The UX Threshold

In Crappy Computers Lukas Mathis presents the idea that casual users should not settle for low-end, underpowered devices, since it is exactly those devices that will cause them the most problems. Where the “pro” user can push through the limitations and the faults of a weaker device, the less tech savvy user will be left frustrated and confused. Lukas Mathis writes:

This is a sentiment you often hear from people: casual users only need “entry-level” devices. Even casual users themselves perpetuate it: “Oh, I’m not doing much on my computer, so I always just go with the cheapest option.” And then they buy a horrid, underpowered netbook, find out that it has a tiny screen, is incredibly slow, the keyboard sucks, and they either never actually use it, or eventually come to the conclusion that they just hate computers.

In reality, it’s exactly backwards: proficient users can deal with a crappy computer, but casual users need as good a computer as possible.

In his recent Alertbox entry, Jakob Nielsen talks about the difference between hardware specs and user experience. Where a high-end machine might look great when compared with another using a list of specs, the experience of using it might not be so good. Because user experience is a complex sum of all parts, both hardware and software, it can only be judged fairly through real life user tests, not isolated feature comparisons. Jakob Nielsen writes:

It’s easy to write reviews that focus on specifications. It’s easy to create comparison tables when all they list is numbers.

But what’s important is how a design supports real use cases. Typically, component integration is more important than the raw power of each individual component. And often, the software user interface impacts users more than the underlying hardware. The ultimate test of a product comes when humans confront it, not from a listing of its specs.

While Jakob Nielsen is saying that lower-end devices might actually be more usable due to the fitness of their software integration, I think the main premise of the article is very similar to what Lukas Mathis wrote. Where Nielsen points out that a winning device in a specs battle might not be the more usable device in real life use cases, Mathis posits that the lower-end device that satisfies your requirements with its feature set might not hold its ground in real use, unleashing a torrent of frustrations caused by its underpowered hardware and poor software integration.

The spec sheet, while genuinely useful in judging a device, is nevertheless not a very good indicator of the quality of experience of using the device. This holds true for both, low-end and high-end devices, the former promising just enough but under-delivering, the latter setting expectations too high.

This reminds me of what Steve Jobs said at a 2007 presentation in response to a question about Apple’s premium product placement1:

Our goal is to make the best personal computers in the world, and to make products we are proud to sell and would recommend to our family and friends. And we want to do that at the lowest prices we can. But I have to tell you that there’s some stuff in our industry that we wouldn’t be proud to ship, that we wouldn’t be proud to recommend to our family and friends. And we can’t do it. We just can’t ship junk.

[…] What you’ll find is that our products are usually not premium priced. You go and price out our competitors products and you add the features that you have to add to make them useful, and you’ll find in some cases they’re more expensive than our products. The difference is, we don’t offer stripped-down, lousy products.

Ignoring the blunt phrasing, the key here are the words: “add the features that you have to add to make them useful”. Although Apple products are commonly considered “premium priced”, many of them are targeted at the mass consumer market, not the pro market, and to ensure that those consumers get the experience Apple wants them to have there is a threshold below which they do not wish to go. Whether or not you believe Apple’s products are overpriced, they do offer tight hardware and software integration with a strong focus on the quality of the user experience, and thus far, this has led to the delight of their users and healthy profits for the company.

To capture market share, other manufacturers tend to offer various grades of machines, from cheap low-end variety to expensive high-end offerings, but in doing so there is a great danger of also cheapening the user experience at the low-end. As you cut corners to make a product more affordable, you also cut corners in the device’s usability, and while an advanced user might be able to salvage it and make the most of an underpowered machine, a casual user will be left unaided to face all of its shortcomings and pitfalls.

  1. The quote is from the 2007 iMac introduction, during the QnA. Here’s a YouTube video