"Texting and watching a video at the same time"

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Tonight I was interrupted with this ad, introducing the new Samsung Galaxy S III:

First guy: "Is he texting and watching a video at the same time?"
Second guy: "Hey, what are you doing?"
Third guy: "I'm texting and watching a video at the same time."
First guy: "You can't do that."
Second guy: "You can't do that."
Third guy: "And yet I'm doing it."
First and second guys: "Yeah - nice!"

That's right, this ad touts one of Samsung's newest features: texting and watching a video at the same time.

Screenshot of Samsung commercial

That should say "screen images simulated. Final version may actually line up correctly".

For an OS that seems to be marketed at robots (queue "Droid" voice), maybe this has been a long-time coming. But for humans like me, for whom input and output rarely mix, and who are already working on a screen the size of their palm, I have my doubts about the real-life usefulness of this feature.

My phone already plays audio at the same time as I can text or use other apps. In contrast to Samsung's latest, one feature I would love is for an easier way to pause the audio. When I'm listening to a podcast, I frequently take notes — but I can't do it at the same time, or I end up rewinding anyway.

But it's a feature, and features sell, right?

Is playing video on the same screen as a text composer difficult? Technically speaking, no. It might be a design challenge to make the experience seamless and handle the different modes. But even then, it's achievable.

So why not do it?

What better time to dig up my friend Steve Ballard's article "Designing Digital Solutions" (PDF).

It's a great read about avoiding featuritis. Ballard's premise:

Users are not really compelled by features; they care only about achieving their goals. The real cost of adding excess features to digital products is unhappy customers.

I understand that Samsung has to innovate (especially given recent events). But let's remember that innovation doesn't always have to be additive.

The Sad User Slope

Hitching your horse to the "features-sell" wagon is actually a very dangerous game.

This is aptly illustrated in Ballard's article with the Happy User Peak, originally published by respected author and creator of the Head First book series, Kathy Sierra.

Unfortunately, so many of these features actually fall on the Sad User Slope. Where do you think texting while watching a video falls?

The Sad User Slope

What puts a product onto the happy user peak, or the sad user slope? Ballard's definition is simple:

What turns a pleasurable solution into a cumbersome tool is the number of visible features that are irrelevant to the user’s goal.

Why this happens

These concepts aren't revolutionary. Sierra's post about featuritis is from 2005. Don't make me dig up a post about what phones were like then. (Hint: one term for them is feature phones.)

So, let's assume that Samsung isn't filled with idiots. Why is it so hard to resist adding features where the human value is so low — and then create commercials about them?


Knowing exactly what features will make an elegant solution depends on establishing a deep understanding of the users’ goals. When we fail to know what the users’ behaviors, motivations and goals are, we create complex and burdensome tools. This is because instead of first designing digital products with a real understanding of the user, we cast a wide net of features with the hope that we will capture a wide audience. We wrongly feel that the safe way to develop products is to provide as many features as possible. This is self-defeating to our goal of providing real solutions. The secret to success is to get to know your user and be specific with your solution. In short, focus on your customers’ goals and not on features. (emphasis added)

And why wouldn't we think that our users will want these features? After all, they tell us they do:

Users will almost always say yes to more features. “Would you like?” questions will generally be received with a positive response even if the feature will not help users be successful. The idea that “more is more” is so compelling, and users are unable to visualize the experience that will result from applying that approach.

Just say no.

Apple is famous for their focus. Recently, John Gruber linked to a fantastic article titled "The Disciplined Pursuit of Less", written by Greg McKeown for Harvard Business Review. In it, McKeown puts forward what he calls the Clarity Paradox:

Why don’t successful people and organizations automatically become very successful? One important explanation is due to what I call “the clarity paradox,” which can be summed up in four predictable phases:

  • Phase 1: When we really have clarity of purpose, it leads to success.
  • Phase 2: When we have success, it leads to more options and opportunities.
  • Phase 3: When we have increased options and opportunities, it leads to diffused efforts.
  • Phase 4: Diffused efforts undermine the very clarity that led to our success in the first place.

Curiously, and overstating the point in order to make it, success is a catalyst for failure.

In his own post, Gruber suggested that Apple's uncommon focus has allowed it to keep clarity and overcome this pattern.

With the resulting clarity, Apple keeps its products focused on the goal of providing exactly what users need.

Steve Jobs once said:

I'm as proud of the products we have not done as I am of the products we have done.

Replace products with features and you get a similar point. That sentiment is echoed by Jobs himself, as recounted by Ballard:

In a meeting between Steve Jobs and some record label representatives concerning Apple’s iTunes, Jobs kept fielding questions like "Does it do [x]?" or "Do you plan to add [y]?"

Finally Jobs said, "Wait, wait — put your hands down. Listen: I know you have a thousand ideas for all the cool features iTunes could have. So do we. But we don’t want a thousand features. That would be ugly. Innovation is not about saying yes to everything. It’s about saying NO to all but the most crucial features."

We don't yet know if this feature makes an ugly phone; Samsung's screens are simulated, but even that version doesn't give a lot of hope. Neither does the fact that users are having trouble finding how to use it.

Features don't need to be fancy. They don't need to be gimmicky or do new tricks. They just need to get done what the user wants or needs.

Just say no; and allow the features that are done right the spotlight they deserve.