Gadgets: part 2

XIII.5 September + October 2006
Page: 42
Digital Citation

Mind the gap

Pekka Ketola

back to top  The End?

My personal computer, the communication and entertainment center for our family, is about to reach the end of its lifecycle. There are many telltale signs—decreasing performance, growing mechanical noise, increasing need for reboots, and incompatibilities with new gadgets. The time is coming for a switch to a new machine. If I'm lucky, I will make the change before the current computer dies. But how do I know when it is the right time to do this? My computer can't say "I will die soon."

The situation is stressful. The last time I upgraded computers I lost a lot of stuff and time. Now I'm worried about maintaining my Internet connectivity, WiFi configurations, email accounts, special drivers, and preserving the personal documents I have created and the applications I have purchased and downloaded. I would prefer that my data continue life in a new body; I don't want it to head to virtual heaven just yet.

What should I do to keep from losing data? What data and applications should I transfer, and which ones am I able to transfer? How much time I will need for the upgrade? Though I've pored over bunches of user guides, both hard copy and Internet-based, nothing offers much guidance. Whom can I ask for help?

In an earlier study we looked at online mobile phone support functions [7]. The study revealed that common reasons for seeking help are related to initial trouble with getting the product to work—powering on the device, using a function or application for the very first time, solving local connectivity problems (Bluetooth), configuring for PC connectivity, dealing with unexpected behavior, getting support, and starting to use cellular services. Similar results are reported by PC Quality Roundtable [9]. Seven companies analyzed call-center and usability testing data. The most commonly reported problems were related to setup and initial configuration, network failures, and wireless-hardware issues. Only 58 percent of the users were able to set up PC networking on their own.

Successfully replacing an old information-technology product with a new one is quite a challenge for the users to survive, system designers to design, and support organizations to help. Think how many PCs, PDAs, smart phones, and other electronic devices there are. Think how many product upgrades are done every day. How many of the owners of those devices are practically novices with this kind of activity?

I am afraid of the gap between my old and new computers. Product replacement is typically a nightmare, and according to Murphy's Law, something always goes wrong. (See for an example.) In case something goes wrong, a lot of time is needed to get the problem solved or data recovered. Most of us, especially the early adopters, take this as normal burden of playing with information technology. Perhaps "just to be on the safe side" is one reason why we keep the old devices in our corners and storage spaces. But we could be smarter and ask and design for better performance, support, and usability in the product replacement.

A user upgrades the product quite seldom. For a PC it can happen in two- to ten-year cycles, and for mobile devices, in one- to three-year cycles. What success can we expect, for example, with the basic usability measures such as learnability and memorability? (Nielsen, 1994, defines the following attributes for usability: learnability, memorability, error prevention, and satisfaction.) Not much. Even if you remember the steps you took in the previous upgrade, the world and its technology are different today, not to mention the required product replacement actions and available support services.

Has the manufacturer given an understandable solution or guidance for product replacement? Probably not. But the ideal world is easy to describe. In the ideal world I simply bring the new computer or cell phone to my table and let the devices take care of all data-replacement actions. After this I can safely donate the old device for recycling and continue my work.

back to top  Product-Replacement Challenges.

There are electronic products that are still easy to take into use (TVs, telephones, cars, calculators), and products that are difficult to take into use (computers, TiVos, mobile phones). Why are there problems and difficulties?

The causes can be found from expanding feature sets and users' limited capability to manage the needed set-up procedures and deal with problem situations. Some recurring root causes can be identified:

  • Product upgrade is not in the scope of product-development activities, and not interesting for product or software designers.
  • New and sometimes immature technologies or features are embedded into devices. The main development effort has been simply to deliver the features in time, and not to plan for upgrades.
  • Ubiquitous and embedded devices and systems are difficult to control or perceive, especially in problem and maintenance situations.
  • Support and maintenance organizations face new problems and suffer from lack of competence due to overwhelming variation in devices and services.

In this section we will discuss the following areas of product-replacement challenges, both from computer and mobile-phone domains:

  • Maintaining personal content
  • Maintaining functionality
  • Maintaining set-up
  • Dealing with transitions between operation systems
  • Continuing to use existing peripherals

* Maintaining personal content.

My data is dear and valuable to me. I may have several gigabytes of digital images on my hard disk that I have collected during the years, and I want to keep them. I may have been composing, writing, or collecting, and part of my creativity is stored in the computer. I don't want to lose that—or the tools that helped me to create.

The computer is just a medium for my creativity, and it should support the run of life. In the product-replacement activity my primary need and concern is related to maintaining my content.

The variety and amount of locally stored personal data is rapidly increasing. Gemmel et al. studied the content evolution in a person's hard disk and noticed that the amount increases in a nonlinear fashion [3]. Attachments, images, video clips, and photos are all the time larger. For example, each time a new digital camera is purchased the picture size at least doubles.

* Memory capacity varies between devices.

The new product does not always have more memory or a compatible memory device (memory card, USB stick, etc.). Even if a software tool enables the transfer of data between devices, the operation may fail simply due to memory limitations.

A user often knows her or his active content but may not recall the inactive content or the content created by others. In which folder did my son store his first computer drawing? Where does my mate keep her working documents? Where is our electronic phonebook stored?

The user's need for maintaining personal content is quite clear and simple to describe. The difficulties are created by inconsistent (human) ways of storing the content in places and with logic only I understand, and inconsistent (application specific) ways of storing the content and set-up. The stress is created by the fear that I could lose some data due to forgetfulness or not knowing what needs to be maintained.

* Maintaining functionality.

Applications, plug-ins, and applets are downloaded, purchased, or received somehow, for example in a DVD or via Internet. The installation procedures have taken a lot of time and many authentication codes have been created, entered, and sent. Probably with my new computer I have to do it all over again. But, hey, where is the password for my photo-editing software that I need to activate the features?

Licenses for applications are often related to one user or one computer. Consider the situation when a professional $2000 application has license to one computer, and the next day you find out the computer has to be replaced. Pay another $2000 if you are unlucky? Or consider the numerous applications and games you have downloaded into your mobile gadget, $8 each, which you will lose by changing to the next phone or PDA due to digital rights management policies or memory-card incompatibilities. Common sense does not always apply to replacement markets.

The user's needs are related to keeping on working with things that matter to me. It may be crucial for my business that the computer's replacement causes only a one-hour break in my working day. Or even less, for example in the situation where my old cell phone needs to be left in the store when I get the new one. My previous computer replacement took almost a whole working week before all was running again and I could continue to work smoothly. The last delays were caused by congested help desks that kept me waiting on hold.

* Maintaining set-up.

My computer sits at the table of our "working" room. All family members use it for various communication, work, and entertainment tasks. During the years we have set up the browser-connectivity settings, email boxes for all family members, FTP server addresses, chat accounts, online photo albums, etc., and personalized it in many ways. The computer remembers passwords that I have long forgotten to Web services and various online forms. Some settings are downloaded from service providers and I don't even know which settings there are, to start with.

All these have required passwords, user IDs, lock codes, check boxes, selections, and more. Most passwords have been swept out from my memory and the yellow post-it notes I used to put on the table for reminding about the changes were discarded a long time ago. Now I am forced to find or recall that information when we take the new computer into use.

Users have difficulties in understanding what the product or service can or cannot do [5, 8]. According to numerous usability tests with a product-replacement focus, the product configuration in general, and connectivity in particular, is clearly the toughest topic for users. First comes the basic understanding about what configuration I have or need. After that comes the practical issues about knowing or finding out the details of the settings. The usability tests show that users do not know what to do with new-device set-up, and how to enter the settings. Computer settings are fundamentally frightening.

User guides and different types of wizards can guide and help a bit, but a good system design should go further. Support in memorability and error prevention become important. The users should not be expected to remember passwords, and the system should eliminate as many of the potential errors as possible.

* Dealing with transitions between operation systems.

Technical evolution of electronic appliances is fast and there are several operating systems in use. New replacement challenges emerge along the large-scale adoption of smart devices, such as camera or music phones. The compatibility between appliances and product generations is difficult to build and maintain. It is seldom the case that the user can transfer personal data from the old phone to the new one, or continue using existing applications, accessories, and services, if the operating system has changed.

Product replacements do happen between computer operating systems, between phone operating systems, and across product categories (for example, from PDA to smart phone). Manufacturers already provide solutions, such as dedicated PC software and many types of memory devices, to help in this, but they are often severely limited due to interoperability or incompatibility problems.

Manufacturers dream of customers who are loyal to products and brands. However, in finding and developing solutions for product replacement, the goal should be to overcome the differences in platforms within the manufacturers' solutions and across manufacturers. Practically, there is a lot of content, applications, and set-up that does not work in other environments, but there is also lot of content that does, such as Java applications, RTF documents, and other common office and multimedia formats, XML and HTML data, Web bookmarks, etc. Some applications are efficient in importing and transforming other formats to device-specific formats, such as Web bookmarks.

Among the user's challenges is discerning what content can be taken to the new device. User guides seldom touch on this. The operating systems are not widely explained in product documentation. Even the salespersons are seldom aware of the software platform characteristics or differences. The user guide can help in getting the product into use, but it rarely covers the topics beyond, such as coping with the earlier product or with the next product in relation to this product, unless the relation is obvious and explicitly defined. Product-upgrade support needs to be provided primarily by online support elements.

* Continuing to use existing peripherals.

The functionality of a device can be extended with peripherals. A typical, almost standard, set-up for home computer is the PC and printer. Often there are also other accessories around, such as ADSL or WiFi modem, scanner, or digital camera. Do they work automatically after product replacement? No. There may be hardware incompatibilities (for example, different connectors), software issues (for example, drivers need to be reinstalled, new operating system does not support old peripheral version), or user-interface challenges (for example, WiFi or Bluetooth functions need advanced configuration before the peripheral can be plugged in).

Some peripherals require installation of drivers or applications before they can be used. Do you have all the installation files at hand after two to five years? Maybe—maybe not. Maybe they are in the old diskette format and your new computer has only CD/DVD reader.

The evolution of pocketable memory devices has advanced especially fast. My current mobile phone has a small SD card, the previous phone required an MMC card, and the next one probably will have only a small version of a USB connector. Computers start to have built-in memory-card readers, each with different configurations, and the market for memory-card devices, such as 12-format-in-one readers, is blossoming. Where do all the incompatible memory cards go?

Am I too old-fashioned when I want to continue using old equipment? Perhaps I am, but I am not alone. It has to be possible to continue using old accessories, or at least to support the user in finding out the limitations and solutions.

back to top  Future Directions.

Product replacement is a challenging research and development topic since it covers several engineering and interaction domains and special-use cases. HCI is the key forum to develop methods and ideas for improving current state, but not much can be done without a broad, cross-disciplinary system-design approach. Product replacement is an area in which all stakeholders, such as researchers, manufacturers, service providers, standardization bodies, and round tables should work together in order to find and agree on advanced practices that meet simple user needs and realities.

Product replacement is not a unique challenge for the mentioned example domains, but similar challenges are seen with all electronic products. For example, Kantola et al. studied the upgrade and setup of traditional TV equipment to a digital TV system with 20 pilot families [6]. During the study, six of 20 set-top-box installations failed. The failures were caused by an incompatible or a misdirected aerial and not by the set-top-box system itself. The problems with aerials proved rather complex for the families to solve by themselves. This study demonstrates such a situation when the existing system works well, but system extension leads to unexpected problems.

Out-of-box experience (OOBE), the larger framework for product replacement, is drawing interest as an emerging system design domain in standardization, practice, and academy. For example:

  • ETSI [2006] has a dedicated working group to look at the configuration of mobile devices.
  • Manufacturers are taking the effort to develop out-of-box solutions and guidelines [IBM 2006].
  • Researchers are including OOBE in their agenda [Personal and Ubiquitous Computing 2005].

The current situation must be studied from the perspective of both technology and users. Basic understandings and findings should be expressed as guidelines, design recommendations, and as new development methods. UCD should be adjusted and applied for developing systems, platforms, and environments rather than single products. There is lot of space for innovations in many development areas for finding better product-replacement solutions. In our earlier work with mobile devices we identified some elementary scenarios in which the OOBE approach is needed for finding solutions:

  • New physical product is taken into use.
  • Service or software application is used for the first time.
  • Product functionality is enhanced by physical or SW extension.
  • Product is taken for repair or maintenance (a temporary replacement product is typically given).
  • Product is replaced (upgraded) with a new product.

back to top  Someone Else's Job?

In this article I have discussed the replacement challenges in the context of personal computers from five different perspectives, each area addressing specific user needs. The motivation behind this article is a call for cooperation to enable better out-of-box experiences.

The industry is developing solutions to improve the customer's capability to take products into use and upgrade. Examples of good solutions and applicable technologies at consumer markets exist. Televisions and radios are able to scan automatically for available channels, PC MP3 players are able to search for music titles from the Internet without the user's effort, and a digital camera can be taken into use without reading a page of a manual. PC Roundtable demonstrates an intercompany task force that has been able to produce guidelines for better OOBE. For the mobile industry there are numerous OBR challenges to be solved before pocketable devices can provide universal usability, easy product replacement, and product extension.

Today only expert users can survive computer replacement without considerable damages. Product replacement is a nightmare. Customers are motivated to delay the replacement as much as possible. If we were able to provide technical solutions and a good, holistic product-replacement experience, users, sales and support organizations, and manufacturers would be happier.

The ideal world is easy to describe, but the practical solutions are difficult to define, implement, and test. A fundamental problem seems to be that manufacturers often focus on the product. The product needs to be attractive, usable, reliable, etc. The responsibility of the product-development team does not lie in previous or future products. That is someone else's job.

The manufacturers have to think about product replacement if survival is in their roadmaps. Product replacement starts to be the main business in many areas, such as mobile phones. Already, during 2001, about 70 percent of mobile phones were sold to people who already had one [2].

My old computer is still humming. It has not gone to the eternal power saving mode...yet.

back to top  References

1. ETSI. (2006). Enabling and Improving the Use of Mobile e-Services.

2. Gartner. (2001). Mobile terminals: Western Europe, 1996-2005, market statistics. Gartner.

3. Gemmel J., Bell G. and Lueder R. (2005). MyLifeBits: A Personal Database for Everything. Comm.ACM 49, 1. 88-95.

4. IBM (2006). Out-of-box experience.

5. Ikonen V., Ahonen A., Kulju M. and Kaasinen E. (2002). Trade description model — helping users to make sense of the new information technology products. In Wiszniewski B. (Ed.): Electronic Commerce. Theory and applications. Proc. of ECOM-02. 2nd International Interdisciplinary Conf. Electronic Commerce. Gdansk, Poland. 57-63.

6. Kantola K., Lahti M. and Väätänen A. (2003). First steps towards viewing digital television. A digital television set-top-box trial. VTT Research notes 2188. ISBN 951-38-6124-4 Otamedia Oy, Espoo.

7. Ketola P. (2006). On Out-Of-Box Experience And Online Support

8. Palen L. and Salzman M. (2002). Beyond the Handset: Designing for Wireless Communications Usability. ACM Transactions on Computer-Human Interaction (TOCHI) 9,2 2002.

9. PC Quality Roundtable (2006). The Ease of Use/PC Quality Roundtable.

10. Personal and Ubiquitous Computing (2005). Special issue on out-of-box experience and consumer devices. Personal and Ubiquitous Computing 9 (4) 2005. Springer-Verlag London Ltd. ISSN: 1617-4909.

back to top  Author

Pekka Ketola
Nokia Multimedia, Tampere, Finland

About the Author

Dr. Pekka Ketola is the user experience manager for Nokia N Series products He has ten years' experience in product usability engineering and user experience development. Pekka has been working for Nokia since 1995 and lives in Tampere, Finland. He also conducts research on the areas of out-of-box experience and user-centered product development processes.

back to top 

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