Why products fail

Most gadget and software makers don't understand what users want most: Control

Why do some people prefer Windows XP and Mac OS X over Windows Vista? After all, Vista is pretty and sleek and much more advanced than XP, and, in many areas, Mac OS X. Why is there so much love for Xbox, but none for Windows Mobile?

Why do BlackBerry users love their BlackBerrys, but the public is lukewarm about Palm devices?

Why is the Amazon Kindle, which is an unsophisticated, clunky, poorly designed gadget so popular with owners?

Why do people love plain, ugly Gmail?

The answer to these questions is a mystery to most of the companies that make PCs, gadgets, consumer electronics devices and to software makers. The industry spends billions on usability testing and user interface design. Unfortunately, that money is mostly wasted.

The problem is that there are too many technologists in technology. The technology is only half the equation. The other half is the human, that irrational, impulsive, impatient, power-hungry gratification machine.

When you ask someone what they really want, they won't tell you the truth because they're not aware of the truth.

Both users and product designers alike talk about user interface (UI) consistency, usability and simplicity, and system attributes like performance and stability. What's missing is that these attributes are means to an end. The real issue is always the user's physiological feeling of being in control. And control comes in many ways:

Consistency: Designers focus on UI "consistency," but why? Consistency gives predictability, which gives users a feeling that they know what will happen when they do something -- even for the first time. It's a feeling of mastery, of control.

Usability: One of the errors software and hardware designers make is to base their UI decisions on the assumption that the user is an idiot who needs to be protected from himself. Give this moron too much rope and he'll hang himself, the reasoning goes. But instead of taking the Microsoft route -- burying and hiding controls and features, which protects newbies from their own mistakes but frustrates the hell out of experienced users -- it's better to offer a bullet-proof "undo." Give the user control, let them make their own mistakes, then undo the damage if they mess something up.

Simplicity: Simplicity is complex. And there are many ways to achieve it. One way is to insist on top-to-bottom, inside-and-outside simplicity. Extreme examples include the original Palm Pilot organizer, Gmail and RSS feeds. And then there's the illusion of simplicity, which is the Microsoft route. In trying to be the operating system vendor for all people and all tasks, Microsoft Windows and Windows Mobile are extraordinarily complex pieces of software engineering. To "simplify," the company hides features, buries controls and groups features into categories to create the appearance of fewer options, without actually reducing options. (From all accounts, it appears that Windows 7 will offer more of the same.) Both extremes result in something you could call "simplicity." But one version thrills users by putting them in control. The other frustrates them by taking away control.

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Mike Elgan

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