When better isn’t good enough

May 18, 2015

I’ve spent the week breaking in a spiffy new Samsung Galaxy S6 smartphone. Meh. It’s … fine.

I finally decided it was time to retire my Windows phone – a Lumia 900. What makes this somewhat interesting is that I’m actually pretty unenthusiastic about the switch. If I’m honest with myself, I had a pretty stellar experience with the Windows phone. The phone itself was attractive, engineered well and robust enough to be carried without a case for a couple of years. The Windows ‘Tiles’ interface – much maligned on PCs – actually works pretty brilliantly on a mobile platform. I found the experience of using the Windows phone to be logical, intuitive, attractive, expressive and altogether seamless. The phone did everything I wanted it to do and more. I found all the apps I ever needed and most all the apps I ever wanted. Frankly, I was a pretty darn satisfied Windows phone user – exactly what the designers must have been hoping for.

So if I had such a great experience with the Windows phone, why in the world did I change and what lessons, if any, are there for us as product designers?

Part of my decision to change was driven by curiosity. I started my smartphone history with a Blackberry – moved to an iPhone platform shortly after its release and then, to switch things up, thought I’d give the Windows phone a shot. This time I figured trying an Android phone seemed like collecting the entire set.

But if I’m honest with myself, part of the switch was driven by a nagging fear that I was riding a dying horse. That no matter how much better I felt the Windows experience was, there simply wasn’t going to be enough room in the smart-phone market for another operating system. And there was this fine line between the curiosity factor of owning an unusual, unique and eclectic product and the stigma of being ‘that one stupid guy who bought a Windows phone.’ In the end, I just decided to surrender and go with the flow.  

How we react to a product depends on its features and function but it’s also tied up in a confusing soup of trends, brand, prestige, aesthetics and image.

So one lesson for us as product designers – aside from the capricious, illogical nature of consumers – is that speed really does matter and I think the Windows phone, even if it is (arguably) a better experience, simply got there too late. I don’t know the history of the development of the Windows phone but I’d assume the designers, recognizing they were late to the party, agonized around every detail in order to get the experience just perfect. In the end they may have won the battle and lost the war.

In many fields, getting to the market early is the difference between success and being the Isuzu of your industry. Sometimes taking the time to get the features perfect is the right thing to do (VHS tapes actually lagged the introduction of Betamax by four years). But other times, the early entrants stake out all the meaningful claims and, regardless of a product’s features and functions, there’s nothing left for the late entries.

Tech can be particularly brutal in this regard. As Yahoo and Microsoft learned with Bing (poor Microsoft – always a bridesmaid now?) there probably isn’t even room for a second internet browser.

One other painful and frustrating lesson is just how nuanced, complex and seemingly illogical the psychology behind our product buying decisions can be. Better features and function matter but aren’t always enough. Try capturing that epiphany in a product requirements document! A while ago, I was teaching a product design class at UW Madison. I was buying an MP3 player for my mom as a gift and as an exercise (and to prove a point) I had the class compare the relative features between an iPod Nano and a competing Sansa MP3 player. The class somewhat grudgingly agreed that in just about every meaningful category, the Sansa ‘out-spec’d’ the iPod. It had more memory, it could be used with iTunes or other player interfaces like Media Player. It had an open architecture that allowed it to double as a flash drive, had a built in FM radio. It had longer life between recharging, it was smaller and lighter and it had replaceable batteries. The class even preferred the user interface on the Sansa – oh, and it was less than half the price. But when it came down to it, we all agreed that we’d buy the iPod. Do I really want to be the son who bought his mom a Sansa?

It may be frustrating to engineers and designers, but it’s no real surprise that our personal buying decisions aren’t always – or even mostly – driven by pure logic. How we react to a product does depend on its features and function but it’s also tied up in a confusing soup of trends, brand, prestige, aesthetics and image.

Frustrating, yes, but it’s also what makes this field so incredibly fun, challenging and gratifying when we get it right! So my hat’s off – and my heart goes out – to the Windows designers. You got it right – and for me it still wasn’t enough. Sorry. Maybe there’s another Windows phone in my future. For my part, I can hardly wait to give Windows 10 a shot on my desktop.