User Experience: it’s features all the way down

! Warning: this post hasn't been updated in over three years and so may contain out of date information.

Last weekend – 3rd July 2010 – TechCrunch published an article entitled “FaceTime and Why Apple’s Massive Integration Advantage is Just Beginning“. To my mind it is one of the most appallingly fan-boy biased, poorly argued, articles that TechCrunch have published. Yet bizarrely others seem to describe it as an insightful post that argues why endlessly adding new features to products is not a good thing.

The article does have some interesting points regarding Apple’s enviable market position, which lets them pick and choose which features they add to future products. These points were lost though in a what I can best describe as a steaming pile of fan-boy drivel that claims Apple are perfect and everyone else is rubbish in comparison.

Because of this, I’ve rewritten Steve Cheney’s article to be both more balanced in its take on Android and iPhones and to succinctly summarise his argument on why Apple might have an advantage in the future:

Queues for the iPhone 4 has been astonishing to witness, despite alleged antenna and easily broken glass issues, plus the need to pay Apple £25 for a rubber band to overcome these issues. This proves once again that Apple has a unparalleled ability to constantly cram new desirable features into its products that encourage its loyal fan-base to queue up and buy afresh every year.

But this rapid “refreshing” of products —which is good in some regards —causes a negative by-product: “feature bloat.” FaceTime, Apple’s take on video-calling, epitomizes this best (sorry, but video calls are not ready for prime-time, and I firmly believe Google won’t even include such a feature on next year’s Android 2.3/ 3.0).

Apple behaves just like everyone else when it comes to adding features: they seek to both compete and differentiate based on available technology. This can be clearly seen by comparing the differences between the iPhone/ iOS 3 and iPhone/ iOS 4. The former fell behind Android phones in regard to multitasking, low screen resolution, camera quality and battery life. It is no surprise that the key iPhone 4 improvements over the 3GS cover these very same four features. They had to differentiate themselves too. Android phones are already starting to offer 4G support (which isn’t really needed yet), so they opted for the equally pointless, but different, FaceTime feature.

In the space of just a few years, the iPhone has gone from being the product to emulate, to being forced to play catchup with Android. Just as Apple lost the battle with Microsoft over the PC market, so it might appear a foregone conclusion that Apple will lose the phone market battle to Google. But Apple has a potential ace up its sleeve that might make such predictions look very simplistic.

Apple aren’t just a software vendor: they make hardware too, and that includes components. They also buy – in vast numbers – components from others. This gives them the potential of a huge advantage in the future as they have access to the feature roadmaps of their own – and their component-manufacturing competitors’ – components. Whether this advantage will let Apple continue to innovate and compete in the smart phone market remains to be seen, but it just might let them (continue to) dominate the smart phone market in the future.

The original article makes great play of user experience (UX) over features and claims Apple do the former and everyone else does the latter. To understand why someone might make such a bizarre claim, it’s worth considering a classic tale of turtles.

The story – I don’t know if it’s true or not – is of a conversation between William James and an old lady. The old lady argues that the Earth can’t support itself in space and so it is supported by turtle, to stop it falling. James asks what supports the turtle? The answer is another turtle. So what supports that turtle? The old lady’s answer is that it’s turtles all the way down.

There is a tendency of some folk to claim UX is like the real Earth: it can exist by itself unsupported. There is no need for features – the turtles of the UX world. What everyone wants these days is UX and more UX. This is complete nonsense of course, as UX makes no sense in isolation.

Apple are famous for the good user experiences they offer in their products. They have been at the forefront of the drive to break away from feature creep. I suspect this is the reason why a near-religious belief that Apple does UX and everyone else does features can lead someone like Steve Cheney to write such a nonsense article and why otherwise intelligent people claim such an article is insightful.

I love Aral Balkan’s blog slogan: “The age of features is dead; Welcome to the age of User Experience”. In twelve words he sums it all up for me. The days of everyone blindly cramming as many features into a product as possible are well and truly over. These days, a good product design starts not with “what features do we need?”, but instead asks “what user experience do we wish to deliver?” The requirements of the UX then dictate the feature requirements, which helps keep them focused and maximises the chances of the user enjoying using the product.

An important point to consider here is that UX is entirely subjective. “Power users” for example tend to love tinkering and for them lots of configuration items leads to a good UX. More mainstream users though are put off by such complexity, so for them its a bad UX. This brings me back to the article that spawned this post. Simply having an extreme control over components may not be enough of an advantage for Apple. Personally I found the iPhone OS too limiting (eg the lack of widgets on the home screen), the price too high (my HTC Desire was much cheaper, yet has a similar [though admittedly slightly lower] spec to, the iPhone 4) and I hate iTunes (especially on Windows 7). All of these things are negative UX factors for me. For some people, these points just aren’t important, so for them the iPhone UX is great. For me, the Android UX is better.

Rather than UX being features all the way down, perhaps I should say UX is features all the way up: from the components to the case design to the battery life to the size and weight to the badge on the device to the price to the customer service to the OS to the apps available. All of these features added together create the device’s user experience and the company that gets the right combination of these the most right will win the UX battle

Who will win out in the with smart phones? I don’t know and I don’t much care, for what I do know is that the one with the best UX for the most people is likely to win and that’s good news for us users.

2 thoughts on “User Experience: it’s features all the way down

  1. User experience, for me, is about ease of use. Yes, there was a lot of awful gushing in that TechCrunch article, but the point with FaceTime is that is *just works*. If I ask my mum to make a FaceTime phone call with me on the iPhone 4 she’ll know how to do it. (And yes, provided we both have iPhone 4s and we both have wi-fi.) However an Android phone? She’ll give up because the tech is not simple enough for her. That’s user experience. It’s not about the tech, but how well the tech works for the user.

    This is where Apple excels. Call me a fanboy if you like, but I can appreciate the bigger picture here. I think the UX for iPhone is targeted towards a broader audience outside the male-dominated geek demographic that Android aspires to. Just look at Apple’s latest FaceTime adverts. Full of emotional appeal targeted at women, fathers, the family. Then look at the Verizon Droid adverts – full of darkness, machinery and robots. They couldn’t be further apart in their approach. The UX a geek will get on an iPhone will be frustratingly limited, but the UX a mother or non-techhead will get from an Android phone will be too feature heavy and confusing. And that’s fine – each to their own. Each have perfectly valid points of view for their personal user experience. It’s not ever going to be Apple or Android and who will win. Both will play important parts in shaping the other.

  2. @Paul,

    Firstly “it just works” is a great soundbite, but it rarely lives up to expectations. I listened to a very positive review of the iPhone 4 on last week’s PC Pro podcast. Their main criticism though was of FaceTime, for it “just worked” only when conditions were perfect, ie two iPhones on the same wifi connection with no firewall to mess things up.

    Secondly, from personal experience, you are just plain wrong regarding the iPhone and Android phones. A couple of non-technical female friends of mine have recently bought iPhones, and both are struggling to get to grips with it. Both report it is far more complex and far less easy to use than a standard phone. At the same time my wife (equally non-technical) bought an Android phone. She too has struggled to get to grips with it, but has found it no more difficult than our friends found the iPhone.

    UX is about designing for a user experience. That user experience can be anything, ease of use being just one option. The difference between UX design and non-UX design is simply that one decides on what the user experience should be up front with the former. With the latter, the user experience is a by-product of the design.

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