Part 2: Before and After the Crossover
Defining the criteria for short term benefit and long-term competitiveness
In Part One I talked about the gap that can occur between users’ expectations for the experience of using a product, application or service, and what can actually be delivered, and about how short-term decisions on improving that experience can become liabilities later. Here I’m going to talk about more effectively making those decisions both before and after the crossover, the point at which experience performance meets experience expectations. (If you haven’t read Part One, doing so will help here as I’ll be referencing terminology and concepts.)
A lot of this discussion will focus on decisions dealing with competition, since user experience is a competitive factor (not just a feel-good one), and can’t be separated from broader strategic decisions for a company as a whole.
Case Study: RIM Blackberry
In Part One I talked a lot about how Apple created a vertically integrated digital music ecosystem (iPod, iTunes and Music Store, deals with music labels, DRM, etc.) to shortcut itself to the crossover. For the time being, Apple is still largely alone at the crossover. The impact of earlier user experience decisions really become apparent, however, once another company also achieves the crossover and customers now have a choice of two high quality experiences. The Blackberry portable email device from Research In Motion (RIM) has been at the crossover alone for some time now, having largely created the product category and established the crossover itself, but is about to face some stiff competition. I’m going to use it as a way of illustrating the challenges and options around user experience once a competitor joins you at the crossover.
The Blackberry of course has become an indispensable tool for connected business people, and is notoriously addictive in nature - perhaps its user experience is too good! Undoubtedly RIM has done an outstanding job of creating a seamless and easy to use experience out of what is technically a very challenging problem. The device has many nice touches in both the hardware and software to make it efficient to use, and once set up it does exactly what you expect it to do.
However, there are four areas where it is vulnerable:
- It doesn’t work particularly well as a phone. This has improved somewhat with newer models, but reception, form factor and sound quality issues are still problematic
- Blackberry’s have been functionally driven in their aesthetic, they are not attractive to look at. Newer ones are again better, but the tactile quality of materials is poor compared to similarly priced consumer electronics or cellphones. In the status-conscious world of executives, such things matter once the initial novelty factor of the technology has worn off.
- The RIM system requires significant investments in time, software, and manpower to get it running on the back-end. It must integrated tightly with software made by a third party in order to work properly - always a dodgy position, especially if the third party is Microsoft, as it is here.
- There are initial and ongoing costs for set-up and maintenance. These can be substantial for large corporations.
The last two are mitigated by the fact that Blackberry’s are used heavily by the executives cutting the checks for the system...nevertheless they present chinks in the armor.
RIM has had this lucrative market virtually to itself, and now two major competitors are about to combine forces against it, and are going after exactly these four factors. Microsoft has been developing a mobile email platform, and Motorola is getting set to launch devices that use it.
Microsoft has the advantage of controlling the whole software chain, while RIM is dependent on compatibility with Microsoft, and Motorola knows a thing or two about making decent mobile devices which, at least recently, look good too. This combination is a modular approach, unlike RIM’s vertically integrated set-up, allowing each manufacturer to focus on what it does best while orienting around agreed standards. Motorola will only be the first of a salvo of device manufacturers to incorporate Microsoft’s platform, and while Microsoft may well not hit the ball out of the park this first time out, they usually get it right eventually (just ask Palm).
What can RIM do? They have a variety of options that I can think of, all of which require wrenching change. If anyone else has additional options please post them here and we can discuss.
- Arm the enemies. Become a platform by licensing to other manufacturers. This will hurt the core business and very few companies have the nerve to make this transition. It’s not a sure-fire win, but if you can time it right (do it pre-emptively) and you have a monopoly on a market, as RIM does, it can work. Do it too late and you could just make the situation worse.
- Expand into new markets, such as youth market. (The Danger Sidekick has modest uptake here, which either means it’s a nascent market or a small one. My sense is it’s the former, but it requires a device very different from RIM’s current offerings, and doesn’t play to its strengths. Engineering is RIM’s focus, not hipness, style or community)
- Be satisfied with niche market, and charge a premium to highly demanding users in that niche. This has been Apple’s fate in its PC business.
- Get hammered on costs, and try to keep up R&D efforts with reduced margins against competitors with much greater economies of scale
If I were RIM, I’d be very worried. I’ve got two large competitors breathing down my neck, I’ve been slow to evolve my product line, and I haven’t expanded beyond my core market (why bother, when it was growing so rapidly and customers are addicted?). My guess is that RIM will follow option four, the same as Palm and Tivo. Things will continue to look OK for a while, maybe even a few years, and then they will go very sour. Option three is a possibility, but my guess is that the overall market size is not big enough to support niche players (as is the case with PC’s), especially given its dependence on Microsoft compatibility. I don’t have any insider knowledge, but going by public statements by RIM executives there is a strong not-invented-here culture to the company (ironic if the patent lawsuit is an indication) and a sense of invincibility, which are not good qualities to have as you navigate the crossover. In RIM’s case, such attitudes pretty much take options one and two off the table.
Back to the Beginning
So that’s what after the crossover looks like. Not a pretty picture, is it? But what about before it, if you’re just starting out in those heady days of blazing new trails?
Say you’re a start-up or a skunkworks in an established company looking to enter a new market, or even create a new product category. How should you make decisions about what parts of the UE to keep in-house, and which parts you can farm out?
First you have to assess the size of the gap between expected experience and what can actually be delivered or is being delivered today (if anything). You also have to judge how far away the crossover is and how rapidly commoditization of the experience will happen once the crossover is established. There are no hard and fast rules to making these judgments, and they can be fairly subjective. Triangulation is the best method:
- People who are close to the customers, whether user researchers or sales people or in-house users, have to be the ones to assess the size of the experience/expectation gap. This is not something that can be easily asked of customers directly, since they usually can’t articulate something for which they have no frame of reference. You have to read between the lines and develop an intuitive sense of what the "ideal" experience would be like, then visualize and make it concrete for others to experience in prototype form. This runs counter to the data and benchmark driven culture of many companies (I wrote about this in Rain Man to Spiderman). This is something Apple excels at. They do little or no user research early in development, though they do do usability testing for refinement later on. But it has its risks - Apple has missed the boat on a number of occasions, such as ignoring the mp3 market for a year while Jobs was focused on home movies.
- People who approach it from a technology point of view have to assess how quickly technology improvements will enable closing the gap. In other words, how much of a head start will you have?
- People who approach it from a business point of view have to assess relative merits of coming quickly to market, against the possible retardation of customer base growth with a sub-optimal experience. Whole books have been written on this subject, it’s too complex to go into here
Once you’ve done these analyses, you have to decide which elements of the user experience are mission critical and need to be kept in-house for development, and to help ensure long-term competitiveness. If you’re in a purely software venture you don’t have to worry too much about manufacturing partners, but any reasonably complex hardware/software product is going to involve outside vendors, so you want to think about what you can farm out.
A key trait to look for is to find partners who are willing to collaborate, who can be flexible as you define what the quality of experience is you’re trying to achieve. This may seem obvious, but it’s surprising how often this is ignored.
I read a review of a Sony laptop a couple of years ago, and it talked about how it came with three different applications, all from different vendors and with different UI’s, to handle different links of the video editing chain (as opposed to Apple’s one, iMovie). Such careless bundling is not uncommon, and the customer’s blame will fall on the master brand (Sony).
In this the applications were made by obscure third parties. You can also go with an established brand to work with, and this can have upsides and downsides. Two questions to ask on this are:
- Will that brand be able to make its own competitive entry once you’ve helped establish the market?
- What proportion of the total user experience is this other brand responsible for.
Apple didn’t choose a prominent brand such as Logitech as its partner for making the interface control on the iPod (touchpad technology from obscure Synaptics was used). Logitech has a reputation for excellent ergonomics and product design, but could have credibly entered the mp3 market itself and would have presented a future competitive threat. Also, the two brands would have competed against one another within a single product, and neither likes to play second banana.
On the United airlines flight I’m on as I write this, they are “Proudly brewing Starbucks”. Starbucks is unlikely to get into the airline business (though Sir Richard Branson makes both cola and airlines, among many other things, so you never know!), and the coffee is a very small part of the overall experience. Unfortunately the poor quality of the coffee means neither brand is getting helped. This is a potential downside of brand association.
A more successful example can be seen with automotive companies’ collaborations with established home hi-fi brands, such as Bose, Harmon/Kardon (under its own name, as well as it subsidiaries JBL and Mark Levinson). Audi is offering a Bang & Olufsen option in its top-of-the-line S8, and charging a $7500 premium for it. Talk about a halo effect!
These match-ups work because the hi-fi companies are unlikely to become car manufacturers, audio represents a fairly small portion of the overall car ownership experience, and each brand has the space to do what it does best and is enhanced by the association. The most successful implementations come from true collaborations, where the auto company modifies the car interior to meet the needs of the audio system, and the hi-fi manufacturer does acoustic analysis of the cabin layout and materials. There are downsides, however: Bose is profligate with who it develops for, which weakens the competitive differentiation amongst the car companies themselves.
Hopefully this has been a useful discussion. There are many nuances to this issue, and many other examples that could be discussed (and as I think of relevant ones I’ll continue to post about them). The core message I’m hoping to communicate is that decisions about user experience can’t be separated from broader business strategy decisions, which is unfortunate as often they are discussed in isolation. User experience advocates talk about the (very real) benefits of improving UE, but a deeper analysis of how to achieve this can be lacking. Likewise, writers on business often treat UE as a peripheral topic. In today’s economy, though, your business is your brand, and your brand is your user experience. So goes one, so goes the other.