For those who remember the Newton handheld, the Palm’s popularity may be somewhat of a surprise. Small, underpowered, without easy handwriting recognition, yet it is one of the big successes of the late 90s, and created a resurgence in handheld devices. How?
While there may be any number of reasons for its success, if you actually use one, you’ll get an idea of what I think is its key feature: ease of use. It’s designed to be used by non-tech people, which is a tall order, since they can be more demanding (it can also be the other way around, but what I’ve found more often than not is that tech folk overlook shortcomings in a product they think is ‘cool’, while others wouldn’t). Once they bought into the idea however, success was immediate and huge.
One aspect of ease of use is battery life. Although I’ve worked with other handhelds (I also write for the Franklin eBookMan), the battery life of the Palm is exceptional – I change batteries perhaps once every month or two. Very important also is that I can leave it in a drawer for a week or so, pull it out, and continue where I left off. With my other devices, I dig them out knowing I will have to replace the batteries and reinstall software, which actually acts as a deterrent to my using them.
Another key aspect for ease of use is the unique programming on the Palm. At any time, you are viewing one single program. To go from program to program, you go back to the menu and select the next program. And when you restart the Palm, you are presented with the same program you were working on when you left off. Although tekkies love to multi-task, few other people could be bothered, and the ability to cascade, resize, and tile windows is simply annoying to them. One program at a time is simplicity, and ease of use.
Although more difficult to program (for example saving and restoring program state information), from the customer’s perspective this continuity of use is much more reasonable. Of course, there’s a price to pay by doing things easier – as a veteran computer user, it took quite a while to figure out how to exit a program from the menu (you don’t – simply go to another program). However, the minor relearning for someone like myself is more than matched by the lessened learning curve for new users.
If there is any solid proof that making software (and design) easier to use is profitable, look at Palm. They jump-started an industry by making a computer product non-computer people could and would use. While they have fallen on hard times lately (as has most of tech), their design can serve as proof that non-tech is definitely the way to go…