Mrs. Gaskell, Kindles, and the User Half of User Experience

September 29, 2011

Followers of this blog may remember I won a Kindle a while back in the FutureM Future of Marketing challenge, sponsored by Smarterer. Yesterday was the first day I became a Kindle owner, when I met with Smarterer’s awesome community manager, Alison Morris. Pleased with the honor, I was also pretty enthralled by the Kindle. But right now it’s at home, and a paperback copy of Elizabeth Gaskell's Cranford continues to accompany me on my travels. This, in spite of the fact that Ruth Rendell’s latest is now loaded on the Kindle.
Why?
Don’t get me wrong, Kindles are a category-changing product, and they offer a great user experience. As Jason has noted is the case with Apple products, they are immediately usable right out of the box. They have a great form factor, and are backed up with Amazon’s superlative customer support. But the user is half the equation in the user experience, and I freely admit I’m the barrier to use. The barriers break down into several different categories--all of which carry lessons for how each individual user plays a role in the user experience: 

Dependencies: Now I need a Kindle cover. I'll go buy one in my off hours, since it would damage a delicate piece of electronic equipment to throw it in a bag. Products often need other products or services  to be fully usable. Or they work best in the context of optimal sets of circumstances, such as a dedicated implementation team. The need to deal with those dependencies can present a barrier to use. Dependencies can be simple (needing a cover) to complex (needing an entirely different server configuration). Bear in mind all dependencies, from trivial to major, when introducing a new product. Control over dependencies can have a real impact on the ultimate success of the product. Dependencies vary a lot from user. Some may have greater domain knowledge, and thus training and onboarding time are not significant dependencies for them, but are for less experienced users, for instance. Keep in mind the different users you have, and what their specific sets of dependencies look like. 

Philosophical Reasons: I support local bookstores, and virtual books have been hard on their business model and future growth. So when possible, I buy real books. People may find a technology highly usable, but have philosophical reasons they use another one. Supporting open source, for instance, is often a reason people first think of using Drupal, only later realizing that it’s also superior in total cost of ownership to proprietary systems.

Intangible Factors: Paper books are more enjoyable to read than screens. At least for me. Others like the lightness of carrying a Kindle. But I’m a paper book person. It’s the intangible experience of using a product that somehow makes you want to use it. Here is where products like Apple (and Amazon) excel. Again, referring to the recent webinar From Usability to Lovability, it’s the intangible emotional resonance of using a great product that often differentiates a merely good product from one that dominates its category. But what’s going to resonate varies by user. There are best practices that are essential to follow and are fairly universal, such as clearly labeling all options.

There are also practices that depend on the end users. We’ll be exploring some of them in the upcoming User Experience Webinar series. One thing we’ll talk about is the importance of personas: looking at all your typical users, and developing usability strategies around the entirely different ways in which they use your product. At their best, personas not only look at concrete use cases, and the navigation paths related to performing specific tasks, but the more-intangible usage preferences of different types of users. It may mean adding product features, customization options, or going beyond the product itself to different marketing messages and strategies. It may mean expanding your product line to include different products that fit the different preferences of your many users. There’s no way to make a Kindle like a paper book, which is why Amazon still sells paper books.

Your product can be highly usable by all objective measures. But ultimately, it’s the individual user who decides on usability for their very specific use case. Good design takes this into account. I like the Kindle. I’ve got uses for it, which are probably different than the next person’s: that Ruth Rendell is awfully bulky even in paperback, and it’s only practical to take it on trips as a Kindle book. And out of environmental concerns, I may just shift some magazine subscriptions over to it. Meanwhile, though, Cranford continues to be toted along in all its dog-eared glory.

All users have their reasons for using a product, their own ways of using them—some practical, some esthetic, some philosophical. Great user experience design takes all of these into account. Usability depends on the user—they are the ultimate arbiters, and companies win market share by focusing on their real-world usage.
 

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