Free Lessons in Industrial Design & Customer Experience

I seldom write consumer product reviews and this blog is about the furthest thing from a consumer focused site but, every so often, I come across a notable tidbit that is worthy of mention. A few weeks ago, it was Sprint unilaterally changing the terms of their wireless contracts (Sprint is Giving Free Customer Service Lessons). It just seemed a sufficiently confused decision that it was worthy of mention.

Here’s one that just nails it on the other side of the equation by obsessing over the customer experience: Roku. I’ve long known about Roku but I’m not a huge TV watcher so I’ve only been peripherally interested in the product. But we are both Netflix and Amazon Prime Instant Video customers and Roku supports both. And the entry level Roku streaming appliance is only $49 so we figured let’s give it a try. It actually ended up a bit more than $49 in that we first managed to upsell ourselves to a $59 Roku 2 to get HD, and then to a $79 device to get 1080P and then to a $99 device to het 1080P HD with a hardwired Ethernet connection. So we ended up with a $100 device. I think $50 is close to where this class of devices needs to end up but $100 is reasonable as well.

The device is amazing and shows what can be done with a focus on clean industrial design. It is incredibly small at only 3” square. I plugged it in, it booted up, updated its software, found its remote, upgraded the software on the remote and went live without any user interaction. I setup a Roku account, linked my Amazon account for access to Prime Instant Video, linked our Netflix account and it was ready to go.

The device is tiny, produces close to no heat, you don’t have to read the manual, the user interface is clean and notable for its snappiness. I expected a sluggish UI as many companies scrimp on processing power to get costs down but it is very snappy. In fact Netflix on a Roku is faster than the same support on an Xbox. The UI is clean, simple, snappy, and very elegant.

I love where consumer appliances are heading: simple, cheap, dedicated, purpose-build devices with clean user interfaces, and the hybrid delivery model where the user interface is delivered by the appliance but most of the functionality is hosted in the cloud. The combination of cheap microelectronics, open source operating systems, and cloud hosting allows incredibly high function devices to be delivered at low cost.

The Kindle Fire takes the hybrid cloud connected model a long way where the Fire’s Silk browser UI runs directly on the device close to the user where it can be highly interactive and responsive. But the power and network-bandwidth hungry browser backend is hosted on Amazon EC2 where connectivity is awesome and compute power is not battery constrained. I love the hybrid model and we are going to see more and more devices delivering a hybrid user experience where the compute intensive components are cloud hosted and user interface is in the device. My belief is that this is the future of consumer electronics and, as prices drop to the $30 to $50 range, everyone will have 10s of these special-purpose, cloud-connected devices.

For the first time in my life, I’m super interested in consumer devices and the possibilities of what can be done in the hybrid cloud-connected appliance model.


James Hamilton



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4 comments on “Free Lessons in Industrial Design & Customer Experience
  1. I’m interested in hearing more about your start up Denis. Drop me a note on when you get a chance.

    Thanks for the Amazon Instant Video suggestion. I’ll pass that along to the team.


  2. Denis Altudov says:

    Hi James.

    I have always been enamored with this idea – omnipresent data, surfaced to the user according to the capabilities of the nearest available outlet. This is why I left my Microsoft job two years and created my own micro-company that does exactly that.

    Speaking of Amazon Instant Video – there is one thing terribly missing from it. If I start watching instant video on one device, in order for me to continue on the next device I have to find the video first. While rentals and purchases are added to "My Video Library" and can be easily resumed from there, Instant Video does not have such feature, so resuming playback on my LG TV requires inordinate amount of effort to find the video, typing its name with a remote control(!). Maybe you could leverage your influence to get this looked into :). It’d be nice if I could use real keyboard on my Fire to locate and start video, and then immediately resume it on the TV.

    Denis Altudov

  3. Thanks, I’ll check them out Vijay.


  4. Vijay says:

    Welcome to Roku land James, I have been a longtime Roku user and very happy with it. Wait till you explore and get exposed to the user channels that are available on Roku :)
    Individual users have created content and channels that you can subscribe to, for free.

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