Introducing new changes to old favourites isn’t easy

I was sitting on a plane recently awaiting takeoff, when the pilot came on the intercom and announced that there would be a delay – the plane we were on was not the one originally scheduled for this flight, and the ground crews had fuelled the wrong plane.

Over a hundred passengers rolled their eyes, and then pulled out BlackBerry devices and cell phones. Major thumb typing ensued as colleagues, friends and families were instantly notified of the delay. When we landed, we taxied for a bit, and then parked with nary a terminal in sight.

This time, the pilot told us a disabled plane was occupying our gate, and we had to wait until it was towed away.

And out came the electronics again, even before official permission was granted. After the necessary messages were sent, my seat mates, a pair of globetrotting engineers, amused themselves by comparing their BlackBerry devices.

Each of us had a different model, yet the tips we exchanged worked on all of our units.

From a usability and supportability standpoint, it was wonderful; a new toy doesn’t mean a horrendous learning curve.

Help desks hate having to interrogate users about which model or version of a product they have before a problem can be diagnosed (and users often don’t have the faintest idea, in any case).

From an innovation standpoint, however, it raises important questions. How do vendors improve a product without fouling up the user experience and supportability? I imagine it’s the same way you pet a porcupine: Very, very carefully.

When vendors want to “improve” a product as popular as the BlackBerry or Palm — that is, introduce a new model with features compelling enough to make people want to spend more money — they have to tread a fine line. People expect to use such devices without conscious thought, as they do a landline telephone. They expect, for example, to find the zero at the bottom centre of the dial pad.

When manufacturers add MP3 players, games and cameras, they have to work around these constraints, and the result in some cases has been the proverbial dog’s breakfast.

Users typically have one of two reactions to a radical change in a favourite device: “Eek,” or “How cool.” The eek-to-cool ratio will determine whether the new-and-improved product will gain acceptance in the hearts and wallets of users or fade quietly away. The trick to getting consumers to accept radical changes may partly be in the marketing. Nokia has introduced an upscale cell phone it is touting not as a communications device, but as a fashion statement — an expression of elegance. It has no keypad. I want my phone to have a keypad, but an accessory . . . well, I’ll cut it some slack.

But I can’t see my BlackBerry as a fashion statement.

Lynn Greiner is a freelance writer based in Toronto. lynng@ca.inter.net

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