Sunday, June 25, 2006

It's all about the user interface

Last year I said this about the importance of user interface design:

"Now that massive computing power can be provided in almost any device for a few hundred bucks, the real challenge is in making all of the complex and sophisticated functionality inside these boxes readily accessible to the average person."

This lesson was reinforced recently when the older of my two TiVo's died (hard disk failure).

I'd been thinking about upgrading my cable service to digital for some time, and I also wanted to have some HD content to make the most of my HD television, so rather than replace the TiVo (which TiVo offered to do for free - this is a company that knows about customer service) I decided to get the Comcast set top box with built in DVR.

With its dual tuner and HD capabilities the Motorola 6412 box provided by Comcast is in many ways far superior to the Series 2 TiVo. But in terms of usability it is pathetic when compared to the TiVo. The user interface is so bad that Marie has already asked me several times if we can't send it back and get another TiVo.

The design is particularly bad in terms of finding programs to record and reviewing your list of scheduled recordings, but there are a dozen other little things that are inferior. A good example is the way that the TiVo skips back a few seconds when you push play after you've been fast forwarding because the designers knew there would be a lag between seeing the end of the advertisements and hitting the play button. The Comcast box also doesn't have any of the Home Media features of the TiVo.

Here's the crazy thing. Motorola had two choices when they built their software. The first was to copythe TiVo user interface. The second was to develop their own lousy design which would have cost them more but this is the option they picked anyway! (1)

There is however a silver lining in this cloud. TiVo and Comcast are working on upgrading the Motorola boxes to the TiVo software later this year. I just need to distract Marie long enough.

(1) OK they couldn't just copy it. But they could have done something quite similar without running afoul of copyright laws. I have Windows Media Center on my home office computer and the DVR user interface clearly follows the same paradigms as the TiVo.


MegaZone said...

Another option will be the TiVo Series3, also coming out this fall, with support for CableCARD to record HDTV from cable, as well as ATSC from antenna, with dual-tuners. The Comcast box may not have all of the networking features of the standalone TiVos, it remains to be seen what Comcast supports.

Steamboat Lion said...

The problem with TiVo's business model is that it's going to cost me $15 a month for the Comcast box with TiVo whereas a Series 3 Tivo is going to cost several hundred dollars up front PLUS the $16.95 a month subscription.

Of course I'm not ruling out the possibility that Comcast will release a "TiVo'd" box without any of the neat features of the TiVo. In which case, the Comcast box will go back...