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Walmart: I Beg to Differ

June 24, 2009 | Author: Ibex Marketing

TWICE published a story yesterday that quotes an interview with Gary Severson, senior VP/general merchandise manager of Walmart. The whole article is worth a read, but there was one part that leaped out at me.

The Walmart executive, who is not only responsible for CE but also toys and entertainment software, advised suppliers in the audience that if they want to get noticed by the chain, they should “have a great idea and a great product.” … He suggested that the industry should “focus on simplicity [and] get away from bells and whistles. The majority of customers not tech-heads. They just want a good experience and good things to happen. Categories that are introduced which are too complicated,” he noted, “won’t come into market.”

The key to his comment is that he rejects complexity in a product. I get his point; you need to make a product as easy to use as you can. Electronic ignition in a car is better than the old manual spark advance that you had on the Model A. Automatic transmission cars are easier to drive than manual transmission models (how many people do you know who can drive a stick these days?) But the flaw in his argument is that he equates complexity with ease of use.

If he were correct about complexity, how did personal computers ever manage to replace typewriters? They are much more complex, and to some degree less reliable. And they certainly take a lot longer to learn to use. With a typewriter, you didn’t have much more to learn once you mastered touch typing (or in my case, the “Columbus Method”, which is “find it and land on it.”) Or what about cell phones? How does Severson explain the fact that more than a million of the new iPhone 3G S phones sold last weekend? That phone is a lot more complicated than a simple phone that just lets you place telephone calls. Yet people seem to want a phone that does a lot of complicated things, including let you download programs so that it can do a zillion more specialized complicated things.

Hang on, I’m about to bring this around to televisions. It’s not the complexity that’s the problem; it’s the user interface. People do indeed want the bells and whistles — how long did it take Detroit to realize that Japan’s practice of making every gadget standard in their cars was a winning strategy? — it’s just that they don’t want to have to study the user manual for three weeks before they can drive to the store for a loaf of bread. And the iPhone has succeeded simply because it’s easy to use. The parts that aren’t completely intuitive are easy to learn or even discover through experimentation. (Did you know that people now often try to use the “pinch” gesture on ATM touch screens?)

So do people want more complex televisions? I say that the answer is a strong “Yes”. They want to stream Netflix movies and get sports scores and weather reports and much more on their TV screens whenever they want. They want to connect to their photos and music and schedules and other important information in their lives. It’s just that they don’t want to have to recreate the personal computer experience in the process. They want an interface that is as easy and intuitive to navigate as the iPhone, that gets them to the content they want quickly without a lot of thought.

The problem is that at this point, we don’t have a good interface for finding and viewing information and other content on our TVs. When we just had a half dozen broadcast channels, the remote control “up” and “down” buttons were all we needed. That model has been stretched to the breaking point by cable and satellite services with hundreds of channels. And now that we’re opening up our living rooms to the entire Internet and its enormous libraries of streaming content, the selection process becomes even more complicated. Windows Media Center has made a noble effort to come up with an easier user interface, but it falls short in many areas. Until we get the iPhone equivalent for Internet television, these features won’t really take off. But when the user interface problem gets solved, Mr. Severson and his colleagues are going to sell a lot of HDTVs with some very complicated features. The key is that in spite of the complexity, they will be easy to use.