First have a great use experience, then have a great user experience

For a couple of years I’ve been trying to transfer my experience of listening to podcasts to my dad. There’s so much interesting stuff to listen to, and he has both the time and the interest to listen, so in theory it’s a perfect fit. But in practice, though he’s heard a few of the talks I’ve forwarded to him as links, I haven’t managed to create the “aha” moment for him. This past week, though, may have been the tipping point. He’d landed in the hospital and I was determined to give him an alternative to the in-room TV. So I loaded up my old 256MB Creative MuVo with a selection of favorite talks, bought him a pair of headphones, gave him the kit, and showed him how to turn it on and press play.

It’s been a huge success. The next challenge, of course, will be to show him how to refill the gadget once he’s listened to the dozen or so hours of stuff I gave him. But I hope I’ve won the important battle. Time will tell, and I could be wrong, but my hunch is that what remains — a conversation about feeds, podcatchers, and USB cables — will be a mop-up operation.

In the tech industry, though, I think we often pretend that the mop-up operation is the battle. We talk obsessively about the user experience, and we recognize that we invariably fail to make it as crisp and coherent as it should be. But user experience is an overloaded term. I propose that we unpack it into (at least) two separate concepts. One is the basis of the “aha” moment. For now I’ll call it the use experience. In this example, it’s the experience of listening to spoken-word podcasts from sources that, just a few years ago, weren’t available.

I’ll reserve the term user experience for something else: the tax we pay in order to enjoy the use experience. This tax is not the basis of an “aha” moment. It’s expressed in terms of the devices, cables, batteries, applications, menus, dialog boxes, and — last but not least — the concepts we must grapple with in order to reliably reproduce the use experience. A great user experience makes all this crap relatively less awkward, confusing, and annoying. A lousy user experience makes it relatively more so. But the point is that it’s all crap! It’s the tax we pay to enjoy the use experience, and we want to pay as little of it as we can get away with.

How do you engineer a great use experience, as opposed to a great user experience? Part of the answer is deep personalization. So while the talks I loaded onto that MuVo for my dad included some of my favorites from ITConversations, the Long Now Foundation, TED, and elsewhere, I also included some my own podcasts. And that’s what tipped it for my dad. He’s proud of the work I do, but most of it has always been inaccessible to him. So I picked a handful of my most general-interest podcasts on education, government, and health care. And that worked really well. Every time I visited last weekend, he was listening to one of mine. But when I talked to him mid-week he was listening to the Burt Rutan TED talk that I’d hoped he would enjoy.

This is a personal story, but I’m certain the principles apply more broadly. On the Microsoft campus this past week, for example, I got together with Mike Champion for coffee and a chat. Among other things we talked about Channel 9 which he rarely tunes into, although it features a variety of things that would interest him. We also discussed the fact that, while there are spaces in his life into which he might enjoyably and profitably inject podcast listening — long bike rides, for example — he hasn’t yet done so.

Right after our chat I walked into my first team meeting with the Channel 9 and 10 folks and recalled a point I’d made a while ago, which is that video isn’t the medium of choice for Mike’s bike ride. He knows what Anders Hejlsberg and Jim Gray look like. He doesn’t have time in front of a computer (or a handheld video player) to watch them talk. But he does have time on his bike to listen to them talk. Everybody in the meeting agreed that peeling off sound tracks from the videos and making them available as podcasts is a no-brainer, so it looks like that’ll happen. Thanks in advance, Adam, for agreeing to make it happen, and please don’t take this as arm-twisting. I know you’re busy and will get to this when you can. I’m telling this story to make a larger point which I think may provoke some useful discussion.

The larger point is that all of us, me included, tend to focus on engineering the user experience and tend to forget about engineering the use experience. A better user experience, in this case, is partly about making audio files available, and partly about organizing podcast feeds so that I could subscribe to everything that comes down the pipe featuring Anders Hejlsberg or Jim Gray or other folks I want to tune in.

Those tweaks will probably lower the activation threshold enough for Mike to hop over it. But I’m not certain of that. There are still obstacles to overcome. What will motivate Mike to overcome them? An “aha” moment, a good use experience. So how do you engineer that?

I like Mike, but not enough to give him a preloaded MP3 player. I could, however, make him a mix of some Channel 9 stuff. And as I did for my dad, I’d want to include some of the other stuff that I’m always recommending to people.

How exactly to do that is an interesting question. As a hip Internet citizen and podcast aficionado I’ll be inclined to find a podcast remixing service, use it to make Mike’s mix, then point him to the feed it emits. But I actually think that would be the wrong approach. If I point him to a podcast feed, I force him to grapple with the podcatching user experience. But I don’t want to clobber him right away with a user experience. First I want to give him a satisfying use experience.

Different requirements dictate different engineering solutions. If I’m trying to engineer a delightful use experience it might be best to hand him a ZIP file of MP3s. I know he’ll know what to do with that, using any kind of MP3 player, without having to deal with any new tools or concepts.

Now of course Mike, being a typically super-smart and super-technical Microsoft employee, is perfectly able to deal with new tools and concepts. That’s what he does for a living, after all, and he does it because he likes to.

But in this context, I think that’s a red herring. Just because Mike can power through the crap doesn’t mean that he should have to, at least not right away, at least not if it can be avoided. The less to distract him from that “aha” moment, the better.

There’s probably a whole literature on this topic, and the terminological distinction I’m trying to make here may have been made differently and better elsewhere, in which case I’ll appreciate pointers to that literature. Terminology aside, I think the distinction is important in lots of ways. In terms of Channels 9 and 10, for example, it suggests the following:

1. As do video stores, Channels 9 and 10 could offer staff picks.

2. The picks could be made available not only as feeds, but also as bundles.

3. The picks could mix store-brand stuff from 9 and 10 with related stuff from elsewhere.

4. Viewers and listeners who follow 9/10 (and other sources) could use remix services hosted at 9/10 (or elsewhere) to share their own picks as feeds (or bundles).

But I think this principle applies much more broadly. Recently, for example, I mentioned my positive reaction to the $8/month commodity hosting offered by Ironically, BlueHosts’s founder recently blogged about how Microsoft doesn’t — and he thinks, can’t — play in that market. Could that change? If so, how? I can’t answer those questions at the moment, but I can say that good answers would lead with use experiences and follow with user experiences.

When you provision an instance of a MySQL database at BlueHost, you have a much better user experience than you have when you provision one from the command line, but to be honest it’s not a great user experience. Lots more could be done to clarify the concepts of databases, users, passwords, rights, and so on. Still, relative to the command-line alternative, you can much more quickly and more easily have the experience of deploying a world-accessible database-backed application. When you have that kind of use experience, you become an adopter of the enabling technology. It’s that powerful.

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20 thoughts on “First have a great use experience, then have a great user experience

  1. Wow, I have a lot to say in response to this, and I may have to flesh it out more on my blog. Let me give my first few quick (I think) comments.

    I totally agree with your separation of the use experience, and the user experience. I would even go so far as to say that if a person has a good enough use experience, the user experience is irrelevant. Consider how many people use internet services that need serious improvements in usability and reliability. That’s not to say that it’s always irrelevant, but it can be if the desire to use that service is strong enough.

  2. Crap. Somehow hit tab+enter and posted the comment before it was done! To continue…

    My story is probably a good example that parallels the one of your father. I really couldn’t understand podcasting. I had looked into it and tried to find stuff that interested me, but I didn’t find anything at the time. For me, the user experience is unlikely to prevent me from doing something I want, as I’m pretty computer savvy. It wasn’t until I found audio book podcasts, and I think the real aha moment when I was home sick for a day. I spent the whole day listening to podcasts, found people talking about stuff I was passionate about, and became hooked. That was right around the time that I found LibriVox as well.

    I don’t want to over-emphasize the use experience, as you call it. However, I think you’re right on target.

  3. Interesting reading. I haven’t myself reached the “aha” moment for podcasting yet – primarily because I don’t have commutes, or bike rides, or another situation where such a thing would relieve the boredom.

    The user experience doesn’t deter me… I have broadband, an iPod, and all the knowledge it would take. I’m just waiting for the “killer app” to make me care about podcasts.

    It will probably happen… maybe something involving music, like interviews or live shows from DJs. But you’re right, once the “aha” happens, all of the other UI stuff doesn’t matter much.

  4. The “Aha!” moment happened a month ago when I realized that a slow dialup connection on the Thai-Cambodia border didn’t have to keep me from listening to my favorite shows. I can download a couple of podcasts (NPR, BBC) overnight, when everybody in town is asleep at 7:00 pm, and connection speeds shoot to 3 kb/s.

    I’m not grumpy over my morning coffee anymore…

  5. It’s beginning to look to me like this is the post-modern personalization of what is, essentially, designed to be an im-personal medium.

    I help people who restore historic buildings. They are dedicated DIY homeowners and professional tradespeople. They work and do most of their thinking in the real world of bricks & mortar, wood & paint. They are THIRSTY for the practical information that I can easily provide. How they get that information is not always so easy.

    Since the 1970s I have been writing print articles in national publications and in my own print-on-demand series–they all “get” how to use these print-media resources. Open the book, read, look at the pictures.

    Since 1993 I’ve developed my website, with a Library, Discussion Forum, etc.–many of them “get” how to use this online media. Log on, read, look at the pictures.

    This past year I have been doing video blogging and video conferencing–this is a real long stretch for my crowd, only a few “get” it. Log on, look at the video, “oh yeah, just like TV, look & listen, but I can ask questions? That’s too weird, I’ll just look & listen.”

    Pod-casting? They say, “Subscribe to radio?” “It’s on the internet, but you can’t see it?” “I take something I can’t see or hold, and put it in my shirt pocket?” “What? WHAT?” “I just need to know how to fix my broken window.”

    Even if you give them a “pod-caster/toaster” they can buy off the shelf without the lash-up of cables and gizmos, it still takes a personal in-person guide–maybe not such a bad idea. It gets Jon right with his dad, for at least an hour. It’s beginning to look to me like this is the post-modern personalization of what is, essentially an impersonal medium, designed by the mass media entertainment marketers to separate humans from each other and transform each into an individual “marketing unit” that scales up nicely. Well, what do you know, the human beings wiggle out of the compartmentalized slots and still find ways to get together.

    Makes me wonder if we really need the individual slots in the first place. Maybe that’s what our “users” are telling us about the “use” when they don’t “get it.” Are they really saying, “Oh yoooo-hoooooo, I’m over here in the real world, just trying get some help fixing my windows.”

    John Leeke
    by hammer and hand great works do stand
    by pen and thought best words are wrought
    by cam and light he shoots it right

  6. Jon has hit the bulls-eye on this one. Lest anyone think Use vs. User Experience is an arbitrary distinction, just consider the order in which people do things. To add to Jon’s analogy boil the Use Experience down to ‘what’? What does it do, what can I do, what does it allow me to do. The User Experience is the ‘how’. How do I subscribe to a feed? How do I delete old episodes, how do I transfer .mp3 files onto the MP3 player? Social Networking with MySpace or Facebook is a similar example. The ‘what’ is finding peer groups, associating new members to that peer group, exhibiting my unique identity while still being part of a peer group. The ‘how’ is creating an account, customizing the home page of the account, getting people to add you to their peer group, adding people to your own peer group. All those tools in the Facebook and MySpace interfaces are the User Experience and should never once be mistaken for the Use Experience.

  7. Very nice. I guess your trip West was invigorating, aye? I agree completely about the use experience and reducing the barrier of entry to that experience. And I just realize that’s what you do. Provide understandable entries to technology. Scoble makes connections, you make technology accessible and usable for people. Now I get why I love reading your work.

    [I regret that I missed you Thursday night. It was nice to see Buzz, Michael, Alex, and Chris again. I’m surprised they didn’t add you to the panel to make up for the absent participants.]


    Lending further credence to the argument for a good Use experience, Jim Allchin of Microsoft’s internal email over the state of MP3 players and Windows Media Player. Jim Allchin couldn’t believe how badly the Creative Zen player integrated with Windows Media player. And as a threat he proposed going to Apple and making a deal to support the iPod all the way. Apparently the Use Experience with the iPod far exceeded that of thrid party MP3 players and Windows Media Player. One solution he came up with was to bypass the third party manufacturers and create a Microsoft designed and branded MP3 player that tightly integrated with Windows Media Player which 3 years later became the Zune. Has the Zune created a great Use Experience for anyone?

  9. Podcasts have long since hit the Aha moment for me… my “music” player is almost exclusively used for podcasts now, my “use experience” is well entrenched into my daily activities, but the user experience still suffers GREATLY in my opinion. Short any other options, I’ve written several times on why iTunes is a poor, poor “user experience” for my “use experience”:

  10. “Maybe that’s what our “users” are telling us about the “use” when they don’t “get it.” Are they really saying, “Oh yoooo-hoooooo, I’m over here in the real world, just trying get some help fixing my windows.””

    Wonderfully well said, John.

  11. “”

    “A more interesting question for Jon might be, “Why are you so interested in having your father listen to podcasts?” Or more generally, why should any of us have a need for other people to adopt technology that we personally find to be essential, or at least fun? I have a hunch that at some level the answer is going to be about deepening the sense of connection we feel to other people. If Jon’s dad “gets” podcasts, then he’ll be one step closer to really “getting” his son.”

    This is all true. In addition, though, I would like to think that my need for other people to adopt technology is secondary to our need as citizens of the planet — and now also of the Net — to get our collective act together and solve pressing problems.

  12. Excellent points, and as a non-techie, I totally agree that the user experience and its steep learning curve is exactly what keeps me from trying new technologies.

    Here’s another thought, inspired by your comments that actually presenting your dad with a “loaded MP3 player” was the lowered threshold he needed for him to enjoy podcasts: You gave me David Owen’s article in the April 10, 2006 issue of THE NEW YORKER on the history and current state of Muzak (“The Soundtracks of Your Life: How Muzak makes you by”) last night. In that article, one of the Muzak “audio architects”, Steven Pilker, asked the author six or seven questions about his lifestyle and interests. Based on those few questions (none of which were about his MUSICAL preferences, btw), Pilker sent Owen a small compilation of music that contained artists he’d never heard of–but that the Owen really liked. He ended up actually buying CDs by some of the “new” artists. Owen says “…I was struck that Pilker, after spending very little time with me, had created an appealing musical program that was based on his sense of who I was, rather than on any direct examination of the music I actually listened to if left on my own.”

    I was thinking that would be an amazing on-line service for Muzak: providing music (and, after hearing your story about your dad, podcasts) by creating such individualized “packages” for listeners. I could go to their website, take a simple quiz, and receive a specialized packet of audio files in the format and/or time length I’m willing to pay for.

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