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AskTog, September, 2001

Core Decisions

The web is littered with sites that evidence good final design set upon a foundation riddled with error and expedient decision. Most retail sites like this have quickly slid from view, but others, where a captive audience is assured, go blissfully robbing users of productivity and peace of mind. Such sites ultimately will pay as assuredly as the retail sites before them, but their end will come slowly and painfully.

We have become so inured to the errors of web sites that I hesitate to use one as an example. Instead, let's turn to a product in a slightly different arena—consumer electronics.

I can't know for sure what went wrong with the Dish Network 501 satellite receiver, but it appears to have suffered from the user experience people being cut off from the most critical decisions in the product's formation.

The 501 purports to be a Personal Video Recorder (PVR), one of the new generation of highly personalizable digital recorders, along with TiVo and ReplayTV. It is not.

Evidence suggests that experienced and talented designers were a part of its creation. The remote control for the 501 is well-laid-out, with twin joysticks, allowing independent control of the digital video recorder portion of the system, vs. volume, channel, etc. It neatly avoids some of the complexity of other leading brands. Unfortunately, the 501 also neatly avoids most of the features, capabilities, and reliability of the other leading brands.

Personal video recorders go beyond traditional VCRs in a number of different areas. You can, for example, enter the title of an individual show to record, and the PVR will record it, regardless of when it is on. You can also elect to, for example, record Friends between 7:00 and 7:30 on weeknights on channel 4. You can also elect to record anything starring Harrison Ford, etc.

The 501 is not a PVR at all (although the manual and advertising claim it is). It has no more recording intelligence than an ordinary VCR. Yes, you can elect to record, for example, Friends between 7:00 and 7:30 on weeknights on channel 4 using the electronic guide. However, the device doesn't store a request for Friends, it stores a request for whatever happens to be on between 7:00 and 7:30. That could include a baseball game, a political speech, or anything else the station decides to air on future nights. That is because the 501 has no memory of your wanting to watch Friends. Like a VCR, it only has a simple timer. Not only does this mean you get a lot of unwanted shows, but editing the timers is all but impossible. You are expected to remember why you set a time to record from 3:00am to 3:30am on channel 135, rather than remembering you were recording "Can't Cook, Won't Cook" on the BBC.

It also lacks such rudimentary capabilities as search, so that you might, for example, see if "Gone with the Wind" might be on during the next week or so. Of course, since they only supply around two days worth of program log, rather than the eight or nine days of the competition, such a capability would be seriously compromised. [Update: The 501 now has a "search the log" capability, and the program guide now displays around a week's worth of shows, but only if you are at a site that can "see" both their primary satellites at119 degrees and 110 degrees. It still does not have the "lying in wait" capabilities of a true PVR, where you can set it to record any movies staring Tom Hanks, for example.]

When you sit down to watch recorded shows on the competitions, such as the ReplayTV box, all the shows are grouped according to show title, arranged alphabetically. You might find, for example, two episodes of Ally McBeal, followed by three episodes of Friends, followed by two Tonight Shows. The Dish Network 501 displays just a chronological list that may span several screenfuls. You have no way to predict where an episode of Ally McBeal may be hiding, if it exists at all. Yes, it is usable, it just isn't very friendly. [This has also been corrected, sort of. You can alphabetize the list, but shows are just in one long list, rather than being clustered by show title, making it hard to read.]

Deeper problems lie within the 501. It gets confused sometimes and records eight and a half hours instead of one-half hour. You may open up a show recorded three days ago and find a part of a show from last night jumbled in on top of it, making it unusable. [Fixed.]

Some of the things wrong with the 501 may be corrected in the future; it can accept upgrades via a nightly download. (Interestingly, the 501 has the very feature I downgraded the ReplayTV box for; with the 501, you can elect not to accept an "upgrade" if you fear it may be anything but. Paradoxically, at this point, almost anything Dish did would be an improvement.)

What went wrong? Probably the same thing that goes wrong with so many computer products and services. The user experience people were either brought in after all the critical decisions had been made, or else they simply weren't listened to.

How do you think a user experience person might have answered these questions?

  1. We're thinking of just going with the same old interface we already have for supporting peoples' VCRs, yet claiming it's a PVR. That will be OK, won't it?
  2. Users won't mind that they asked for Friends and instead got Senator Claghorn speaking on hog futures, will they?
  3. Just lining up the recorded shows like so many tapes, with the users losing their place every time they exit the list of shows is good enough, isn't it?
  4. What if the system is reliable most of the time?

Before you start patting yourself on the back with how you would have stood up to such questions, think about number four. The 501 may be one of the first consumer electronic products to be shipped before it was finished, but the computer industry has been shipping half-built products for the last 20 years. How many times have you been grateful that there were as few nasty bugs in version 1.0 as there were?

The 501 will be an interesting product to follow. Will they actually upgrade it? Can they upgrade it, or is its primitive state a result of really early decisions to limit the hardware so severely that nothing much can be done?

I chose Dish Network originally because I like their management, and I like their underdog attitude. They've been responsible for bringing down the price of satellite TV, and they led the battle to get local stations on satellite, so that they can compete fairly with local cable. They are good guys, and, I suspect, they thought they were producing a good enough, if not good, product. If they had put the user experience people responsible for the remote control and its interface in a position of power over the rest of the device, they would have had a real winner. Maybe next time.

When I first arrived at WebMD, nee Healtheon, they were three months into their first product, a benefits management application. It was awful, and I was able to do little in the couple months remaining before initial ship. The product was a total meltdown.

What I did have time to do was to assemble a 65 page document listing each and every problem in the product that was about to ship, along with what needed to be done to fix it. When the clients started screaming that something must be done and done fast, we in user experience had a plan and a direction. We were ready to roll.

Designers can't win every battle, and sometimes the realities of the marketplace dictate some pretty horrifying decisions in terms of usability. The responsibility of designers is to ensure management knows the extent of the hit those decisions will cause, along with clear plans for speedy recovery.

As for management, listen to your user experience professionals. If you have funded a proper user-testing program, you may feel confident that their recommendations are based on fact, not whim. When they tell you that something must be fixed or your product is going to suffer severely, listen to both their short-term and long-term plans for addressing the problems. Good designers are talented at coming up with some really clever work-arounds that cause little or no immediate schedule slip.

Make your user experience people active participants in the earliest decision-making. So many gross failures in the user experience grow from early hardware, software, or data model decisions, decisions that may be all but impossible to revisit.

If you have not funded a testing program, or you are not listening to the results, you are likely to end up with a product as uneven as the 501. On the other hand, you may not be as lucky. The 501 is still around. Thousands of applications and web sites that were far worse in design and execution are simply out of business. User experience counts.

Interaction design goes to the very core of a product or service. When user experience people are not intimately involved with every aspect of a project, from the most formative meetings to the end, the project is likely to go seriously awry.

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