Kin and the dangers of too much user research

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Much has already been written about the many failings of Microsoft’s now departed Kin. The Kin phones – the Kin One and the Kin Two  - were targeted at social network-obsessed teens, straddling the line between feature phones and smartphones. Whilst the failings of the handsets were many, a more fundamental error underlies many of them – Microsoft listened to their users.

The most obvious issue with the Kin was its poor stability and performance, reviewers finding the handsets slow and buggy.

Moreover, the target market of young teens and adults would have found the $70 per month data and voice plan that users had to sign up for on Verizon far too pricey.

Yet the real failing of the Kin project and what led Microsoft to sell as little as 500 handsets is the baffling lack of functionality.

The Kin OS (a hybrid of Windows CE and Windows Phone – more on that later) provides:

  • No calendar
  • No way of watching YouTube videos
  • No autosuggest or autocorrect when typing
  • No way to retweet tweets (or engage in any other more advanced Twitter or Facebook activities)
  • No native mapping application.

The key thing to note is that these features are important to the target market, and not just grumpy advanced users – ‘Generation Y’ social network users are sharing YouTube videos, marking events on the calendar and reaching them using maps. (And so are Baby Boomers. Ed.)

They increasingly use – and expect the features of – full smartphones, whilst implementing social networking poorly on a phone that is supposed to have social networking as its raison d’etre  really requires no further comment.

It might be tempting to blame these omissions – and the OS’s poor performance – on the project’s troubled gestation. Microsoft switched the project from working with the Sidekick OS (brought over by the recently-acquired Danger) to something based on Windows CE (with a little Windows Phone added).

This delayed the project by 18 months, turning an innovative feature obsolete and impacting on the intended (low) pricing of the handsets. This still fails to explain why some features are missing – adding a rudimentary calendar takes little development time, regardless of OS.

The answer may lie in how Microsoft involved users in the development process. Reviews of the Kin are littered with references to Microsoft representatives assuring reviewers that features are absent for a reason.

Autosuggest/correct is missing, so it is claimed, because teenage users dislike their slang being autocorrected; a calendar is absent because “The target customers are very spontaneous and often alerted to plans through status messages from friends”.

This all suggests that Microsoft committed a cardinal sin when testing the idea – they listened to their users! The crucial thing to understand is that users often don’t know what they do, what they need, and ultimately, what they want, and it is by understanding their behaviour – and not just their attitudes – that we come to understand these needs.

It seems probable that somewhere in the development process, teens were asked how they felt about autosuggest, and they recalled the few times it caused the trouble (probably due to an availability heuristic); not the vast number of times it helped them. Microsoft then diligently removed this feature from the handsets.

The same is likely true of the Kin’s confusing ‘Loop’ stream of all social network activity; users may say that they want all social network activity in one place, but in reality they find it noisy, confusing and useless, as different contacts, and different sorts of communication, have different levels of importance to users. In short, the Kin should serve as a stark lesson to us that what users say and what they need can be two very different things.

Mark Parnell, Consultant

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