"The more I find out, the less I know."

Thursday - February 03, 2005 at 03:28 PM in

Usability, Marketing, iPods, Customer Service, and the PC Experience (a rant)

I spend my professional life worried about usability, particularly the usability of phone-based customer service. I've even written a book (with cartoons!) on the topic, though in the book we mostly avoid the word "usability" since it tends to scare away marketing executives and service managers.

Given that (as a rule) phone-based customer service and personal computers are two of the most frustrating consumer experiences today, and that usability problems are at the core of both, this has been brewing inside me for a long time.
The Sorry State Of The Art
Using a comparison to cars, home appliances, etc. to highlight the problems with the customer experience has achieved something of a cliche status, but I'm not going to let that get in the way of a good rant.

Imagine the consumer experience if microwave ovens were like Windows PCs:

* You would go to a Microwave Oven Store to buy a new oven. The typical microwave oven would cost $17.95 and be capable of reducing a whole turkey to a smoking mass of charcoal in 30 seconds flat.
* You would have dozens of manufacturers and hundreds of models to choose from, with thousands of different feature combinations (52x Centrifugal Turntable! 5,000 Joule Pulse Excimer Laser for Better Browning!). If that isn't enough, you could also order a microwave custom-built at no extra cost.
* The oven and the control panel would be made by two different companies.
* Every microwave oven would have exactly the same control panel with a bewildering array of buttons to control every tiny aspect of the cooking process. Some "shortcut" buttons would also be included for things like microwave popcorn, but those shortcuts would only work for the one brand of microwave popcorn endorsed by the control panel manufacturer.
* Immediately upon bringing a new microwave oven home, you would have to install a modified version of the control panel. If you failed to do this, the microwave oven would shortly start cooking slower and slower until eventually it stopped working entirely; in addition, your dinner menus would be transmitted to shadowy cells of islamofascist terrorists in Siberia.
* Any time the microwave oven didn't work (which would be about every three months) you would have to choose whether to call the oven manufacturer or the control panel manufacturer. Inevitably, the one you called would blame the other for the problem, and charge you $25 for the phone call. Of course, most problems would simply be due to the cook failing to understand some subtle nuance of how the oven works.
* If you decided all this was too much, your only other options would be to (a) go hungry, or (b) cook everything over a wood firepit. Wood firepits would be outlawed in many places.

Now imagine if microwave ovens were like some call centers:

* You would have to re-enter the time and power levels at least two or three times before the oven would start to cook. If you made a mistake, you'd have to start over from the very beginning.
* You would be asked inane and irrelevant questions before cooking. For example, you might be asked how many bags of popcorn you were cooking, even if you just wanted to warm a slice of pizza. You would then be given a warning message that undercooked hamburger could harbor E. coli bacteria.
* After you got through the menus, the microwave would generally start cooking within a minute; but sometimes it would inexplicably make you wait 30 minutes or longer.
* Every now and then, the microwave would simply refuse to cook your food, or direct you to use a different microwave oven, forcing you to start the process over from the start.
* Some microwave ovens would give you "helpful" suggestions to try to convince you not to use the microwave. Example: "Did you know that it is sometimes faster and more convenient to use a conventional oven to cook microwave popcorn?" These messages would be useless, since nobody would use the microwave unless they had already decided there was no other choice.
* Other microwaves would take a more direct approach, scurrying into darkened closets and bathrooms when nobody was looking, forcing the owner to waste several minutes searching for the microwave oven [if this doesn't ring any bells for you, try to find the toll-free phone numbers for PayPal, Amazon.com, Ebay, or many other companies on their respective websites].

The Problem with Marketing
How did we get to this pathetic state of affairs?

To a large extent, I blame a lack of marketing.

Don't laugh (at least not yet).

Ideally, marketing is about looking at the entire customer experience and making sure it's what customers want. That includes not just the product itself, but what happens when you buy and use the product, and the feelings you get from being a customer. Coke understands this very well: they aren't selling fizzy sugar water, but the whole experience of drinking Coke from the flavor and the shape of the bottle to the social messages you send by drinking the stuff.

In technology, however, marketing fails utterly at examining anything other than the raw list of product features. Just look at the most basic and common element in technology marketing, the feature checklist. If you are selling a product based on a feature checklist, the last thing you want to do is eliminate or cut back a feature, even if removing features makes a better product (more on that later). Even my own company (which should know better) has succumbed to the temptation of the all-powerful feature checklist.

At some level, this is just laziness. It is much simpler for a marketing executive to focus on advertising the product he has, rather than trying to convince engineering to develop the product customers want (after, of course, doing the research to find out what the customer actually wants). And since early adopters of technology tend to go for features rather than usefulness, there's even some merit to feature-checklist marketing in the early stages of a market.

In the customer service arena, the problem is even more acute: in many companies, customer service isn't even seen as a proper concern of the marketing department. Despite the fact that a call center may be the only place customers actually come in contact with a direct representative of the company, often the call center is the responsibility of the telecommunications staff under the mandate to minimize costs (and, oh by the way, try not to annoy the customers too much).

So, in PowerPoint bullet form:

* The reason so many customer experiences suck big-time is that companies aren't paying attention to the total customer experience. Instead, they focus very narrowly on product price and features--implicitly ignoring things like the experience buying, setting up, using, fixing, and getting help with the product.
* The natural part of a company to be concerned with the total customer experience is the marketing department. But in technology companies, marketing is often only concerned with price and features; and many companies' marketing departments don't think of customer service as their responsibility.
* Therefore, the problem is a lack of marketing.

Usability Research Is Market Research
What's the fundamental difference between a usability study of a web page or call center, and asking a panel of consumers which formulation of Cap'n Crunch they prefer?

The answer: Nothing. Except that one involves technology and the other involves highly refined carbohydrates.

Usability research is nothing more than a specialized form of market research (and the people who do usability prefer to be called "scientists" or "researchers" instead of "marketers").

But in both cases, the goal is to gather data about real-world customer preferences in order to create a more successful product or service.

In fact, if anything, market research is more comprehensive than usability research. That's because market research often addresses the question of "what will customers want to do with the product?" whereas usability research normally takes the particular tasks and functions as a given. A market researcher might not assume that customers want to eat Cap'n Crunch (maybe there's a market for it in craft projects, for example), whereas usability research will normally start with a list of tasks (i.e. open file, close file, create a new document, etc.) without asking whether the user really wants to do those.

Usability research should be taking cues from market research and investigating questions like, "what features do users actually want," "what do most people actually want to accomplish with this product or service," and even "can we create a better experience by omitting some of features." All of which means that usability goes beyond being just like marketing, and actually becomes marketing.

A Better Product with Fewer Features: iPod Shuffle
The iPod Shuffle is a hit product not because of its aggressive price, or the small size, or the fact that if Apple was any hipper it'd have to walk sideways through doors. All these are important, of course, but not enough.

The iPod Shuffle is a hit because it delivers a compelling total user experience. Every element of the iPod Shuffle enhances the experience, from the $99 price (almost an impulse) to the seamless way it integrates with iTunes to the cool-factor of the white earbuds.

It is hard to overstate how much of a departure from normal technology marketing the iPod Shuffle truly is. Apple had to take some radical leaps in going from the traditional iPods to the Shuffle:

* First, Apple had to realize that there's a significant customer base that only cares about playing a few random songs and maybe holding some files (as opposed to carrying around an entire music collection).
* Then, they had to ruthlessly remove any feature not core to those two functions. A display is nice, but it adds cost and weight, and it doesn't add much to the play-random-songs experience. So out it goes. Some customers will be upset, but for the majority the overall experience will be better. A marketing department focused on feature checklists would never make this decision.
* Finally, Apple had to make sure that every element of the experience was top-notch, even if that meant giving up some compatibility. There's a reason why iPods only work with iTunes: it would be impossible to ensure that every user has a good experience interfacing an iPod to any jukebox program.

All this adds up to a music player which is top of the heap not because of the performance or price or technology, but because of the total experience.

That should be no surprise: you don't have to spend much time around iPod owners to understand why they love their iPods so much. But this point is one which Apple's competitors consistently fail to understand. Most infamously, the CEO and other executives of Creative Labs have derided the iPod Shuffle as having a limited feature set (or less diplomatically, calling it a "neutered product"). This betrays a total failure to understand that customers want the total experience, not a feature checklist. And this failure to understand the customer is why other music players will be limited to niche roles for the foreseeable future. By removing features, Apple has made a better product.

Lessons Learned
* Usability is marketing (aside from the pretentiousness of the practitioners)
* The total user experience is more important than any one feature or function
* Sometimes you can make a better product or service by stripping away features
* Feature checklists destroy the customer experience

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