Saturday, November 24, 2007

The Kindle: Amazon Innovating How You Read Books While Marketing It Old Skool

Amazon has not rested on their laurels. They are a survivor of the Dotbomb era, and have had both successes and failures. Their online retailing is top notch while their A9 search engine was a bust. Ventures like their S3 storage service drive Wall Street bonkers because they just want them to increase the bottom line with sales on their core offering. This is what innovation is all about. Exploring and taking chances. That is how they started and Jeff Bezos continues to lead them down this path.

The Amazon Kindle is their latest foray on their innovation journey. It took the iPod three years to be deemed a wildly successful innovation. The Kindle was just released, so it will take time and real data from customers to evolve to that level of eminence on the S-curve of customer adoption.

I’m not here to review the Kindle, although seeing the images did rekindle memories of Apple’s HyperCard from the eighties. I wanted to share something that came to mind as I was reading the Amazon Kindle marketing pitch. I was reminded of how the NBA touted their basketball redesign. Instead of having stories from players, they had testimonials mainly from retired Hall of Famers. People you respect. They crafted stories of rigorous evaluation and on-court testing. Unfortunately, it all came crashing down in the middle of the 2006-07 season. David Stern had to fall on his sword and go back to the old ball after players revolted and complaints couldn’t be ignored.

Instead of showing people using the Kindle, Amazon has famous people and actors touting how great it is. Here are some quotes from the videos on the Kindle home page:

“The Kindle doesn’t take you to [technology] boot camp. It assumes you already know how to read.” – Daniel Handler (aka Lemony Snicket)

“I think it’s much more attractive to walk around with an instrument in your hand and read wherever and whenever, and how much you’d like. I think it’s huge.” – Toni Morrison

“A lot of thought has gone into this, obviously. A lot of it is very practical, which is delightful. Sometimes there is a gap between technology engineers and the real world.” – James Patterson

“It’s so simple you can be a moron and it works. It’s invisible. It takes no intelligence at all. Anybody who can read a book can function with this thing.” – Michael Lewis

“If you’re obsessed with blogs that are constantly updating, not once a week, but once an hour or twice an hour, this is a no-brainer. This is an absolute necessity.” – Guy Kawasaki

“Within a few pages you forget that you are reading on a Kindle, and that was our top design requirement.” – Jeff Bezos

Concepts are so much easier to sell than actual products. Have James Patterson and Toni Morrison spent $400 and treated this like an actual customer would? I would love to have observed Guy Kawasaki going to an actual blog (and pay for it…yes, blogs aren’t free on the Kindle) and discuss his experience rather than his conceptual opinion of an experience.

This led me to a trip to YouTube to see if any actual users posted their experiences. There weren’t many, but it was dramatically different to watch people discuss how they used the device versus the Kindle concept. One thing that was interesting was to watch people consistently hit buttons they didn’t intend to hit and how difficult it was to get back to where they were. The actors in the marketing video never seemed to have that issue. Here are some of the YouTube stories:

It is much more compelling to watch a real guy fumble to find his page on the Kindle than to listen to a Nobel Laureate wax lyrical about the abstraction of an electronic reading device.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Train Runs Through Bangkok Market

People adapt. Imagine writing business requirements for a street market that included, "Shall have the ability to afford train to run through market at various times of the day. Shall have ability to be back up and selling within 30 seconds of train passing."

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Amazon A9 Innovation Cleanup

In 2004, Amazon unveiled A9, their search engine. The main distinction is that it let you search through pages of books on Amazon. I didn't know that a year ago it died a quiet, innovation death. It didn't get that vital nutrient, customer adoption. This left users with A9 ‘stuff' in their mental model and on their computers to ‘remove' such as:
  • A9 Instant Reward
  • A9 Toolbar
  • A9 Yellow Pages
  • A9 Maps
Even the name itself has changed to "'s OpenSearch Client." Already forgotten it?
I'm blogging about this because the Amazon Kindle is now making a splash as the Next Great Thing. We have a tendency to forgive and forget innovation failures if a company delivers a subsequent innovation success. There was Palm's Zoomer which was replaced by the wildly successful PalmPilot. Maybe we don't remember them because they never became connective tissue in our memory because of bad user experience, while the good ones take hold forever.'s Monstrous Main Navigation

I clicked on a link on the other day, and I was taken to an affiliate news website. When the page loaded, I was shocked at how scary the main navigation was designed. I’m not sure, but I don’t think it would be possible to make this any uglier. Colors…alignment…icons…outline…font styles…eek. This came from a link from Do I hold them partially responsible for steering me here? Is this part of their user experience?

I am almost compelled to put a NSFW tag on THIS.

Monday, November 19, 2007 Re-Redesign: Bigger WAS and IS better

Back in May, I blogged about the strange redesign rationale ABCNews gave for drastically shrinking the height of their homepage. They said they did this for simplicity and ease of use, but the immediate feedback was overwhelmingly the opposite from users. This ended up creating strange behavior with the design components on the homepage because all of the content had to be hidden within small containers. While they are still not as tall as others in the news website space, they have more than tripled the height of the main content of their homepage from 610 back in May to 1984 pixels now. It is really interesting to note that the new design is a lot more like the pre-May design (see image above).

The height has allowed them to provide what people were asking for from the pre-May 2007 website and more. There is a lot of content you can scan through and easily, with not much hidden away under tabs or strange scrolling windows. There is also a much better content-to-advertising ratio.

It is interesting to note that when they came out with the redesign last May, created a blog about the new design and solicited feedback. I can't find a link anywhere on this new, much larger homepage asking for me feedback. Maybe they've had enough? I did a search and found that had posted an internal memo regarding the new homepage design:


From: Westin, David
Sent: Friday, November 16, 2007 12:36 PM
To: #ABCTV News ALL Subject:ABC

We've had another year of strong growth for .com. The site has seen a 29% increase in unique users and 45% increase in page views for FY07 vs. FY06 monthly averages. We've had more dramatic growth in our video traffic - increases of 73% in the number of unique users viewing our video and a 91% increase in the number of videos viewed. Congratulations to all who work so hard on ABC every day and to so many of you who have made your work available on the site.

As well as we're doing, we can always do better. So, tonight debuts a re-designed home page intended to make it easier to navigate. This is a further step in our ongoing effort to make our website work better for our users; we'll be taking more steps in the coming weeks and months.

Users gave feedback 13 nanoseconds after the May launch about the problems navigating. Were users giving feedback before May on the navigation? Did it really have to take almost 6 months to go back essentially to what you had from a navigation standpoint? What is the product lifecycle being used here? How are they really listening/not listening to customers?

The Netflix Prize: Netflix Dangles a One Million Dollar Carrot For Technology Innovation

Netflix is trying to maintain its good user experience advantage over their competition by offering a $1 million prize to improve their current recommendation system. Take a look at some of the jargon in their rules that you have to follow:

As of the start of the Contest, the RMSE of Cinematch on the quiz subset, based on training the Cinematch algorithm using the training data set alone, was 0.9514. The RMSE of Cinematch on the test subset, based on training the Cinematch algorithm using the training data set alone, was 0.9525.

To qualify for the Grand Prize the RMSE of a Participant’s submitted predictions on the test subset must be less than or equal to 90% of 0.9525, or 0.8572 (the "qualifying RMSE"). After three (3) months have elapsed from the start of the Contest, when the RMSE of a submitted prediction set on the quiz subset improves beyond the qualifying RMSE an electronic announcement will inform all registered Participants that they have thirty (30) days to submit additional candidate prediction sets to be considered for judging.

At the end of this period, qualifying submissions will be judged (see Judging below) in order of the largest improvement over the qualifying RMSE on the test subset. In the case of tied RMSE values on the test subsets, the submission received earliest by the Site will be judged first. If no qualifying submission can be verified or no Prize can be awarded, the Contest will reopen and new qualifying submissions will be considered according to the protocol described above. The decisions of the Contest judges are final.

I ask the same question of Netflix that I asked of NASA and the Department of Defense: Why can't you put this money towards an internal process? Is this cheaper? Is it impossible to innovate internally? Does this version of sequestering folks to innovate lead to a better change of discovery? I'm very curious about this.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Today at AOL Serves Up Contradictions

While signing into AOL online to check email, I noticed two top stories in a row on their "Today at AOL" page. The first story warns baby boomers that their money may be at risk, and the second tells you to "Go Ahead and Splurge!". Don't Spend...Spend...It's interesting to see these unintentional conlflicts arise during this time of aggregating content. Are they avoidable? Is someone managing these streams from the user experience standpoint?

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

UI12 Day 2: The Secrets of Killer Web Content by Gerry McGovern

I've read many of Gerry McGovern's email newsletters. I've enjoyed them. When I read through them, I hear him in my head in a voice, kind of like, um, me. When I saw him speak and out burst forth with a terrific Irish brogue I was a bit startled. Where was the voice in my head? Funny how we ground ourselves with what we know. Now I read his newsletters with his voice properly in place. On to the seminar...

Old Marketing Was For Suckers
There were a few points that he made that I wanted to blog about. The first is the concept of new marketing vs. old marketing. Old marketing philosophy was to treat people like "suckers." New marketing should rail against this. Avoid using the "smiling," gratuitous marketing image of a customer smiling profusely. People know it's bullshit. Trust your customers. Get to know the language they use and how they search for things via tools like Google Trends. Subtle things like the use of singular or plural matters. A key difference between old style of marketing and new is the ability to know what a customer is viewing and what actions they take after doing so. There is data to support design decisions. I agree with all of the above, but the trouble is that we still live in a world where a lot of old marketeers still command from positions of power. How do we coexist? Maybe we don't.

Avoid "Waffling"
Don't waffle with your content. It usually just pushes the important action points off the page. "Welcome" language is particularly wasteful. The web is not about shaking hands. Press releases were another example of wasteful content. "Put-em-uppers" post them because it is easy, not good content. They are only good for journalists to find negative things about your company. Get to the point, and the more specific the better. He compared online users to Lions. Don't disrupt their flow. They will not put in the extra effort to find the value of your website. Offer it to them or lose them.

A Link is a Promise
"A link is a promise to your customer" was a great point. He gave many examples of how links say one thing and usually don't mean it. Be precise and deliver what the link says. "Try a demo" should not take 4 subsequent links to actually download a demo. Managing the journey of the customer is a vital role, but typically there is no one to fill these shoes.

This seminar was one that didn't force you to radically shift you way of working as the previous day's seminar did. There were a lot of quick tips you can put right in your arsenal and start using immediately. Nice balance to Constantine.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

UI12 Day 1: Interaction Design in an Agile World by Larry Constantine

My first day was spent at a seminar given by Larry Constantine from Constantine & Lockwood. The focus of his seminar was about how User Experience professionals must adapt in order to work in a Agile Development world. This inherently causes distress on how all types of UX professionals are used to doing their jobs, but it touches every other department along the product lifecycle as well. It is a jolt to the UX community. One of the major themes that is difficult to digest is the idea of "evolving business requirements". His point that business requirements are already doing so unofficially as a product is developed is a valid one. We've all seen this. The tough part is to imagine a world where there isn't the map to design to provided by the business. This opens the door for input on product design from everyone, including users. I'm not sure how that will play out in reality.

One goal that Constantine is aiming for is to stop UX design from being a roadblock to the start of development. This is not trivial. This phase ideally occurs at the idea phase and involves important research. He wants to avoid "analysis paralysis" and recommends that only a minimal navigational and presentation schema is created to begin development. The focus shifts from user studies and user experience to activity modeling which evolve into business requirements. Personas become roles and scenarios become task cases. He recommends focusing on the "happy case" design and not to get bogged down with edge case "what if" scenarios.

This is a lot to swallow. This is a titanic shift for most companies that have a waterfall product lifecycle. This requires training and buy in from everyone to be successful. How does an organization get to that place? How do you avoid working the way you have worked your entire career? Interesting challenges here.

One very good result of this new process is that it affords much better traceability. It captures the "why" of decisions were made and demonstrates how they became requirements. This is very different from the 'this shalls' and 'this shall nots' of business requirements and functional specifications which typically lose this important bit of rationale.

You can learn more about Larry Constantine's work at his website, which shockingly has a very nineties "Under Construction" graphic and warning on its homepage:

Monday, November 5, 2007

User Interface 12 Conference

I'm here in Cambridge, MA attending User Interface Engineering's UI12 conference run by Jared Spool. There's a different vibe here this year around here with all the good fortune their sports teams are having. Nice way to set the stage for a good conference on User Experience Design. I'll be posting stories on here on the seminars as I attend them.

Thursday, November 1, 2007's Web 2.0 Offering: "Menu Pages" is using something interesting in the main navigation area. The second line of navigation is a menu of important areas they want to spotlight. They buttons are big with big font size, but what makes these menu items different is what happen when you mouse over them. Up pops a layer, which is typical. What is out of the ordinary is the content that appears. They look like mini-web pages. They encapsulate the most important business goals of the subsequent web pages in these small layers before having to go to them.

By nature, these "Menu Pages" solve Barry Schwartz's paradox of choice bugaboo (watch Barry here). There isn't a full web page to fill up with text, graphics, photos, banners, animation, video, etc. They force you to be cogent. You can easily argue that these Menu Pages get people to what they want better than the actual webpages dedicated to these areas.

Compare the Menu Page for Target gift cards against the dedicated web page to gift cards. Gone from the Menu Page is all of the marketing text and graphics of headless businessmen holding target briefcases. No smiling, fit model holding up gift cards or bullseye graphics bubbling all over the place. The Menu Page gives me three buttons with explicit labels.

Menu Pages can't replace web pages and aren't good for all types of content. Google can't index them and serve them up in their result pages. Complex data visualizations won't work here. They are a powerful tool to be utilized in addition to them though.