April 06, 2015

The Peter Principle of interface design

The Peter Principle--that in any organizational hierarchy, every employee eventually gets promoted to the level of his incompetence--isn't only a management problem. In a world that expects "new and improved" on a yearly basis, the temptation is to keep tweaking a design until it fails.

The 1995 Taurus was the epitome of a conservative family sedan, that still doesn't look out of place 20 years later. But then came 1996 and Ford turned it into a squashed jellybean. "All the aesthetics of a beanbag chair," says Cars.com.

A car and a half-melted gumdrop.

This is an increasing problem with consumer PC products because there are fewer and fewer reasons to upgrade software or hardware.

Loaded with 96 MB of RAM, my old Windows 95 machine was a snappy and reliable platform for most routine Microsoft Office 95 chores. But the Pentium 100 could barely run Winamp (it couldn't run Media Player without stuttering), and I'd maxed out the 4 GB hard drive (in two partitions because of FAT16).

My 10-year-old Windows XP Thinkpad is mostly fast enough, the 2 GB of RAM an only occasionally bottleneck. Though the on-board video card can't handle streaming HD video, SD is fine on a 1024 × 768 screen. I've got a tad more free space than the capacity of old hard drive. Still, 4 GB isn't much these days.

But I can wait until Windows 10 comes out.

The only reason to upgrade from Office 2003 is buying a new computer, and Microsoft OSes since Windows 8 don't support 2003. I appreciate that Office 2013 can edit and save PDF files, though I can do that now with my ancient version of Acrobat 6.

Upgrading will be nice but not necessary. And it'll be a big pain in the neck because I'll have to upgrade most of my software.

Microsoft is betting its future on customers like me, and designed Windows 10 to appeal to us XP and 7 diehards. Even with Windows 8.1, Microsoft was quick to assure its user base that, "No, no, we haven't killed the desktop! It's still there! Promise!"

Windows 8 "improved" the interface in ways that nobody had asked for, hardly anybody wanted, and the tech press scorned. And yet now every other tech website sports big blocky boxes in bright primary colors surrounded by acres of wasted screen space, while giving barely a thought to actual usability.

At least the Google News page can be customized in a utilitarian, information-rich format. And Craigslist gives you lots of useful text in a few rudimentary columns. No fancy-dancy anything. Good for them.

The genesis of this rant was that Netflix has again "improved" its interface to the point of being useless. In the past, you could switch from the "video store" display, with its slow, space-hogging images, to a "spreadsheet" master list that was fast, flexible, and sortable.

Not only is the spreadsheet gone but so is the master list. Now to scan through the anime titles (the only category I'm really interested in), you have to sort the ten sub-genre lists separately. Netflix couldn't have made itself less user-friendly if it tried.

Or maybe they are trying. Netflix tried to get out of the physical media business before (turning the DVD business into a wholly-owned subsidiary), and I don't think they ever gave up on the effort. I can take a hint.

Netflix used to have the best anime selection anywhere. Its DVD backlist is still very good. When it comes to the new stuff, though, Netflix doesn't try to compete with Hulu and Crunchyroll. (This may change with its upcoming entry into the Japanese market.)

Given the first-sale doctrine, once the infrastructure costs had been sunk, each additional DVD could be warehoused for pennies. Mailing them cost the bucks. With physical media going extinct, long-tail streaming video aggregators had to allocate their licensing and broadband budgets more strategically.

Netflix has clearly focused on capturing cable and network offerings in the fat part of the Pareto curve (this graphic published 3/14). Except I'm not interested in subscribing to a glorified cable channel.

Cable TV for people who already have cable TV.

For the time being, Netflix is my Redbox substitute, good for the occasional Hollywood flick and TV series and the rare new anime DVD title from GKids. Otherwise, when the DVDs run out (though at two/month, it'll be a while), I can see a Roku in my future but not a Netflix subscription.

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# posted by Blogger Joe
"Microsoft is betting its future on customers like me..."

Hate to break the news, but customers like you aren't even on Microsoft's radar. Microsoft is continuing to bet its future on the Fortune 5000 and those retail customers who methodically upgrade.

(And Windows 8.x isn't nearly as bad as the pundits make it out to be. Beyond a much more stable kernel, I prefer it in many ways over Windows 7. I've been using the beta for Windows 10 on the side and there are few minor changes in response to "popular" demand for which I prefer the Windows 8.1 way of doing things. About the only thing I really miss with Windows 8 & 10 is Aero. The guy in the next cubicle hates Aero, so there you go.)
4/07/2015 8:03 AM

# posted by Blogger Eugene
Hey, I was thinking of myself as a corporate entity.

Seriously, when I was at Convergys back in the XP SP2 era, I briefly worked on a project that ran a VB front end on top of Windows 98. Not NT4. Windows 98, using third-party software to lock down the desktop. These were Pentium II machines with 128 MB of RAM, so upgrading anything would have meant a massive hardware overhaul.

Companies like this get to a point where if they're going to upgrade one thing, they're going to upgrade everything, and wait as long as they can before sending a ginormous order to Dell (and then buy a generation behind).
4/07/2015 9:19 AM

# posted by Anonymous Dan
What happened to the idea of the personalized user experience? Many years ago I thought this was the future of technology but that future never arrived. Instead each software and web publisher imposes their design on their customers. It is as if they all adopted the Henry Ford school of marketing slogan that customers can have any color they want as long as it is black.

So ESPN rolls out a new web page layout. OK. But why is it that in 2015 ESPN customers don't have a choice in how they consume ESPN content? If one guy likes lists why can't he have lists? If another guy likes tiles let him have tiles! How can it be when page layout is software that ESPN.com does not provide a choice of layouts?

The tension or conflict of mass marketing is that companies want to convince customers they are getting what they want all the while the company does what it wants. The goal of the company is to maximize its profits. It does this by convincing customers they are getting good value all the while the company wants customers to pay more for less. Apple is the most profitable company in the world because it was so successful at accomplishing this goal. But when companies fail at giving customers less the customer revolt can be swift and financially devastating to the business.

Radio Shack spent decades giving customers less, until the day came when it became a joke that a customer would shop at Radio Shack. Year after year Radio Shack management marketed a plan that would attract customers willing to pay more for less. But customers weren't fooled. They did not find value in what Radio Shack was selling. At what point did Radio Shack management realize that it could not convince customers to do what the company needed them to do? Was there ever a corporate epiphany? I suppose for most failed consumer oriented companies there is such a moment, that what “we” do is not what people want. When this tension or conflict is too great to be reconciled the company either needs to be overhauled or shut-down.
4/08/2015 5:59 PM