is an iPod Touch review!” User experience goes beyond external beauty, and it also goes beyond the elements that form the interface, in this case, elements that are brilliantly conceived. I’ve covered those in my iPhone review.
Not one to employ halfway measures, I bought two Touches, one for myself and one for my wife. I already had iTunes working on my Mac. (I’d never owned an iPod, but I enjoy listening to music while I work.) Therefore, I just had to sync the Touch to get my music on it, a straightforward task. My wife, however, had nothing on her Sony Vaio PC, so I began by downloading and installing iTunes. Then, we laboriously transferred her favorite music from her CDs, tapes, and records.
I’ve used iTunes for years, and the way it works is that, when you drag a song to iTunes, it copies it into the iTunes library. That leaves you with two copies of the same song, one in a nice, neatly-ordered iTunes music folder, along with the originals in their unstructured folder.
Not wanting a bunch of useless duplicates, when we finished dragging the song into iTunes, I did the natural thing: I deleted the originals. Except iTunes wasn’t copying her songs, because it had defaulted to pointers-only. I methodically erased the only copy of her songs on the computer!
Fortunately, I had synced the iPod before I erased the originals (not being a complete fool), so the songs were safely stored on the iPod, so all I had to do was to re-sync to have them flow back onto her computer.
Except Apple has chosen to ignore the established definition of sync, which is that two machines, when synced, interchange data so that both machines end up with a common copy of the most up-to-date version of the information. Instead, what Apple labels “sync” is actually “download.” Once the songs flow out to an iPod Touch, there's no way to get them back onto the host machine. This is not a technical issue; this is a decision by Apple to seriously degrade the user experience presumably to protect their music sales. It's part of Apple's philosophy to go beyond the strictures of copyright law in order to limit fair use in ways the legislature never intended.
Reconstruction elapsed-time: 2.75 hours. Fortunately, we had only transferred around fifteen songs, so I started pawing through the tapes and disks again. (Having been married more than 20 years, I had sense enough not to mention the problem to my wife until it was solved, saving an additional three hours of being yelled at.)
I had an even bigger problem myself, since I had a desktop machine for home and a small portable for on the road. There was no way I could keep my music synced with the two machines. Fortunately, I was able to easily address this problem by dumping my separate desktop and small portable in favor of a single, heavy, oversized portable that can act as both a home and road machine, badly, all for just a little over $2500. Simple.
Transferring video couldn't have been worse. Propriatarianism raised its ugly head. All video other than Apple stuff, such as Podcasts, must be converted to a special version of mpeg 4 that ensures they won't run on anything except iTunes. How do you convert them? The only way to convert them is to use the QuickTime Player, and not just any QuickTime Player. No, you have to shell out an additional $30 for QuickTime Player Pro, which isn't. Pro, that is.
Not only does QuickTime Pro lack many standard codecs, forcing people to use the free VLC player in real life for watching anything but the most standardized movies, it doesn't know its own limitations. When it is failing at a task, it doesn't inform users as to why and what they should do about it. It just kind of ignores your instructions.
Here’s the simple, 11-step user experience of converting a perfectly-normal MPEG video from a Canon camera:
It got worse.
Shortly after I got my iPod Touch last year, a notice arrived: “Go to iTunes and upgrade now!” I was eventually able to find a link on the iTunes home page that carried me through several pages extolling the virtues of upgrading now! On the final page of the sales pitch, I looked around for the Buy button or the Download button, to no avail. Then, just as I was about to abandon all hope, I discovered a link that just might work...except it actually linked back to the first page of the sales pitch. Round and round we go!
What users were supposed to magically know is that, now that they have been properly motivated, they should plug in their iPhone/iPod Touch, wait for an icon representing their device to show up in the left-hand column of iTunes, which it often does, and then click that tiny little icon to begin their search anew for a link to download and install the new system.
Now I know how to upgrade, so I haven't even glanced at their sales pitches since then. Therefore, I don't know when, if ever, they fixed this particular problem. I only know that it could never have existed if they had tested the workflow on even a single user before releasing it on the world.
In an era when Microsoft has finally seen the light and begun doing extensive user testing, Apple has apparently turned out the lights and gone home.
User-testing does not result in brilliant design. That requires brilliant designers. User testing guarantees that whatever level of design a company has been able to achieve will actually work.
The Apps Store for the iPhone/iPod Touch has an exceptional user experience. As with Kindle, users can fluidly browse, easily discover all information needed to make a buying decision, and within seconds begin enjoying their new purchase. Clearly, the team that worked on this project carefully thought through and stepped through the entire user experience.
The only drawback to the Apps experience is a direct result of the Apps Store's wild successit truly is the killer-app of the iPhone/iPod Touch. There are now 10,000 apps, requiring the big screen of a real computer to do a proper job of browsing and searching. Unfortunately, today that big screen is inside iTunes and features the aesthetics and usability of a used-car lot.
At this writing, it is easier to shop on the tiny screen than the big screen. The big screen needs to stop just shouting and provide a clear and concise way to ferret out wanted applications, not among a relative handful of featured or best-selling apps splashed across the home screen, but among all 10,000 apps.
Companies that pay attention to both the mechanics of the interface and the subtleties of the user experience win. Explore websites like Bed, Bath & Beyond and see how good screen design and carefully-plotted user experience come together. Don’t just examine look and feel; set up a shopping scenario and experience every step from thinking about maybe buying a product to selecting it and checking out. Bed, Bath & Beyond has perfected a superior experience in their real-world stores, and they have translated it beautifully into the cyber world.
There are no trade-offs here. Human/machine interaction is a subset of the user experience. Anything done to improve the mechanics of the interface will, by its very nature, improve the overall experience. Anything done to improve the user experience will amplify the good qualities of the human/machine interaction.
You must, however, research and design each of them separatelyand to test each of them separately. They each require a specific frame of mind, and concentrating on just one will lead to the kind of uneven design that both the Kindle and the iPhone/iPod Touch have been offering.
As for buying advice, both products you will never want to live without again. Because of that, ironically, I recommend not buying a first-generation Kindle. The page-flipping is endlessly frustrating. However, I suspect the first generation has also gone away, and the next units amazon will ship will be second-generation.
As for the iPhone, buy now. Every day I wonder how I lived without it. It is a wonderful companion for both work and play, and the drawbacks I’ve discussed in its case are strictly software and will disappear. I thought the iPod Touch, with its wi-fi connectivity, was enough, but having virtually constant (as long as I’m in this country) connection to the Internet is truly a life-changer.
For amazon, it's simple: Bring out a new machine to fix the human/machine interaction. Then, expand the boundaries of the user experience. Probably the biggest problem right now is that people can't see in the dark: The Kindle, which has a passive screen, is in desperate need of an illumination system. Best would be a halo light source around the screen, but, at the least, offer a plug-in, flip-up LED lamp that draws power from the Kindle supply.
As for Apple, do some studies and find out what the user experience for people who don't work at Apple really is. My experiences above are likely not that unusual. iTunes, designed for a few songs, has been crushed by the weight of too many media and too many tasks. Even the name has become an anachronism. It is time for that entire workflow to be rethought.
Look at how different people use the product in different environments. For example, right now, the design of the browser assumes that everyone, both iPhone and iPod Touch users, are jacked into the net at all times. We are not. Keep our opened web pages in memory so, for example, when our plane is due to take off soon, we can leaf through Google News and stack up a whole bunch of pages to read once the plane is in flight.
In the late 1970s, we at Apple held a very high market share in the computer business. We let that slip away. Don't let it happen again. Mind the competition, and don't be fooled by their first fledgling attempts. They will learn, and it won't take them nearly as long as it did last time. Stay ahead.
Next Month: Flatland: Apple’s strange aesthetic that is limiting the power and simplicity of both the Macintosh & the iPhone/iPod Touch, while costing Apple’s independent developers cold, hard cash.
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