On Amazon, Apple, and common excuses for bad usability

Jakob Nielsen explains why saying “but it’s cheap!” is not a good excuse for the Kindle Fire’s bad user interface design:

The difference between user interface design and hardware specs is that better usability is derived from one-time expenses for user studies, design iterations, and coding – whereas beefier hardware (say, adding a camera) is a repeated expense for each additional unit manufactured.

This means that even cheap devices can have great usability because the cost of better research and design is amortized across millions of devices. This is why usability has stupendously high ROI for any big project.

I also like John Gruber’s take on the hardware/software distinction:

[T]hat’s the advantage of software over hardware. You can omit an essential feature and then hustle to get it into your first major update. Good luck adding volume buttons to your Kindle Fire.

Does this mean it’s ok for the first version of the Kindle Fire to have a low-quality UX? Here’s Nielsen again:

I understand why Amazon might want to ship a poor product in late November rather than a good product in February: they want to catch the holiday shopping season. Whether the extra sales are worth the brand damage from a low-quality user experience is difficult to judge.

Amazon has a history of doing this kind of thing. The first Kindle eReader was not a great product, and it didn’t get good reviews. But they kept at it and turned it into something truly great.

This points to one of the main differences between Apple and Amazon. Apple waits until an experience is as close to perfect as possible before they ship. Amazon gets something out there as soon as possible, but then – and this is important – they don’t just move on. They keep working at the product until it reaches an experience they’re happy with.

Both companies are very successful despite their different philosophies on when to ship a product. It proves that we should get over this idea that everyone should just copy everything Apple does. There’s more than one successful business strategy.

I’m sure the Kindle Fire will follow the same trajectory as the original Kindle eReader and become a great device. Eventually. Still, let’s not kid ourselves – the current one isn’t great.