Taming your tech
The simple approach to taking the bite out of unfriendly devices
That level of frustration can't be good for sales, says Andrea Ragnetti, Philips's chief marketing officer. "People are more and more critical when it comes to technology," he acknowledges. But fixing the problem is difficult and will take time. Take, for example, remote controls for televisions, which are each irksome enough with their many, tiny buttons, and more so when they vary from model to model, as they do even within a company like Philips. "It's like buying a new car and having to learn how to drive again," Ragnetti says. Philips now wants all its remotes to be consistent from TV to TV, and even from TV to DVD player, to reward customers who stay with the brand. Ragnetti warns that new consumer gear takes three or four years to develop, and parts come from multiple suppliers. Producing that sort of simplicity in something as basic as a remote, it seems, is pretty complicated.
It's hardest in the biggest companies, particularly those considering changes to what have been wildly successful products. In the case of Microsoft--which draws many complaints, partly because it's the largest player--its success is built on a legacy of products originally designed by techies for other techies, says Donald Norman, a usability consultant with the Nielsen Norman Group. But now it must retool with the nontechie in mind. Microsoft has made progress, for example, with how users navigate through Windows. The new Media Center version has an attractive and uncluttered front end, but it still suffers from the knotted inner plumbing that is Windows XP. It's hard to change the core operating system, which is installed on more than 400 million machines worldwide. "If you do, somebody screams," Norman says. It also takes money and adds risk. Microsoft managers have a keen sense of market share and make only those improvements that they feel will preserve it, says William Gribbons, founder of a design and usability center at Bentley College in Waltham, Mass.
So far, it's been the exception when a simpler product holds on to the market. We applaud basic at first but soon want more, unwittingly fueling our future irritation. The Palm handheld organizer succeeded with its straightforward software and stylus controller. Nokia won an early leading market share by installing similar software--along with the basic yet addictive Snake game--in its many cellphone models, making them easier to control. But now even Palm--challenged by ever more multitasking Pocket PC s, BlackBerry pagers, and smart phones--is morphing into a do-it-all device, and Nokia's handsets are adding new features including graphics-heavy games.
Initially attractive to shoppers, the new add-ons seem to drag down performance and ease of use. Two Nokia models finished at the bottom in a recent test of 10 handsets from various makers, says Scott Weiss, principal of Usable Products Co., which tests cellphones. It took twice as long--about six minutes more--to download and install a ringtone on Cingular's Nokia 6620 as it did on Sprint's Samsung SPH-A680. Translation: You buy the phone because it can play "Lose My Breath" by Destiny's Child every time that special someone calls, but you're annoyed with how long it takes to install the ditty.