Kindle Fire Study: Bad Usability, Great Sales

The folks over at Human Factors International, a company that specializes in user-centered design training and consulting, have published an interesting white paper about the increasingly popular Kindle Fire. Written by the CEO Eric Schaffer, the basic premise of the document states that even though the Fire has some fundamental usability issues with its user interface, it’s still a success for other reasons. What usability issues, you ask?

This quote from the white paper sums it all up quite nicely.

The current Fire design has an awkward browser, and magazines are difficult to navigate and read. There are places where the buttons are too small to easily select and where text has to be read in right-left justified, making it neat looking but harder to read.

But… they are selling millions of units… Why? Because, success is not just about usability. We have to go beyond classic usability and consider the overall user experience. Let’s look at the ‘ecosystem solution,’ the triggers for purchase, and then the emotions during usage. I think we can see why UX teams need to think beyond ease-of-use and consider a bigger picture.

One of the reasons the Kindle Fire is such a success is Amazon.

The Ecosystem
In today’s world, many products do not stand-alone. They belong to an entire ecosystem in which they play a part. An iPhone belongs to the Apple ecosystem, which gives it the power to download apps, music, books, and video. The same is true for Android devices with Google’s ecosystem. The success of both Apple and Google devices is more tied to the fact that they have access to all the content their respective ecosystems provide them. Had they been stand-alone products, they would have stagnated early on and not have been nearly as successful as they are. The ecosystem helps keep these devices fresh and relevant to their users.

Amazon has probably one of the biggest content ecosystems out there. Their’s is big enough that they didn’t even bother trying to get Google’s Android Market on the Kindle Fire. They just built their own. Couple that with Amazon MP3/Cloud Drive, Amazon Video (which is getting a boost from a partnership with Viacom), and Amazon’s Kindle book store, and you have a very robust ecosystem that most non-techie people already trust and use to some degree.

It’s much easier to sell a device that has access to content that has already been purchased than to convince people to switch to a completely new ecosystem and have to buy everything again. Amazon Prime members already have the ability to stream movies on their desktops. The Kindle Fire allows them view that content on the tablet without having to pay extra. It’s just an extension of a service the user already knows and trusts. Books purchased on an old Kindle are still available on the Fire. Same with music.

Low Financial Risk
Another reason for the Fire’s success is the price point. $199 is low risk for a device that can hook into Amazon’s huge ecosystem. Remember how the HP Touchpad sold like hotcakes when it went on sale for $99? In this economy, people are looking for value. Bang for the buck is one way you can describe the Kindle Fire. You get a nice, compact, color tablet that can play movies, music, download books, browse the web, install apps, play games, and more… all for under 200 clams. Too good to pass up, especially when the other tablets are going for $500 or more.

We techies and enthusiasts might say “yeah, but those other tablets have more RAM, faster processors, dual cameras…” But in reality, most people don’t think that way. The Fire can do all the things most need it to do, and more, and it’s significantly more affordable than any other similar device. In other words, it’s “good enough and priced right” for a huge number of people.

The study mentions some of the usability problems with the Kindle Fire. For example, the carousel menu and bookshelf are inefficient controls for selecting content.

The Fire is clearly optimized for user preference. It is made to be fun to use. Let’s take the carousel menu used to offer current content. You can see four or maybe five choices in a space that could easily fit twenty. The bookshelf is also inefficient to say the least. But, they are FUN.

This idea of building “fun” user interfaces is sometimes contrary to building efficient experiences. This is called “Preference vs. Performance” and UX designers are starting to take cues from game designers in this area. Most users would prefer a fun carousel spinning control over a more efficient but more boring menu. The bottom line is that the Fire is fun to use, even though it might take a second or two longer than it should to perform certain actions on it.

The Kindle Fire can easily be called a success, regardless of its shortcomings in the usability department. People are not buying it for how it’s used… they are buying it for what it can access: The Amazon Ecosystem. It’s content from a company they already know and trust, at an affordable price. I was frankly tempted to buy one myself even though I already own a much more expensive tablet that can do all the same things. Hard to resist a good deal.

For an entertaining and informational read, use the source link below to request the full white paper from Human Factors International.

source: HFI

About the Author: Ed Caggiani

Originally from the East Coast, Ed now makes his home in San Jose, California. His passion for technology started with his first ColecoVision and Atari gaming systems, and has grown stronger through Tandy computers, IBM clones, Palm Pilots, and PocketPCs. Ed's love for Android began with his first HTC Hero, then blossomed with the original Evo 4G, and now the Evo 3D and Motorola Xoom. He graduated from Syracuse University with a B.S. in Communications, and is now a professional User Experience Designer working in Silicon Valley. In his spare time, Ed enjoys video games, jamming on guitar, and spending time with his wife, two cats, and Logitech Revue.

  • Bill

    I think the carousel makes the Kindle easier to use.  You always have your most recent apps or files at the top of the carousel, making them easier to access.  For the reader, video player, browser, it takes you to the most recent book, video, webpage making it easier to get back to what you use most frequently.  It many ways it is easier to navigate than iOS.