Essays & Articles


Do companies fail because their technology is unusable?

Column written for Interactions. © CACM, 2005. This is the author’s version of the work. It is posted here by permission of ACM for your personal use. It may be redistributed for non-commercial use only, provided this paragraph is included. The definitive version was published in Interactions, 12 (4) (July + August, 2005), p 69.

In a recent posting on the CHI Consultants discussion list, Kay Aubrey quoted a company CEO as saying: “no company has ever failed because their technology doesn’t work, they failed because they had no sales.” Aubrey reports that when she heard this, “a light went off in my head.” “I have met with so many prospects,” she wrote, “who were worried and embarrassed about their horrendously arcane and hopelessly unusable products, but their companies were successful in spite of this problem.”Just how important is usability? Understandability? Appearance? It depends upon the competitive landscape. Consider the business prospects of two products that are universally acclaimed for their attention to detail, the functions offered, and the high quality of their user interaction: Apple’s iTunes service and TiVo’s Personal Video Recorder.

Start with iTunes, contrasting it with Napster. Two very respected commentators on technology — vehement proponents of usability — give Napster a real chance even though both state that its usability sucks:

Walter Mossberg, writing in The Wall Street Journal (Thursday, March 17, 2005, Page B1), said:

“The Napster software used to access the service isn’t as well designed, or as simple to use, as iTunes; and none of the compatible players is as good as an iPod. … Napster can be far more confusing to use than iTunes. … The Napster software is also clumsier than iTunes. … I ran into repeated problems transferring rented songs … I have never had such problems with iTunes.

“Still, Napster To Go offers a real alternative to Apple’s offering.”

Wilson Rothman, writing in the New York Times (March 17, Circuits section), reached a similar conclusion:

“More substantial are my complaints with Napster’s PC software, which tends to jerk the user around in a very unstable fashion. … For the most part, however, the software and the players do their jobs. So let me ask a question that some may consider heresy: How necessary is the iPod?”

What is going on here? Both reviewers really like their iPods and the iTune service and clearly consider the entire experience far superior to that of Napster. Yet they think Napster “offers a real alternative.” Why? The business model. Napster offers unlimited access to music for a monthly fee (with the music no longer being available if one stops paying). iTunes charges for each song, and then the song is yours, forever. But as a result, with iTunes, people are reluctant to experiment, to try out new, unknown music, and to sample freely across genres. For these two reviewers, the business model outweighs any design advantages: the superiority of iPod in its usability, in the iTunes application for finding and downloading music, in the ease of transferring the music to the players, and in the players themselves.

Now contrast the user experience of the TiVo system with that of Time Warner. In this comparison, Rothman was clearly bothered by the same contrast – he ended up using the system he liked least, stating:

“I recently discovered (with some horror) that I could live without TiVo. Time Warner Cable offered a box with better picture quality at a better price …. Compared with TiVo, the new box’s interface is medieval dentist painful to use, but I use it and I don’t look back.

“If I could jump from TiVo to Time Warner, a switch from the iPod to the Creative Zen Micro ought to be easy by comparison. Yes, the iPod is a beautiful symbol of how cool I am, but an iPodectomy is scientifically possible.”

Think about it, folks: Compared to TiVo, the Time Warner cable box is like going to a medieval dentist. But despite his dislike, he switched anyway. How important is usability? Answer, very important, but it alone is not enough. Companies succeed because they make sales (more accurately, because they make a profit from those sales), and for the company to succeed, all aspects of the product must perform well: the business model, the marketing and sales efforts, the cost structure, the competitiveness, and of course, the product itself, in appearance, function, and usability. Which particular aspects dominate will depend upon the context.

For us, as a discipline, to be successful, we need to understand the entire picture. Wonderful user experience is important, but neither necessary nor sufficient. If the company fails, it doesn’t matter how good the experience was. Our job is to make the company succeed.

Don Norman wears many hats, including co-founder of the Nielsen Norman group, Professor at Northwestern University, and author, his latest book being “Emotional Design.” He lives at