Bringing Design to Software
© Addison-Wesley, 1996


The Consumer Spectrum

Paul Saffo

The software designer approaches a design task with a background of concerns and assumptions. She may, for example, want to make the software obvious and easy to use for novices. Or she may want it to be compatible with a well-known application, or maximally effective and efficient for the skilled user who is tackling a complex and specialized task. Much of the discussion in this book, and in the literature on human-computer interaction that preceded it, addresses one or another of these concerns.

There is a prior question, however, in designing a product for consumer use. What does the consumer care about? It is easy to let slogans such as user friendly and easy to learn blind the designer to the diversity of the software marketplace. Different people have different concerns. It takes a broader kind of perspective-that of an industry observer-to interpret the complex and often conflicting demands and forces in the market.

Paul Saffo began his career as a lawyer, specializing in technology law. He soon decided that the technology was more fun than the law, and spent his free moments as a software designer. Eventually, he gave up his law practice and joined the Institute for the Future, a consulting firm that tracks the long-term trends of technology. Saffo is particularly noted for his analysis of the current and future developments of cyberspace-the networked communication, computing, and information world that is rapidly expanding and is entering our everyday lives.

Saffo's perspective cuts across the usual boundaries between developer and user and between technology concerns and business concerns. He offers insights into how different aspects of software design are relevant in determining what will succeed in the software world. He argues that the traditional software-design concerns of functionality and ease of use are not always positive in a given product, but rather play a complex role in a larger tradeoff space of consumer concerns.

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Consumers are notoriously fickle when it comes to purchasing high-tech products. So much so, in fact, that computer and consumer-electronics industries attach great importance to user friendliness as a critical success factor. Yet even the most cursory glance at the last two decades of hits and failures suggests that this characteristic is only part of the whole user equation. Consumer history is littered with multiple instances of user-friendly products that were market duds, including RCA’s DiscoVision (an early laser-disk system), numerous home computers, and a host of early consumer-electronics gadgets, such as voice-controlled telephones, smart appliances, and pocket-sized photocopiers.

At the other extreme, there is no shortage of instances of complex products that have gone on to market success. The majority of consumers today have no clue how to use even a fraction of the features on their VCRs, or to navigate the maze of buttons on the average TV remote control. The most glaring exception is the personal computer itself. If ease of use is so important, then how did the first DOS-based PCs— notoriously cranky, unfriendly, and arbitrary devices—ever establish themselves in the market? If ease of use and user friendliness were all important, DOS would have been abandoned in favor of the Macintosh or some other operating system long before Windows was finally ready to ship.

DOS flourished because user friendliness encompasses only part of the usefulness equation, not only in computing, but also in the entire high-tech product sector. DOS PCs persisted in the face of easier-to-use alternatives because we are a frighteningly adaptable species.

A particularly dramatic example of our adaptability comes from the early years of Douglas Engelbart's research at the Stanford Research Institute (SRI). His team was testing multiple input devices, including a gizmo comprising a stylus at the end of a sliding rod that in turn rotated around a central pivot. Engelbart reminded one of his programmers to write a polar-to-xy coordinate conversion program before setting out this gizmo for other people to try. The programmer forgot, but set up the demo, which his teammates began to use on a walk-up basis. The omission was discovered by Engelbart a few days later when, walking past, he noticed a user staring at the screen, drawing an arrow-straight line by unwittingly pulling the stylus through a perfect arc!

A good tool should adjust itself to the user, but good tools are scarce, so we have learned to adapt ourselves to all but the most awkward of gizmos. Computers are especially ungainly devices, so manufacturers count on users to meet their incomplete inventions more than halfway. The happy captives are said to be computer literate—tame and tractable, and expert at making up for the manufacturers’ design failings.

Of course, there are limits to what computers can expect their human companions to put up with. We do not use tools simply because they are friendly. We use tools to accomplish tasks, and we abandon tools when the effort required to make the tool deliver exceeds our threshold of indignation—the maximal behavioral compromise that we are willing to make to get a task done.

The Threshold of Indignation

This measure of threshold of indignation completes the usefulness equation, capturing both the importance of the task that we are trying to complete and the user friendliness of the tool with which we are trying to complete it. In the case of the PCs in our offices, computers do not have to be friendly at all if the task is important enough and we have no alternative. Knowledge workers suffering from CRT eye strain and repetitive-motion syndrome understand intuitively that this extreme is the unfortunate norm in the business world. Our business culture forces on office workers relatively high thresholds of indignation. Businesses often have the luxury of being able to provide training that can do much to turn annoying techarcana into acceptable business tools.

In contrast, individual consumers have extremely low thresholds of indignation. Even the friendliest of information appliances will gather dust if the task bores us. The majority of VCR owners never venture beyond the play and record buttons on their machines, because the fancy features offer little benefit when weighed against the inconvenience of the fiddly command sequences. Similarly, the market for home computers before 1993 was confined largely to students and businesspeople overworking at home in the evenings—individuals who were bringing home their high business thresholds. And hobbyist early adopters have even higher thresholds yet!

The threshold-of-indignation measure also has more general application beyond information technologies. Experience with other devices can help us to understand the full range of potential consumer behavior. For example, cultural familiarity with a technology also influences the threshold. Automobiles are even more user hostile than are PCs. They are complex to maintain and hazardous to operate, regularly killing and maiming scores of innocent citizens. Yet automobiles seem user friendly, because we have spent a lifetime assimilating a host of automobile skills, including pumping gas, conversing with mechanics, learning the intricacies of the vehicle code, and understanding automotive-loan financing. Similarly, our telephone system has become steadily more complicated since divestiture, yet we have barely noticed, because our learning curve has kept pace, raising our collective threshold of indignation. We have all become operators, internalizing the complexities of direct dialing, calling cards, and access codes.

As this latter example suggests, thresholds of indignation can change over time. A 1920s time traveler would be lost in the touch-tone complexities of our 1990s telephone system. Yet, if we traded places, we would be equally confused and infuriated by endless and time-consuming transactions with human operators.

Also, generational responses to technologies differ markedly, with different-age cohorts exhibiting differing levels of comfort with distinct systems. Baby boomers prefer the efficiency and anonymity of bank automatic-teller machines, whereas their parents avoid these banking robots to conduct their transactions through a human teller. More recently, younger users have taken to cyberspace environments such as world wide web, while their elders are left watching from the sidelines. Eventually, some portion of the laggard elders will follow, but only after the younger generation has blazed the trail.

Reinventing the function of the device can alter thresholds of indignation. PCs became a consumer hit when CD-ROMs reached critical mass, and faster modems combined with a growing Internet to deliver applications that are more exciting than mere word processing and spreadsheets. In short, the PC was reinvented from an original role of standalone processing tool to a new role of access window on a larger information world.

The Universe of Tools and Users

One additional dimension completes the consumer-adoption equation: ability and willingness to pay. As depicted in Figure 5.1, we can model the entire consumer universe with willingness and ability to pay on one axis, and threshold of indignation along the other. The full range of consumer responses and the products that consumers are willing to purchase are indicated in each of the four corners, described next:

Figure 5.1 The Consumer Universe The range of consumer behavior in purchasing products can be bounded by two dimensions: threshold of indignation, and willingness to pay. Each of the extremes in the four corners has its natural purchasers and archetypal products.

A Snapshot of High-Tech Products Today

By filling in the matrix with an assortment of products sold today, we can quickly get a sense of where one zone makes a transition into another. Figure 5.2 shows such a high-tech spread for the world of the consumer (left half of diagram) and business (right half of diagram).

Figure 5.2 The High-Tech Spread Products can be arrayed within the matrix, revealing a continuum of information devices suitable to a variety of populations. A distinct—but permeable—line in the center divides consumer-oriented devices from business devices.

On the business side, PCs are the simplest and cheapest of the devices depicted, and are the ones most easily understood by the individual worker. Workstations are slightly more expensive and complex, because they must be connected into a network managed by system professionals. Mainframes are more remote and complex yet, whereas cyberspace until recently (when new tools made it radically more accessible) was all but invisible to everyone except the anointed few. In fact, we can describe each of these products along purely functional lines that have nothing to do with the technology. A PC is a device that an individual user can turn on and off, to which she can add and remove software at will. With a workstation, the user can control the on–off switch, but must ask someone else’s permission before messing with the software. And a mainframe is a device that she can approach only through bureaucracy.

The same principles apply on the consumer side. A telephone is solidly in the consumer quadrant by virtue of its low cost, clear benefits, and ease of use. TVs are a bit farther out on both axes: They are more costly and difficult to use, because we must hook them to AC power and an antenna or cable, and then navigate through an ever-growing number of channels. VCRs fall yet farther out. Although VCR prices are about the same as TV prices, a VCR's complexity falls well beyond the few features that most viewers actually use. Component stereo systems fall at the edge of the consumer quadrant. Not only are the pieces expensive, but also setup involves puzzling out a tangle of wires, setting custom preferences, and then learning how to use obscure and confusing remote controls. Fortunately, many consumers live in families that typically include individuals farther along one axis than the other members. As a team, they can make product desires a reality. Mom and Dad do the purchasing, and their more technology-tolerant children install the stereo or perform the intricacies of VCR programming.

The model in Figure 5.2 can help to explain consumer trends, and, in specific instances, can even predict a product’s chances of success or failure. Note a few of its specific implications:

In this latter regard, companies are like villages that hunt different kinds of game for their food. One village might hunt mammoths, depending on one kill every 6 months. Another might depend on weekly deer hunts; a third might be inhabited by rabbit eaters, who must come home with game every day to survive. In high-tech industry today, aerospace firms are mammoth hunters, personal-computer companies are deer hunters, and consumer-electronic firms are rabbit hunters. Just as mammoth hunters might find rabbit hunting demeaning and exhausting, aerospace companies are unlikely to invent the consumer-electronic successor to the VCR, even though they pioneered many of the components that VCR makers incorporate into the products.

Moving down or left is like trying to swim to the bottom of a pool while wearing a life vest. By paddling furiously, you can get part way down; eventually, however, you will bob back to the surface. Similarly, a few highly aggressive companies can move down one level, but they rarely get farther. IBM’s move into PCs in the 1980s represented a heroic—but ultimately futile—attempt. Although IBM made "big iron"—mainframes and the like—the infant PC sector was a close neighbor that the company was able to greet by virtue of good executive decisions and visionary managers. But IBM’s next step down—into home PCs, with the PC Jr—was a singular disaster because the consumer-level prices and threshold of indignation were too alien to the men in gray suits.

Figure 5.3 Where Industries Fit In The gap between the zones of the computer and consumer-electronics industries is becoming ground zero for competition in the 1990s. Consumer-electronic players are trying to grow up into it, while computer players, such as Apple and Microsoft, are trying to reach down.

When we view this matrix, it becomes apparent that new media are not merely an extension to personal computing, but rather provide the obvious collision point between upward- and rightward-moving consumer-electronics companies and downward- and leftward-moving computer manufacturers. If the model has any predictive value, it is a sure bet that the consumer-electronics players are the most likely to grab most of the action in the long run, although the ultimate winners will have to understand and master the needs from both sides of the gap if they are to succeed. The players who find creative ways to team up across this gap are likely to dominate these new industries in the decade ahead.

Suggested Readings

About the Author

Paul Saffo is a director of the Institute for the Future in Menlo Park, California. He writes about the social and economic aspects of emerging digital technologies for numerous magazines and newspapers. A book of his essays, Dreams in Silicon Valley, has been published in Japan.