Generally speaking, there are two kinds of things you can buy: products and services. Products like bicycles or coffee makers are often differentiated based on feature lists and tables of specifications. Services from plumbers to dentists are often described using more personal and subjective considerations.

As markets mature, product specs remain important but they are seldom the deciding factor in buying decisions. The overall experience of using the product becomes increasingly important instead.

Success Through High Prices and Low Specs

From the beginning, Apple had a focus on user experience (UX) that wasn’t shared by others in the industry. This unusual focus often made it less competitive in other areas:

PC makers have been making laptops for years that could beat Apple on specs and often price and still Apple has done its own thing and continued to rake in profits.

Erica Ogg, for GigaOM

Apple’s very existence is surprising if your definition of value only looks at pricing and specs. Apple not only survives but excels on the strength of its user experience, and that takes work. Its efforts in graphic and industrial design, hardware-software integration, platform development, and customer support show that UX is a priority at every level of the organization.

It’s such a priority that Apple regularly makes sacrifices in the traditional areas of pricing and specs, all in the name of the experience. It will not offer products in low-end markets if it cannot deliver a suitable experience. It will not implement new technologies if doing so will negatively impact the experience. Every company claims to value the customer, but Apple goes beyond mere lip service.

The Inevitable Car Analogy

The typical car buyer doesn’t worry about wheelbase, torque, or turning radius. As long as the specs don’t noticeably detract from the experience, they just don’t care. So what does matter? The way the dash and controls are laid out, the comfort of the seats, the way it “feels” when driven. In short, the user experience matters. The experience depends in part on the specs, but it’s much more than that.

Sure there are car enthusiasts who do sweat the numbers, but they’re a vanishingly small part of the market. In this mature industry, car companies are able to focus their marketing efforts not on specs, but the overall experience. They can all create cars that work well enough so the best way to distinguish themselves is to create cars that feel right.

Let’s bring it back to consumer electronics. There was a time when available technology simply couldn’t do what people wanted. Now that the state of the art fulfills most of these desires, people can safely assume that products have sufficient technical specs and turn their attention to more subjective issues like the overall user experience.

Sure there are tech enthusiasts who do sweat the numbers, but they’re a vanishingly small part of the market. In this maturing industry, companies are increasingly touting not just the specs, but the overall experience. They can all create laptops and phones that work on the most basic levels, so the best way to distinguish themselves is to create products that feel right.

The Challenge Facing the Tech Press

Tech writers are perpetually amazed by customers flocking to iPhones despite the lack of “key features” like MicroSD slots. They are quick to tout the latest features such as 4G LTE, even though the company not rushing to adopt LTE scores the highest in customer satisfaction in part because of that decision.

Most journalists are used to the PC world where every device runs exactly the same software, so the only worthwhile discussion concerns specs and price. The post-PC world exhibits two key differences:

  • The specs are increasingly irrelevant as technology improves.
  • There are different major platforms with unique software stacks.

Nowadays we must address those subjective, touchy-feely matters that the tech industry has been able to ignore for so long.

Journalists are expected to have their finger on the pulse of the industries they cover, so it’s ironic that even they seem oblivious to this trend. Their myopic worldview brands every iPad from the first to the latest as disappointments, while in fact the iPad is only disappointing to other companies who cannot compete with it. Journalists who continue to focus on specs are writing themselves out of relevance.

At the End, A Note About Beginnings

Valuing the experience isn’t just for established companies. It is critical even if you are designing a new product or entering a new market.

If your product isn’t fast or powerful enough, wait a bit and the technology will get there. If your product is user-hostile down to its very core, then all you can tout are your specs. The hardware will always get faster and cheaper, and you will succeed or fail on the strength of your user experience anyway.

Posted in Design and tagged ux, wordy
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