Usability limbo for professionals

Fjord’s trends review outlines one major shift, which has been ongoing for quite some time. Access is the new ownership means that people have been comfortable with subscription based services for some time, and are letting go of physical ownership of things.

Why buy CDs when you can have Spotify? Why buy movies when you can have Netflix? Why own a car when you can pay for a car club membership and have access to one when needed?

This shift to services has caused an unseen shift in paradigms, as well. The pro user is no longer the king, which is a major thing. In fact, professional users are in an somewhat of an usability limbo. I’ll use music, photography and movies as examples.

Crusade for music quality

For music, services such as Spotify are a major revolution. Subscribers have access to a vast amount of music, which they can listen to at whim, as much as they want – and instantly, from the push of the play button. Despite the advertising, the uncomfortable truth is that it’s not CD quality. If using a good enough system anyone can hear the difference between Spotify and a lossless (CD quality) source.

That’s not news to anyone. Spotify provides convenience, and the majority of users doesn’t mind the slight drop in audio quality. It makes more sense to provide a service for the majority than the minority demanding lossless quality.

Many manufacturers try and invade this sphere (Linn, Naim, Meridian and even Sonos to some extent), meaning that these manufacturers provide hifi-credible hardware for music streaming. If you test these devices, their usability is often awful. You know, the hifi-amplifier at your friend’s house which has 50 buttons in the front panel, which your friend sets up before giving you the remote. Because you wouldn’t know how.

This is like comparing a Ferrari to a Toyota. Both are cars, but the other is vastly superior to the other in terms of raw power,  speed and credibility. The real shift lies in the connectedness and ease of use. Lossless music aficionados have to deal with all sorts of things – where to obtain the music (as files), how to store them, what system to use, how to back them up – which the cloud-service user doesn’t have to think at all.

So, the people who have invested most into their stereos are left with the most woes here. There is no zero-worries solution for them, no instant pay per month subscription. In the jungle of necessary devices for home network and their setup, many quality-conscious pros stick to their CDs.

Considering that these are the people who really would be interested in one, it is kind of funny.

Why you bought that Blu-Ray

The same principle applies to streaming movie services such as iTunes or Netflix. Against a monthly fee you’re free to watch anything the service provides, which commences playing at the push of a button. Many people are dumping their DVD collections at the same rate that the VHS tapes of old were first put into boxes and then tossed away. The subscription and pay-per-view models make them unnecessary. Again, for most people.

Just as we’ve bought the new LCD-TV, Blu-Ray player and put that 5.1 speaker system in place, we’re given the alternative to stream our movies. Many happily embrace this, and accept the fact that the streaming quality is – again – lower than what we’d get from the Blu-Ray. A portion of the system’s capabilities is left unused, but that’s again acceptable as convenience is unparalleled.

Except for those, who really put effort into their home cinema system, and wish to squeeze everything out of it. For them, Blu-Rays are the source of real quality, and while this medium is a bit more net conscious than others, it’s still a physical thing we need to have. Streaming on total Blu-Ray quality would require an immense amount of bandwidth, which the service providers are hesitant to consider. Even though it says HD in the description of our service of choice, the audio is likely to be heavily compressed.

So, the modern movie buff would even like to download his movies in total quality files for now, thank you. Except there are no legal sources, due to piracy and DRM restrictions. For those wanting to move to the subscription domain in movies, again there is no full-quality alternative yet.

As the services are consumer-driven, they lack the finesse a well-thought over system might provide. A video processor (a common component in the array of a good movie system) needs to process the movie signal before handing it out to the TV. If the streaming system is part of the TV itself (think Netflix, for instance), the image quality processing cannot happen. So the user starts to think, and decides to add a component providing the Netflix as a source. Again, several devices, new things and remotes.

Here too, the professionals and serious hobbyists are left with clunky solutions and devices, the functions of which seem redundant compared to the ease of use of streaming services. If you’re willing to sacrifice quality, you can have usability, connectivity and streaming.

Those quality photos

The third example is not access or subscription based, but bears similarity to the previous two. Missing the usability presented by the consumer-friendly solutions are the ones owning a more serious camera. The king here is a DSLR solution, which range from modest starter editions to professional setups.

While a modern smartphone offers instant transfer to Facebook, Instagram or Flickr, for instance, the separate camera owners are still struggling to get their images out of the camera and onto the services. The more serious the camera, the bigger the gap – major manufacturers nowadays offer models in their lower tiers, which tie to your smartphone and allow for image uploads. But the DSLR owners are farthest from the group, with models emerging only now which have some sort of possibility for connectivity and image sharing.

For many, the idea of DSLR is to post-process the images before sharing them, but smartphones have already showed the consumers how to do things easily. They tag the image’s location at the same time, and offer an easy solution for transfer to your service of choice. This is user experience at it’s best, giving us an image of how easy this should be.

In contrast, the more serious tools present us with almost everything imaginable, save those features. GPS-tagging and instant uploads are possible, but often only with additional equipment. And don’t even get me started on the usability of, for instance, Canon and Nikon DLSR on-screen menu systems.

The convenience of the prosumer and professional are different from the average user.

♦♦♦

So, three examples of markers where pros are being left behind in usability. I’m guessing professionals and hobbyists from various fields could provide countless examples more of the same thing.

The consumer market commands the revenue, and right now the killer solutions are produced for that segment. They are user friendly, smart and reasonable – and there’s absolutely nothing to complain about that. Never previously have we had such an abundance of choices and services at our disposal, revolutionizing everything from retail business to service concepts themselves.

This transformation is about quality, and the notion that we’re willing to sacrifice it for the sake of convenience. This won’t last forever, and sooner or later people will begin insisting improving quality. The other part is the paradigm shift, where the professionals are left behind in terms of usability.

We can argue that the needs of the professional are different in  many ways from the consumer, but studies have shown us that professionals – being human beings – are just as happy with improved usability as anyone else.

So what should the suppliers, manufacturers and brands do?

Start with talking to the professionals, and finding out what they need. And, learning from the above, don’t stop there but prepare to roll these out so that they make sense, are usable and connected. For while this segment is lower in numbers, it’s usually quite ready to pay for the premium.

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