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 BlueHost.com. 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.