Monday, December 04, 2006

It's the usability, stupid

In one of my past lives (I have plenty), I did a Ph.D. in usability. Since then, I can't resist from looking and playing with things, asking myself: why? Why are you asking me to do this? Why? Who designed this thing? How many real people (engineers belong to a peculiar species) ever looked at this stuff? Why?

A few weeks ago, my TiVo froze while playing. I called DirectTV and they made me re-format it. It froze again. They told me they were going to send me a new one for free.

They sent me the new DirecTV DVR instead.

I decided to give it a try.
Although it was not built on open source as TiVo, all TiVo features were there. Actually, they even had a few more than TiVo. It was perfect from the requirements standpoint. The product manager checked all the boxes, QA did not find any bugs.

However, from a usability standpoint, it just sucks.

Nobody at DirectTV ever used it to watch a game. It is slow to respond to commands. It does not jump from one speed to another smoothly. You can just use it to watch a program as you would watch a tape on a VCR. Do not try to move around the program... All the features are there, but the consumer experience is just plainly bad.

What's the story here? The usability factor is key. Always key. Forever key. If you do not look at things with the eye of the user, you will build a perfect product that nobody will like to use. Emotions are everything.

When you look at mobile, the usability factor goes up an order of magnitude. You are dealing with a very small thing, that you carry around with you. Your attention span is measured in fraction of seconds, not minutes. You are not sitting on a couch or on a comfortable chair waiting. You are standing. You have people around you. It rains...

Still, so many products fail the usability test. Companies keep pushing the web paradigm to mobile users and complain about the network or the operators when their applications fail. They can't be used, they won't be used. Give me WAP a million times faster, I won't use it. Do not ask me to scroll and click. I won't. It should be simple but it is not. How many failures are we going to need for people to realize this?

I tried to send this message to DirecTV. I called them and told them their DVR sucked and I wanted my TiVo back. They said "Sorry, Sir, we do not have them anymore. And you just signed up for two
additional years with us because you requested a new DVR. If you want, you can return it." That's interesting... My TiVo breaks. They send me a fake replacement "for free" and I am signed up for two more years... Or I can go back to VCR.

I went online, found a hacker TiVo site. Ordered a replacement hard drive. Assembled it. Put the TiVo back with double capacity. Sent the DirecTV DVR back to them.

I am back in TiVo heaven, smiling at how quick it is to respond to my commands and how well thought it is from the consumer standpoint. And I am now ready to move away from DirecTV directly to their competitors...

So much for usability. Believe me, I am not alone.