December 27, 2001

User centered design sells products
My wife wanted a new TV for the kitchen for Christmas, so I hit the usual electronics outlets to see what my options were. She had an old 13" TV, but it was a dinosaur. I found many 13" sets for around $90 (USD), and they ranged up to about $150 without much real difference in features. Let's face it 13" TVs are not where innovation is happening... At the third store I went to I noticed a set initially because it was white...which would match our kitchen appliances and decor pretty nicely. This wasn't the first white TV I'd seen, but it was very different in a subtle way I'd soon discover. The product info card the retail store provided didn't say much about the TV, just that it had a remote, AV jacks, a comb filter (like your average Joe knows what that does) and a couple other "so what" bullet points. In order to differentiate between products, my comparison process involved playing with the set for a while, going through the various options on the remote and on-screen menus to get a feel of what features the set had. This particular set from Phillips has one killer feature. In the end that one feature coaxed me into coughing up an additional $30 (33%) for this set.

The key feature was the remote control. It was more user-centered in its design. It was, in a way, personalizable! Phillips calls it "QuadraSurf". It allows you to effectively save your favorite channels so that you can quickly cycle through them. You have four colored buttons, each capable of storing 10 channels. So, you can have one button be for news stations, one for mom's daytime favorites, one for kids programming, and another for dad's weekend sports surfing. I've often thought, while surfing stations, that the "previous channel button" should work more like a browser history: allowing you to go back or at least cycle through more than two of your recently visited channels. This was almost the same thing; it accomplished the same user goal: avoiding cycling through about 60 cable channels of which half are usually worthless. Phillips obviously did some user research, and used it to differentiate their product. This resulted in a 33% increase in the price I paid compared to other sets -- I probably would have even paid more for it just to get that feature.

What kills me is that Phillips does a horrible job of explaining product features and benefits of them on its product pages. The description of QuadraSurf remotes, available on many of their TVs, is hard to find and poorly worded. It doesn't really convey the benefits to the potential buyer. The best description I found was in the Time magazine 2001 Shopping Guide..."QuadraSurf remote lets you group your favorite channels together by genre and flip through them with a single button". Phillips also had a press release that I found on CNet that did a better job of describing this feature.

Bottom line: When we spend time and money to develop differentiating features that are user-centered, we have to market those features to make them pay off. Use usability as a competitive advantage. Having a more usable product doesn't guarantee success; you have to point out the fact that your product is more usable, that you understand your customers and are designing for them. That creates rabid customer loyalty; look at Google -- they told everyone that they were solving OUR problem, made search better, made it simpler, removed the clutter, listened to users, and marketed the hell out of the fact that they were doing these things. It worked, and it created zealots and fans who told their friends to forget about all other search engines and just start with Google.

No comments: