Ease of Use

February 1st, 2011 • 1 commentpermalink

That was easy!In computing as in everything else, the ease of use drives product adoption. We see this today with Apple — it’s decided that the most important thing about its products is that they MUST be as easy-to-use as humanly possible. Maybe even better than that. Steve Jobs is (in)famous for pushing his engineers beyond what they dreamt was possible. The iPad is what it is today because it’s ease of use makes it by far the best device on the market.

This isn’t a new trend; there are endless examples of this in history. Look at the TV dinner. Swanson had a huge surplus of frozen turkeys due to awful Thanksgiving sales one year, and turned them into the simplest three-part meal the world had ever seen. Put an aluminum tray in the oven for 25 minutes, and BAM! you have a complete dinner. They expected to sell about 5,000 of them during the first year on the market. They wound up selling more than ten million of them in the first year alone. The market grew and grew, and is now worth some $40 billion a year. Why? It’s the easiest dinner you can buy.

The invention of CDs revolutionized the markets for music. Why? Not because they were higher quality. Audiophiles today still claim that the vinyl record makes a better quality recording than a CD. People weren’t excited about the lighter weight of CDs. They were excited because you could instantly skip around the CD, listening to songs at random. People loved that you didn’t have to rewind the tape or re-place the needle anymore. Know what happened? CDs helped the industry nearly double music sales, shipping over 700 million units a year in 1995.

Now, I’m not trying to say that the ease of use is the only important thing about a product — far from it. Even if your product has a perfect UI, nobody will buy it if they don’t know about it. Having marketers that know what they’re doing is, well, important. And having engineers that can make a product work well is important too. Apple has a sensational marketing team and a world-class engineering team. Swanson copied the frozen meal idea from food on airplanes, but sold ten million of them with the name “TV Dinner,” piggybacking on television’s vast popularity at the time.

Sources: Wikipedia on TV dinners and CDs, and a Frozen Food Industry Guide.

Life Structure

January 14th, 2011 • 4 commentspermalink

Weekly Planner

At Oxford, there is the barest minimum of life structure. I’ll be in two tutorials and one lecture this term, which translates to two and a half meetings with professors a week. It’s not as if there is no work though; professors assign 500+ pages of reading and a 6-7 page paper between meetings.

Apart from their tutorials, though, students do their work whenever, wherever. Most days, there are no classes to wake up for, and nothing pushing you to work but you and your deadline two weeks away. From what I’ve heard so far, it’s a bit like telecommuting: most students keep 9-5 schedules, just to keep their lives together.

Contrast that to Tufts life, where students have two or three classes during each day, each with its own daily deadline. Professors split their classwork into manageable chunks that take a few hours to do. Students then motivate themselves with deadlines, and do the majority of your work on the night before it’s due. I certainly do.

But I’m at Oxford for the next six months, not at Tufts anymore. I suspect it will be a difficult paradigm shift for me — I’ve been deadline-motivating for almost ten years now, and here, there will be too much work for me to do on the last night. It’s a change I’ll welcome, though. The real world doesn’t break its work down into 3-hour chunks, and juggling multiple tasks with vague deadline expectations isn’t unusual. Hopefully by the end of these next two terms, I’ll be able to self-motivate and pace my own work much more effectively.

University of Oxford

January 6th, 2011 • 0 commentspermalink

University of Oxford Logo

In just a few more than 100 hours, I’ll be boarding a plane to England, a place to which I have never been. It’s also the place that I will be spending much of the next seven months. I’m excited for all the possibilities it holds and nervous about leaving my home behind for so long. I can’t stop asking myself, ‘What will it be like?’ Is Oxford a romantic place, as it’s depicted in His Dark Materials?  Is it like Hogwarts? What is the role of the various colleges?  I saw on a map of the city that St. Catz is pretty far on the city center.  How will that impact my time there?  How cold will it be in the winter?  Will I hang out with Americans, or will the exchange students mix with the British?

I have so many questions, and their answers will come in time.  For now, all I can do is pack.