Is the quality of an eReader reflected in every part of it?

The Contrast Blog has a very interesting post claiming that the thickness of a napkin reflects the quality of the restaurant.

 A friend in the restaurant business told me about a survey that showed a massive correlation between category of napkin and customer satisfaction. 

The napkin represents a degree of care, preparation and devotion that goes above and beyond asking if they want fries with that.

The post uses the phrase – Quality is Fractal.

My understanding of it is that they’re saying that when a product is very good there is a level of committment to excellence and quality that shows up in every aspect of the product.

The overall post and idea look quite impressive.

The problem is they are just an attempt to write a fancy story

The Contrast Blog post is rather imprecise, as opposed to being wrong, for quite a few reasons. 

It uses the wrong example and the wrong context to make its point –  

  1. A survey that a ‘friend’ told the author about is as undependable a source of data as you could find.
  2. It doesn’t address causation – We don’t know that napkin had anything to do with customer satisfaction. Perhaps most restaurants with doors of metal have really high customer satisfaction – Does that mean quality is metallic?  

It assumes there is time and incentive to polish every aspect of a product -

  1. Any good product always prioritizes things that are most important to customers over things that are less important to customers.  
  2. If you were to study a part that is not very important to customers you might find a lack of polish – However, we don’t know whether that means there is a lack of polish in general or whether it means that the effort and polish was put into things that are more important.

Any product has limited development time. You have to focus on the most important features and aspects. That necessitates that the not so important features can’t be perfect.

The post assumes that beautiful appearance means beautiful function –  

  1. There’s a difference between a product that does its work well and a product that gives the appearance it does its work well (whether it does or not). 
  2. The post makes this implicit assumption that the two (looking good, being good) are interlinked – see the photos and the examples and it’s clear.

The post is the perfect example of the mistake it’s making

The Contrast Blog post has pretty pictures and a brilliant sounding idea and a sexy catchphrase.

All that’s missing is the hard research to back up their hypothesis.

They are focused so much on making their hypothesis look accurate and pretty they forget to actually prove it.

Quality being Fractal – It’s likely but not a given

Let’s say we look at one aspect of a product and it’s not very good.

  • The first test is whether it’s an essential aspect – If it’s not then it means that it doesn’t reflect on the eReader.

You could look at the Kindle’s tiny keyboard keys and the Nook’s difficult to open case and if quality really were fractal then that would mean both are terrible eReaders. But they’re not – they’re both excellent.

  • The second test is whether every core aspect of an excellent product is excellent – It’s not.

Let’s take the iPhone since the author cites the example of Apple for excellence – the quality of the calls is far from excellent. Does that make it a terrible phone – No. It’s still excellent because it has excellent strengths that override its weaknesses.

The most accurate statements we can make are -

If one small part of a device is of excellent quality then it makes it likelier that the device will be of excellent quality than of poor quality.

An excellent product’s core parts are usually of excellent quality.

Quality is fractal makes the mistake of posing as a tautology. It’s not.

Why coin ‘Quality is Fractal’?

Basically – the desire to find a great short-cut.

Quality is Fractal sounds beautiful – there are mathematical undertones and a sense of universality and it encourages us to make assumptions and not dig in and do hard research and make hard decisions.

However, it’s a shortcut that’s dangerously capable of steering us in the wrong direction – especially since the easiest things to notice usually have nothing to do with the quality of the device.

Take an eReader. Your first experiences will be -

  1. The Ads you see.
  2. The visual design of the eReader itself.
  3. The store and website sales-copy and images.
  4. The packaging.
  5. Holding it and seeing it in your hands.
  6. Turning it on for the first time. 
  7. Opening a book for the first time.

If a company were to channel all their energy into these things what would suffer?

Well, the things that you do most often on the eReader -

  1. Read – which depends on screen quality and such.
  2. Turn Pages.
  3. Find Books and Buy Books.
  4. Search for information and do reference look-ups.
  5. The usability in general.

If we focus on making a device look like it’s a great reader and making non-essential features excellent because Quality should be Fractal we run the risk of running out of time to make it a great eReader for reading books.   

eReaders and Design Trade-offs

eReaders actually suffer from the sort of ‘Quality is Fractal’ mind-set that looks oriented products propagate.

A product can go in one of three directions -

  1. Utter focus on doing what it’s supposed to very well.
  2. Utter focus on looking like it does what it’s supposed to very well.
  3. Utter focus on both doing what it’s supposed to very well and looking like it does what it’s supposed to very well.

It’s almost impossible for eReaders to pull off 3.

Why?

  1. It’s a new area.
  2. Economies of Scale and Profits have not yet been established.
  3. Technology is still evolving.
  4. User feedback is still being collected and acted upon.
  5. Lots of other reasons.

Where does that leave eReaders?

In a very interesting position -

  1. eReaders are remarkably good at doing their core function i.e. reading ebooks. That’s why 93% of owners are happy (very satisfied or somewhat satisfied).
  2. eReaders are at the same time remarkably bad at looking like they’re the hot new happening gadget.

Which leads to a remarkable paradox -

  1. eReaders are becoming very popular – because they are great for reading.  
  2. eReaders are confusing lots of people – because they don’t LOOK like what people imagine a successful product ought to look like.

eReaders capture the experience of reading a book very well while failing almost completely to look impressive.

4 Responses

  1. Hey there,

    My name is Des, I wrote that post.

    I’d like to address a few of your criticisms.

    I am being imprecise, yes, I genuinely couldn’t find an online copy of the national food & beverage customer satisfactions report of 2009. Really I can’t. That said, I don’t think my argument hinges on that fact.

    So, on the topic of napkins. The thing is that a thick napkin is actually a lot of hassle for a restaurant to provide. They’re not disposable, so they have to be washed. Most times they have to be bleached too as red wine stains simply won’t cut it. This means you need about 3 times as many napkins as place settings as you most likely can’t wash them in house. All of this adds up to make for a lot of work. Especially if you compare it with a simple 4 cent disposable napkins. So why do it? It’s a lot of work.
    What sort of person would be bothered taking on all this time and pain?
    Someone who cares deeply.

    In terms of form & function – looking good versus being good, it’s an age old debate that isn’t worth getting into. The truly quality products are quality in every way, from the website you order off, to the receipt you receive confirming your order, through to the box the product arrives in, and the polish and design of the accessories.

    I’ve no doubt there are plenty of decent e-readers out there that lack polish but do a good job. There were plenty of music players out there that lacked polish but did a good job. If you want to really dominate a market, you need to offer the product of the highest quality. Best to market will beat first to market.

    Thanks for reading.

    • There are 2 problems with your ‘decent music player’ example.

      1) The iPod was a device dedicated to playing music.
      2) None of the current eReaders are ‘decent’ – they’re all very good.

      How many of the current eReaders do you own?
      I own all of the big three and they’re all pretty good. Would really like to know whether you own any eReader or you just made the assumption that they’re all ‘decent’ without ever owning any of them.

  2. Right switch11, I don’t know why you’re only talking about eReaders, I wasn’t talking about them at any point.

    You’re spot on , I don’t own any eBook devices of any sort. None of them look polished, but that’s not even the reason, I like paper books. That might change in time.

    You’re spot on, I was also assuming that there are plenty of decent ones, looks like I was correct, because you own 3 of them and they’re all “pretty good”.

    What is the iPod of eReaders? Is there any particule one that is so perfectly polished? I’m curious.

    • No – there is no iPod of eReaders. There isn’t likely to be one because

      1) The existing ereaders are evolving pretty quickly – that reduces the probability that a completely new ereader comes in and revolutionizes everything.

      2) Most big companies aren’t interested in reading and books. It isn’t a sexy market like music. If they can get the ebook market in the course of developing something else they’ll try.

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