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 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.

14 Responses

  1. That’s just incredible. Not surprising, but incredible.

    Amazon does shipping very well. I haven’t found much else that they do well, but I’ve found a lot of things they do poorly.

  2. I am sorry that your stepmother had trouble understanding her new DX, but her experience is atypical. explains these features on the Kindle pages, and most techno impaired manage to take their Kindle out of the box and use it. There is a link for determining whether you live in an area served by Whispernet, which seems to have been the big hangup. You could have connected the kindle to the computer, though, and downloaded the latest instruction guide and her purchase.

    As for kindle book shopping, the online descriptions are just fine. If an item isn’t on kindle, you will see links to the other options, and you don’t need to open the listing for further details if you aren’t interested.

    You are savvy enough to run a blog, so the kindle should not have been so difficult. Thousands of us open the box, charge it up and have fun immediately. You’ve gone out of your way to find things that aren’t suitable to the level of “experience” you chose to have, and I don’t think you’d have been happy if Jeff himself had delivered it and handed it to your stepmother.

    There are many information sources, including the “discussions” option on the Kindle-related pages on Many newbies find their answers there, or ask the question for the umpteenth time about how to do something. People will be very kind about explaining things to you and your stepmother.

    • I stand by my post’s thesis: one should not have to visit a web site and do research in order to perform basic operations on a consumer device.

    • Pat, I think you are blaming the user for what are gaps in the information exchange. If it’s supposed to go out of the box, why should someone need to go to “Connect” is an ambiguous term: why not be specific? If the device is out of the whispernet range, why not have an alert on the home screen?

      In my business, if a user can’t figure something out (ANY user), I first assume we’ve done something wrong. Usually the problem is small, and easily fixed. But fix it we must.

      If Amazon’s goal was to create a device that anyone can use, including my 73 yo Dad or 76 yo Mom, then they need to make it so.

      Blaming the user will get you nowhere in the user experience business.

  3. Gee, I’ll clarify for you.
    Most of us didn’t have to go through such efforts to successfully use our kindles.

    • So when Amazon fails to anticipate and design for (and document in the product’s included literature package) graceful handling of interruptions or failures (like, say, no access to WhisperNet or the lack of a completely separate machine hooked to the Internet to investigate said lack of access), it’s the user’s fault.

      Like I said originally: Amazon has designed a bad user experience.

  4. How curious that Betsy needed to go into town to get her book. Just like going to the bookstore.
    I commute by bus. Quite a nice bus with Wifi, etc. and a high Kindle count. I notice that the Kindlers are often eager to tell their neighbors how wonderful the device is. I have felt no urge to buy one since the “1984” debacle, when Amazon remotely deleted George Orwell’s books from all Kindles after they discovered a copyright problem. Amazon suffered a huge PR black eye with that one.

    • Well noted irony, Jim!

      Amazon is lucky that its only real competition is the B&N Nook. If Apple gets in the game and does for electronic reading what it did for music with the iPod and iTunes then Amazon is toast.

  5. I was almost ready to buy a Kindle (the standard version) until I read your post.

    Another reason for not buying one is that my local public library is teetering on the edge, thanks to budget cuts. If people don’t use it, they will lose it. Waiting for a book I want to read is good for developing patience, something I lack.

    • Marilyn, don’t get me wrong. I think the Kindle itself is fine, as long as nothing goes wrong.

      Although I think $500 for a device that runs one app (I’m typing this on a netbook that runs anything on Windows and was $150 cheaper) is excessive.

  6. Interesting post, as I also received a Kindle for Christmas from my wife and was pretty much impressed with how simple it was to set up.

    That being said, she didn’t use her Amazon account to buy it and we’re very much in a Whisper net zone. I could see those hiccups really getting in the way of my enjoyment because once I unpacked it, I wanted it set up FAST.

    Apple, however, really stands alone above most tech. companies when it comes to set-up. I also got a Droid Eris recently, and – even though I love it – struggled quite a bit in the set-up.

    Simply put, most tech installation procedures are set-up for the 90% of the public who happen to fit the ideal criteria, but if you’re not that *perfect* customer (my work e-mail server in the case of the Eris and your situations with the Kindle), it can be frustrating.

    Curious: How does she like it NOW? I’m surprised how much I like the reading experience.


  7. I’ve been on the fence about the Kindle. For one thing, I spend, oh, about 132% of my time interacting with digital devices, so an eBook represents just another way for me to ditch a real, physical experience for a digital one. For another, I’ve used the Kindle and found the experience to be lacking. Not bad, just…well, nascent. It will be great someday, I’m sure, but your experiences confirm some of my fears. And I agree with you: if the Apple iSlate (or whatever it’s called) lives up to half its expectations, it will be a game-changer.

    That said, I have been following eBook evolution since I first saw one in 1998. My first thought: what a great way to help the environment. I think that many ephermal publications like magazines, newspapers, textbooks (c’mon, do you really need your AP Biology book gathering dust on your shelf? The Norton Anthology? Really?) are ideal candidates for digitization. And students would benefit, for example, from not carrying around 214.8 lbs. of books (well, looking at the obesity rates, maybe they should be carrying around books after all).

    Oh, and I agree with you about Ikea. If there’s one experience that’s turned me off the idea of living in Europe, it’s visiting an Ikea showroom. Do we really all have to walk the say direction? C’mon. Ohhh, meatballs….

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