Skip to comments.Skin Deep Usability — First Experience with Microsoft's "Surface" Touch Computer
Posted on 04/24/2009 8:38:32 PM PDT by Swordmaker
I approach usability problems like Vlad the Impaler approached adversaries as a personal affront to me and my ancestors, best dealt with using a rusty iron spear and a sense of righteous vindication. Its not that I expect perfection from every product, web site or service, but I do at least expect some evidence of thought and logic given to what the end user will experience. With that as background, you can better appreciate my tale.
We recently purchased a Microsoft Surface unit on behalf of our Coldwell Banker® client, having been sold on the power, magic & possibilities of tabletop touch screen computing. And when the sleek and gorgeously-crafted machine arrived at our office, we were like kids on Christmas morning.
But thats when the sad music began to play.
We unpacked the unit, put the three manuals (titled Quick Reference, Start Here and Warranty & Maintenance) aside, had a quick chuckle at the included wireless keyboard and mouse set (Why would they send us these for a touch-screen computer!?! Maybe its a freebie - nice!), grabbed the power cord and got ready to take a look at the future.
Ummmm anyone see where we plug this thing in?
[Usability Frustration Test #1: Quick Reference or Start Here - which one do you open if you're looking for where it plugs in?]
After a couple of bemused minutes looking in, around and even under the unit, somebody grabbed the Start Here manual. On page 3 or so it made a reference to keeping the power cord safe and out of the way, but no mention of where it attaches to the machine.
We consulted Quick Reference, only to learn about the Status Lights Blue when the unit is turning off, Red when there is a problem, and Rhodamine (pink) when the unit is first turned on but maddeningly no mention about how to get the unit on in the first place.
[Usability Frustration Test #2: When describing the color of status lights, which is clearer - Rhodamine or Pink?]
Now, its not like the good folks at Microsoft didnt roll their sleeves up to provide detail in these documents for example, in Quick Reference two of the manuals three written pages implore you to keep the unit clean to ensure a rewarding customer experience.
Heres some sample instruction:
Do not vacuum under a Surface unit clean using dishwashing liquid soap, such as Ultra Dawn® or Ultra Joy® with Antibacterial 0.1% Triclosan - and my personal favorite - Do not use automatic dishwasher soap.
[Usability Frustration Test #3: If 66% of a documents content is about cleaning, should it be titled Quick Reference or Care & Cleaning?]
After :20 full minutes of looking and reading, the three of us (each with a 4-year college degree) finally punted and called the help desk. We described our plight, took some relief in her courteous assurance that she could help us out, and then waited for her to look thru her documentation several minutes later, well, you know what, I dont see that either but I have a unit here so let me see where we plug it in.
[Usability Frustration Test #4: Should plugging the power in require ½ hour, four people and a call to the help desk?]
So, lets flip past the next 8-10 minutes (Help Desk insists it is in the bottom left, turns out it was on the exact opposite end, etc.) to where we get the power on . Hoorayyyyyy!
Basking in the glow from our brand-new tabletop touch screen computer, we are greeted with . not a glossy welcome montage, but a standard, legal disclaimer that asks if we accept the terms & conditions. Ugh like having a lawyer jump in front of you on your way to the presents under the tree, asking for a waiver of rights in case of pine-cone accident, but its the times we live in. OK, I eagerly start pushing the check box with my finger, but no response. I try again, still no response. My two colleagues each approach, each trying the exact same thing, with the same result. Silly, no doubt - but remember the whole thing about the Surface, as Microsoft reminds you in all of their literature, is that it is a touch computer.
[Usability Frustration Test #5: Should the input mechanism for a touch screen computer always be, well, a touch?]
OK, lets look at the Start Here guide for some guidance. Heres what it has to say:
Imagine a world where you can literally touch the digital information you use every day Now, imagine a new kind of computer that doesnt look or feel like a computer at all. Theres no keyboard. No mouse, either. Just a surface thats alive with brilliant colors and all kinds of images and information in motion. A surface that responds naturally to your touch and gestures.
What follows are 6 more pages of similar stuff (including another appearance of rhodamine), and the document closed out with two more pages of detailed cleaning instructions (never use automatic dishwasher soap).
[Usability Frustration Test #6: Should a document title Start Here actually instruct users on how to get started?]
Approximately 32 impotent touches later, somebody cries out Hey what if the free keyboard & mouse arent just freebies?. So, ignoring the propaganda in the Start Here document (Theres no keyboard. No mouse, either.), we open up the wireless keyboard and mouse, insert the external USB Bluetooth adapter, and voila our new touch screen computer responds the old-fashioned way.
[Usability Frustration Test #7: Shouldnt $17,000 at least get you built-in bluetooth?]
We still had an hour or so to go before we could call it a day time filled with other mind-bogglingly frustrating usability issues but in the end, we did get it working. And we did deploy a truly dynamic and stunning user experience on the Surface, which our client is extremely happy with. And were still very excited to do more development on this platform. But for all the good experiences Im going to get from interacting with this machine down the road, Ill always remember feeling like a character in a The Davinci Code on that first day just to try to get the status lights to turn pink excuse me, rhodamine.
And the shame is that it didnt have to be this way.
No doubt it took a lot of very smart people a very long time to bring this machine to market. Its obvious that this represents the dedicated labor and craft of programmers, artists, designers, engineers and more, and I honor their work. But its a shame that Microsoft failed to with even the most basic usability review, which would have turned up the issue of the power cord. Even a simple, final walk-thru of the most common Use Case - that of a customer who buys and receives a new Surface unit - wouldve revealed the fact that there is no instruction, anywhere, to open up the keyboard and mouse and use it to launch the software.
The whole experience was probably best summed up by Amanda who, when asked why it was taking us so long to get the machine up and running, and why we all looked so unhappy, replied Oh, its just so Microsofty.
Thats the true cost of a poor approach to usability it gets you a reputation thats hard to shake.
My post last week on the poor set-up experience we had in getting our new Microsoft Surface running has struck a chord. Until last week, our sleepy little company blog could count on about 20 hits a day (thanks Mom!), and as of today weve gotten over 20,000.
I should have known what a potent potion I was brewing - worlds biggest technology company + hot new product + usability = lots of opinion.
But Id like to make 2 things clear to this new, enormous audience -
1) the Surface unit itself is a fantastic touch-screen computing experience (as you can see in this short video), the usability of which is as highly polished as the iPhone - my critique was limited to the one-time set-up of the unit alone.
2) the poor set-up experience I described was the result of a simple error - had the use case that Microsoft envisioned happened correctly, I would never have had to struggle to find the power supply input.
Turns out that Microsoft offers the Surface in two flavors - Commercial & Developer. The Commercial model is designed for businesses that order multiple units to run the same application in different locations, and at $12,500 it comes with a comprehensive installation service as part of the purchase agreement. The Developer option delivers essentially the same piece of hardware , but at $2,500 more it comes with additional SDK licenses and 2 full days of training in Seattle for a Designer & Developer. Additional instructions come with this unit, as well as an invitation to an online community complete with helpful instructional videos and articles. It is clearly designed for the use-case we were.
You can see how this makes sense many units, you just need someone to deploy them in many locations and then teach the people at those locations how to turn it off an on. Just one unit, they train you how to be become an expert operator.
The person who purchased our Surface ordered the Commercial unit, but then scheduled the installation service to be performed at the business conference where we were going to unveil the Surface and our application 2-weeks later. Thus, we were delivered a unit designed to be set-up by someone else, in another time and place.
As the helpful Jason McConnell from Microsoft explained to me on a phone call earlier today, Your blog post took us all by surprise - it was valid from your perspective, and funny, but it shouldnt ever have happened. He then added that one part of my post that they are looking at addressing is with the initial set-up screen - We want to add some goodness right there - the user shouldnt have to wait to be greeted with some of the excitement of the product.
As with any brand-new product, there are bound to be hiccups. It is reasonable to argue that our use-case wasnt that far-fetched, that someone along the way should have helped us realize we were going off-path, or that the documentation should have been sufficient to set the unit up without assistance. That didnt happen, but with anything as complex as the Surface - and as necessarily big an organization as Microsoft is - it isnt surprising that this slipped throught the cracks.
However, I really do appreciate the folks at Microsoft taking the time and care to reach out to me and find how they can improve their delivery process and ensure a similar tale isnt told in the future. And, as I want to stress again, I really do appreciate the fantastic usabilty experience that they have produced with the Surface product. It is a great platform that will be exciting to watch develop in the future.
And thank you for reading our sleepy blog - come back next week when we talk about our love of Titos Burritos in Morristown, NJ!
So, what's the big problem?
Obviously Microsoft forgot to hire someone who understands how to prepare a set of instructions or to write an operating handbook.
I say "forgot" because after purchasing, setting up and using hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of MS stuff in the past, I know they've done the job correctly in the past, if not now.
What I really got out of this is that some laid off Oracle writers must have gotten the MS contract for writing the stuff, because 100% of it sounds just like the nonsense they used to spew.
Thank goodness I no longer need to deal with MS or Oracle under a performance deadline.
Swordmaker this is all very interesting. Can this touchscreen run java — it would be cool to run local services and integrate with existing endpoints. These units are pricey though huh — 12k +? Why can’t you just run a touchscreen usb device connect to a laptop running a linux kernel and have a hardware / software solution < $5k.
The X graphics in the latest linux systems are just as appealing as anything M$FT is doing ++. Don’t get me wrong, these units are very cool and I would love to hack some C# code to run on it to do something useful. The open systems linux / java usb touchscreen implementation seems would meet pretty much any business purpose imaginable. What are you guys developing on these systems that it needs the M$FT API’s?
Cheers - always good to read an extremely articulate engineering description of some cool technology and your post is world-class.
Can you put a cup of coffee on it without it blowing up?
A few things tell me the only folks who are going to buy this are schools and government offices and corporations who have money to waste. It may have a coolness factor but I expect it to wear off just as quickly as the initial frustration of setting it up. Looking down into a table top device may seem neat but who really wants to be in that position for an extended period of time? Microsoft has produced an expensive novelty device and if it takes off I will be surprised. I don’t need a table sized Iphone. Give me touch capabilities on a standard desktop screen then I might be interested. Give me a touch screen style hybrid display keyboard to go along with a regular display and I might be with it but something like this has zero ROI.
of course, letting the reader know that you’re a mac fanboi would help establish the bias filter right off.
The target market for the thing is hotels, replacing the tables you get in lobby sitting area and the rack of annoying brochures for nearby tourist traps by embedding “soft brochures” into the table.
You’re probably better off using a shared non-absorbent surface than thumbing through those brochures in the rack by the door.
Excuse me? Why would such a disclaimer be necessary? Both of these articles are verbatim, and complete, quotations from a PRO-Windows, PRO-Microsoft website. They are a objective commentary by their authors on their experience in getting a Microsoft product to work as advertised. They contain not one whit of my opinion other than my opinion they could be interesting to other Freepers. I did speculate on why the authors might have pulled the original article so that it was only available on a Google cache.
It does, doesn't it? However, it also demonstrates that Microsoft's hardware division had better get in better communications with their User Interface division, PDQ. A little vetting of what they are shipping might be beneficial.
Wood (and wood pulp) contain natural anti-biotic and anti-viral agents. You are much better off fingering the cheap magazines and newspapers than playing with a ceramic screen littered with street oysters and buggers.
I don’t know, paper money is generally considered a major disease vector. I’d be surprised if anti-biotics survived the printing process, there’s a lot of heat and cell destruction.
Paper money is “thought of” as a major vector. Hockers are usually the delivery vehicle with the most umph though.
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