Why product managers get gray hair

I read two reviews of the new Windows Phone platform today, and one sentence from each one jumped out at me.

First, from John Timmer at Ars Technica, Windows Phone 7 from an iPhone user’s perspective:

The behavior of the status bar, which contains things like signal strength and battery level is completely mystifying. By default, it’s invisible; you need to tap the top of the screen to get it to appear. Once it does, by default, it vanishes again after a short period of time. This may free up a tiny bit of screen space for applications, but for someone who likes to pay attention to these things, I found the behavior infuriating. If there’s an option to tweak how this operates, I can’t seem to find it.

Infuriating? Ouch, that’s a strong word to use. Surely Microsoft will change that behavior ASAP. Right?

Oh, wait. If they do, how will Andy Ihnatko of the Chicago Sun-Times react? This is what he had to say about the exact same feature in his review, which calls Windows Phone 7 a "worthy addition to the smartphone market":

Overall, though, this interface is an exciting victory. There’s been an obvious attempt to reduce visual clutter and find clever solutions. After seeing a permanent hardware status bar on the top of every phone I’ve owned over the past decade, it’s almost upsetting to find that it’s gone from Windows Phone 7. But if you really do want to check your battery or signal level, just give the top of the screen a little swipe and the familiar bar will drop down. Nice.

Nice, he calls it. Which is more or less the opposite of infuriating.

So who are product managers supposed to listen to? It’s a problem I’ve pointed out before:

Sometimes there is no right answer. I talked with a usability professional at Microsoft recently who described an all-too-common real-world dilemma. The interface designers had to decide how the up arrow should work in a particular feature. There were only two possible choices. The trouble is, usability testing proved conclusively that 50% of the test subjects thought it should work one way, and 50% thought it should work the other way. No matter which design you choose, half of your customers will think you designed an unintuitive interface.

Sometimes, the developer just has to think hard, listen to customers, and then make a choice, knowing that some non-trivial number of people will disagree. Can’t be helped.

By the way, both of the Windows Phone reviews I cite above are thoughtful and well worth reading, especially if you’re currently an iPhone user and you want to read about the new system from the perspective of someone who knows and loves the iPhone.

10 thoughts on “Why product managers get gray hair

  1. It is over reacting to something like the status bar with a term such as “infuriating” that causes me to stop reading most tech reviews. And we see this exaggerated use of words in tech sites far too frequently. Really, (as they say in the Windows Phone 7 ads), this bar of tiny icons is so important to your use of the phone that it must be present 100 percent of the time? And the fact that you have to touch the screen to make it appear is “infuriating”? Webster defines this word as “to enrage or become furiously angry.” If that is true, seek help.

    As to Ed’s basic point, I know the effort that many tech companies put into questions such as the appearance of a status bar. I have not been involved in any user testing for Windows Phone, but I have participated in many such sessions on other Microsoft products. They spend a lot of time on details like this. I doubt that too many cases end up with testers split 50/50, but when that happens, that’s when you should let the designers make the call on the default and offer users a chance to change in a setting menu.

  2. If 50% of people strongly want one thing and 50% another, and both are easily possible, then they could add an option. (John Timmer did say he looked for an option but couldn’t find one.)

    Obviously that’s one more thing to test and it’s not always worth that added complexity, but I think it’s a false dichotomy to say you have to do one or the other with UI issues like this.

    Another possibility is they make the status bar only toggle when the user says so. So they user can keep it off-screen when they don’t want to see it, keep it on when they do, and tap it twice when they only want to see it for a moment.

    That would acknowledge that there are times when it really is annoying that the status information isn’t kept on screen. e.g. When you’re desperately trying to get a net-connected map to download some data but it’s not working and you can’t tell if it’s due to the data connection dropping or something else, you want to keep an eye on the connection status/strength but to do so requires you to keep tapping something that keeps hiding itself a moment later…

  3. Oops, I mean to add: It would also acknowledge (as does the current design) there are times when the status information is a waste of space.

    The point being that sometimes you want to see it, sometimes you don’t, and sometimes you do but only for a moment.

    Making it toggle when tapped, without auto-hiding, would surely solve all three. (A double-tap is no hassle for people who only want to see it for a moment.)

  4. Microsoft don’t really believe in options (although they’re not as agressively anti-option as Apple).

  5. Very good find Ed. I too get cross-eyed from reading so many “opinions” that say things “must” be one way or another. Too many folks are just hard headed I guess.

    notme’s right, many of them just need help.

    I do kind agree with Leo in that an option would basically fix this. But then again you’d fall into feature creep and end up with bloated code if they fell to every little switch that would need to be added. Can’t get a little without giving a little. Since speed and response was priority #1 in this phone (as I understand from other readings) I think they chose the good route this time.

  6. Obviously, if you do something different, there should be an option to undo it for users who like familiarity. Sometimes when Microsoft do things different, it really is different. And sometimes the difference is “infuriating” especially since we expect APPLE in a Microsoft product. And don’t think we don’t think APPLE is equally “infuriating” with the cut and paste drama. Microsoft’s problem is actually in figuring out how to make their products easy to use, while NOT eliminating the options to customize the software.

    Previously, Microsoft had too many options while not making the user aware of what options matter. In frustration, users left things alone when they could have changed the software to their satisfaction.

    For my current Windows 7 frustration, I cannot figure out how to enable and disable the automated password fill-out function. I want it enabled for some web sites and disabled for others. You really can’t customize it for certain web sites. It’s either all or none.

    Apple has no options in many cases, but they seem to make many good choices. Thus they are Apple.

  7. As for the status bar drama, why not make it appear by default in the home screen and telephone function and allow it to disappear when you’re running an application. This would be the adequate default compromise.

  8. @notme

    I too am bothered by the exaggerated use of words and unfortunately this practice is common in blog postings–except ed’s!

    From the use of currently trendy words like “creepy” to the use of cutesy words like “veggies”, (are we 3 years old?) there are some annoying blog posts out there.

  9. An option would add a lot more work.

    “But then again you’d fall into feature creep and end up with bloated code if they fell to every little switch that would need to be added.”

    This is essentially what would happen. Feature creep. While the code to implement the option isn’t very hard to write, testing the option IS. It almost doubles the amount of situations needed to be tested.

    IMO, it isn’t a huge difference. The signal meter isn’t accurate. In fact, the scale is whatever the manufacturer decides the scale should be (I think back to Apple’s antennae meter change). The battery IMO should always be up though.

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