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angry horse

An Open Letter to Ivan G. Seidenberg, Verizon CEO

May 23, 2010


Ivan G. Seidenberg
Chairman of the Board and Chief Executive Officer
Verizon Communications
140 West St
New York, NY 10007

Dear Mr. Seidenberg,

We recently had an extremely painful experience helping our friends with their new Verizon FiOS installation and we would like to express our collective frustration with this entire process in the strongest possible terms.

Our goal was to enable our friends to easily operate their TV, VCR, DVD player, and Verizon cable box using just the universal Verizon remote control. Their setup was simple; there was no home theater system for sound. There were only three tasks that they cared about: watching a movie with the DVD player, watching a movie with the VCR, and watching live television. We also wanted to make sure that our friends could smoothly transition between all three tasks at will, and could escape from problematic situations (e.g., choosing the wrong thing to watch from a DVD’s menu, accidentally bringing up the TV guide or Video On Demand).

There were four people involved, three of whom have Ph.D.’s, two of which are in Computer Science. It took us two hours to get to a place where our friends were able to operate their TV, VCR, DVD player, and Verizon cable box on their own.

We spent the first 45 minutes learning how to configure the Verizon remote control so that it would operate each of those four devices. We had Verizon FiOS ourselves from 2006-2008, so we were already familiar with an earlier version of the Verizon remote control and had successfully (although painfully) set up our own home entertainment system a few years ago. Despite this prior knowledge and technical experience, the process was still unbelievably painful.

We spent the next 30 minutes retracing our steps and typing up instructions that our friends could follow, checking and re-checking that we’d accurately written down obscure button names and the correct order of button pushes, and drawing arrows on a picture of the remote control so that our friends could more easily find the buttons they needed out of the 50 buttons available.

We spent the remaining 45 minutes giving our friends the written instructions, doing some informal usability testing to see if they could follow those instructions without our help, and revising the instructions when there were places that left them confused or lost.

There are several aspects of the design of the Verizon remote control that contributed to the difficulty of using it, in addition to the complexity already inherent in trying to control four devices with one remote. This list is by no means exhaustive.
  1. The “STB” button confused everyone. No one knew what the letters stood for, but it definitely didn’t make anyone think of the cable box.
  2. The combined play / pause button was misleading. The design of the button led us to think that you could press the button anywhere on its surface and it would toggle the play / pause status of the current device. Instead, we discovered (after some confusion) that the top of the button means “play” and the bottom of the button means “pause” and never the twain shall meet, despite appearances to the contrary. It is actually two separate buttons that are designed to look like one. Awful.
  3. The volume control works differently in AUX mode than it does in every other mode. This inconsistency is confusing. In the other three modes, the remote sends the volume-change command to the TV, not to the selected device. In AUX mode (which in our friends’ case mapped to the VCR), the remote sends the volume-change command to the device (i.e., the VCR), which has no effect on the TV’s volume. There is no way to reconfigure the remote to send the volume-change command to the TV. Thus, whenever our friends watch a movie with their VCR, they have to keep switching between TV mode and VCR mode every time they want to change the volume or play / pause the movie.
  4. Unlike the DVD, AUX, and TV modes, the STB mode was by default configured to control the power on both the TV and the cable box. This inconsistency is confusing. When our friends were watching a movie with the DVD player and then wanted to switch to watching live TV and they pressed the STB button and then the Power button, it turned on the cable box and turned off the TV. When they tried to correct the problem by pressing the Power button again, it turned off the cable box and turned on the TV. (Note: We were glad that we could reconfigure the STB mode so that it only controlled the cable box, but it took some effort to figure out that this behavior could be changed and how to change it.)
It shouldn’t have taken four well-educated adults two hours to achieve the goal of enabling our friends to successfully operate their home entertainment system. In fact, our friends should not have needed to ask for our help in the first place. Their inability to figure out their new Verizon remote control made them feel dumb, which is a terrible situation to put your customers in. We filled the gaping chasm in the user experience that was left behind by Verizon. We are investigating alternatives, such as buying a $100 remote (e.g., a Logitech Harmony), to replace their Verizon remote control. If they do use an alternative remote, the Video On Demand feature will not be as easy to access, so our friends will be less likely to take advantage of it.

We know that this type of painful user experience is not limited to Verizon and that to improve it significantly would require extensive cooperation with many other companies in the home entertainment industry. We urge you to take a leadership role in this industry and consider how your company can distinguish itself through the user experience that it provides. You are not merely selling content or technology: you are selling an entire experience, and the quality of the whole is what your customers will associate with your brand. You have the opportunity to set a game-changing standard of excellence in home entertainment.

Sincerely yours,

Rachel Cobleigh

Comments

Ok, wow. I have this picture of you all standing around the remote, going, "What!? What are we missing?"

That's impressively broken if it managed to stump this particular set of users.

Verizon called back!

I'm happy to report that an assistant to the president just called us to acknowledge receipt of the letter! The person I spoke with talked about details in the letter, said that it made her think about the remote in ways she'd hadn't been aware of, and said that she'd send the letter to the FiOS Engineering division.

I'm not sure what they'll be able to do, but I'm giving Verizon kudos for the personal response.

Wow, now I'm really impressed with Verizon

A cool update: the person from Verizon who called yesterday called again today. She told me that she has passed the letter on to "all the Marketing executives". She doesn't know when (not if!) everything will be done, but they do plan to address each item we raised. (!)

She thanked us again for the effort we put into the letter and said that we can call her any time if we have other concerns, giving me her work phone number.

I'm officially impressed.
shiny

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