Too Hard To Use

Complex products could scare off consumers

October 29, 2001|By Tia O'Brien | Tia O'Brien,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

Lemora Martin doesn't know it, but this 53-year-old public school teacher from Oakland, Calif., might hold one of the keys to pulling the high-tech industry out of its financial swoon.

When Martin's printer stopped working at home recently, she was clueless about how to fix it, rendering it useless.

Millions of consumers find themselves in the same frustrating scenario, saddled with glitched PCs, cell phones and digital assistants that they can't operate. All too often, their response is to give up - and stop buying. The problem boils down to one word: usability.

Some experts warn that the high-tech revolution could stall unless the industry starts making products that consumers can use - without an in-home information technology support team.

"To take the market to its full potential, you need usability. Otherwise consumers won't buy the technology," said serial entrepreneur Judy Estrin, CEO of Packet Design. Estrin is one of a small but growing chorus of high-tech's early pioneers who are urging technology makers to stop emphasizing complex features that many people won't use and make usability a top priority.

"I have a Ph.D. in computer science and I can't navigate all of the menu options," said technology veteran Eric Schmidt, CEO of search engine Google, referring to the version of Microsoft Windows on his PC.

Others agree. "We have achieved market saturation for those willing to suffer through the current level of complexity," said usability expert Jakob Nielsen, co-founder of the Nielsen Norman Group. Nielsen said industry statistics show that little more than half the population owns high-tech devices (not including videocassette recorders).

Given the serious economic slump that is ravaging technology industry profits, this warning has a sense of urgency. Personal computer sales - the traditional economic engine of high tech - are flat for the first time in 15 years, with PC ownership hovering at about 60 percent of the population, according to the research firm Odyssey.

The data also shows that the number of households signing up for Internet access is slowing; about 50 percent are online. Even hard-core customers - businesses and geeks - are failing to snap up software upgrades and faster semiconductor chips.

Nielsen himself is a good example. The internationally respected technology consultant points to his own refusal to trade in his "miserably slow" 3-year-old PC for a new one: "Why? Because I don't relish the thought of spending two days setting up and transferring files."

So after almost two decades of rapid growth, the industry is at a crossroad - trying to plunge deeper into a mainstream market place whose buyers are often scared off by product complexity.

Consider what happened to security guard Patricia Jackson, a middle-aged video game lover who went to CompUSA for a new sound card. When a salesman advised Jackson that she couldn't buy a new card until she "opens up the machine" and checks the "specs" on her existing card, she walked out empty-handed.

"I'll have to take the computer to a shop. I won't do it," she said.

Recently, Jackson canceled her Internet service after she couldn't figure out how to install software to block her 10-year-old grandson from accessing adult sites.

Nielsen and other usability experts say the problem - and the proposed solution - goes to the very core of how high-tech products are conceived and built.

In engineer-driven cultures like Silicon Valley, usability has been a stepchild to innovation. Traditionally, the ideas for devices and features come from male-dominated engineering teams, not by interviewing and observing consumers.

"It's give it to early adopters and see how they do," said Scott Wilder, a former Apple Computer product-marketing executive. Early adopters typically are young, technology-hip males - not the soccer moms, insurance executives, retirees that the industry now is courting.

Then, there's the problem of whether products are tested. "Usability tests - if they are performed - come after the product is built," explained Alan Cooper, founder and chairman of Cooper Interaction Design in Palo Alto, Calif., who recently unhooked his 500-channel satellite dish because it took too long to scroll through the mammoth program menu.

He argues that just this kind of problem could have been detected if human interaction designers such as himself - a new breed trained in engineering and design - had come in at the start, not the end of the process.

"Consumers should be saying, `We're mad as hell and we're not buying it any more!'" said Cooper.

Most companies don't even bother with usability tests. Nielsen estimates that of the 20 percent that do commission tests, only a fraction implement the results. One client, a financial Web site, required a difficult calculation by customers. "When they got to that point, they left the site," said Nielsen. Engineers refused to make a change, saying it would delay the launch.

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