The Kindle Experience

Warning: non-running post.

My stepmother, Betsy, received an Amazon Kindle for Christmas, courtesy of my dad. She got the Kindle DX, which is the larger one. The Kindle itself is a nice little piece of functional bling. It’s thin, fairly light and the display is razor sharp and very readable.

But the Kindle experience was horrible. Part of what I do for a living is designing (or sometimes fixing) so-called “user experiences.” For the sake of brevity, here’s the grossly oversimplified definition: a “user experience” is the customer’s experience of interacting with a product or service and the company or other entity (such as a government agency) that provides it. It can refer to a discreet interaction (such as using a website to purchase something) or the whole shebang: phone interactions, emails, real world environments, software applications, product design, etc.

Some fun “real world environment” examples:

  • The Stew Leonard’s chain of food stores has a user experience that requires you to walk through the entire store in a serpentine path. IKEA is similar. I hate this. So do other people — so much so that I and others have found shortcuts (squeezing ourselves between the end of an aisle and the back of a dreary refrigeration unit, for example) to navigate through the store faster. I find I actually enjoy subverting their insidious user experience in this way.
  • Disney is legendary for its theme park user experiences. As the “Happiest Place on Earth,” they make damned sure that you’re happy. Every aspect is engineered to enable visitors to have a consistent user experience and positive interaction with the Disney brand. I find it exceedingly creepy, but I do admire the thought that goes into what they provide and how much they’ve been an innnovator in the area of user experience design.
  • Saturn turned the car shopping experience on its head about 15 years ago. Not only did they do away with “haggling” (the price on the car was what you paid), but they also took the pressure out of shopping for cars. You’d walk into a Saturn showroom and be pretty much left alone, rather than instantly circled by sharklike salesmen. They also treated me, as a woman, with respect and didn’t assume that I was either a total idiot or wasn’t making the purchase decision — a negative experience that was virtually guaranteed at other dealers. Still, I didn’t buy a Saturn, and others didn’t either.

The user experience starts with the first contact between customer and product or provider. In the case of the Kindle, that meant opening the box and reviewing the manual. Amazon needs to look at Apple’s user experience when it comes to its consumer devices. Apple typically labels everything with helpful clues like “Open me first.” Its quickstart guides help those of us who are too impatient to read manuals, and they usually contain the right details. In the case of the Kindle, the manual instantly fell short and things continued to go south in cascading fashion from there.

First, let’s start with the basics. The Kindle manual talks about “connecting” your Kindle to download books. But it never provides the basic definition of what that means: if you are in range of their nationwide network (WhisperNet), your Kindle should autoconnect to download books. Since this wasn’t mentioned anywhere (and my dad lives just outside of the coverage area), we were left clueless. So clueless that I went out and bought and installed a wireless router, thinking that’s what they needed to “connect.” That didn’t work. So more than 24 hours after unwrapping the Kindle, it was still unusable.

Calls to the Kindle support line followed: two of them. The first was to “re-register” the Kindle. If you buy the Kindle with one Amazon account and then give it to someone else with an Amazon account, re-registration is necessary. Amazon should have considered how widespread this issue would be, considering that the Kindle is heavily promoted as a gift item.

The second was to figure out what the fuck “connect” means in their world. During that call I was told that even though we were outside of the WhisperNet coverage area, Betsy could still purchase books online at Amazon.com and download them to the Kindle. A helpful email would follow. An email did follow, but it was not helpful. It simply said you could store Kindle format files on the device. But how? How?!

So we proceeded to shop for Kindle books online. We looked for many popular titles, but kept coming up empty for anything available in Kindle format. Then I noticed that Betsy’s “country” setting was set to the United Kingdom. I switched it and we shopped again. This time we got maybe one out of five titles we looked for. So we purchased one to download. Or so we thought. Nope. We chose the wrong menu item during purchase and ended up with a file Betsy would need to wait for WhisperNet access in order to download.

So here’s another point: If you’re selling access to an electronic version, why not make it process agnostic? You buy the book, then you get a confirmation form (and, for good measure, an email) that provides the option of downloading the file instantly or waiting for WhisperNet access to obtain it. You’re no longer screwed if you choose the wrong option during purchase. Easy for Amazon to deliver, and it guarantees a happy customer.

Also note that the Kindle search function on Amazon is horrible. If something isn’t found in Kindle format, that message is fairly hidden and the available format is very prominent. So like an idiot you click on it and see there’s no Kindle version.

Another nit: We had to go online and do a Google search to figure out how to turn the Kindle off. That is bad product design (and poor documentation).

To Amazon’s credit, the download of the book that Betsy bought did happen automatically once she was in range of the network by going into town. Still, that was a full two days after receiving and unpacking the Kindle. If I bought a new $500 toy and two days later was still waiting for it to perform basic functions after multiple phone calls, emails and one unnecessary network installation, I’d be a little pissed off.

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