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December 11, 2006

10 Product Design Failures of the Zune, and 10 product design lessons

Categories Zune 

First let me disclose that I’m a happy iPod owner, and I’ve never touched a Zune, so if either of those facts are a problem for you just stop reading and continue with your day. My main reason for writing this is that it annoys me to no end when companies release lousy products, and it infuriates me when the company has absolutely no excuse. The Zune is lame, and it’s created by Microsoft, one of the richest companies in the world with some of the best minds in the world. Building a portable audio player isn’t rocket science, but it does take, for lack of a better word, empathy and some understanding of customer’s values. With the Zune, Microsoft has demonstrated that it has neither.

1. Design

While the rubberized exterior of the Zune should resist fingerprints and scratching much better than the iPod, it’s not nearly as attractive. Also the Zune is roughly 60% larger than the iPod and its shape doesn't hide it well. Had the enclosure been more contoured the size and “clunkiness” might be less of an issue.

The lesson:

When creating a competing product, the first impulse is to visually differentiate your device from the competition. So because the iPod is smooth and sexy, they made the Zune rubbery and clunky. Wait, huh? Clearly this strategy is flawed. Instead they should have tried to beat Apple at their own game and created a product all around sexier than the iPod.

2. Faux Scroll Wheel

What looks like an iPod style scroll wheel is actually just a 4 directional pad, consequently former iPod users have reported attempting to use it like a scroll wheel. If that isn’t a design failure I don’t know what is. Essentially they obfuscated the controls and pointlessly ripped off the iPod in one fell swoop.

The lesson:

When it comes to controls, legibility is everything. If you can’t figure out exactly how to use a control just by looking, it’s poorly designed.

3. Lame Wifi

While the Zune has WIFI, it can only be used for sharing music from Zune to Zune. No purchasing music with the Zune, no wireless syncing, no web browsing, nada. To make matters worse, until the Zune hits a critical mass of owners, the one WIFI feature is totally useless.

The lesson:

If you’re going to build technology like WIFI into a device it should have the functionality people expect. And at the very least that means web browsing and wireless music purchasing. Also, marketing a product based on its ability to share music is a flawed strategy until there are lots of people to share with. Additionally in the case of the Zune, this is totally unnecessary as the WIFI could have provided a range of other functionality. Call me crazy but if a device has WIFI and a screen bigger than a cell phone, I’d expect it to be able to browse the web. After all a Nintendo DS and a Sony PSP can browse the web.

4. Sharing Restrictions

Songs that are shared from Zune-to-Zune are subject to strict limitations: a song can only be played 3 times or 3 days, whichever comes first. Needless to say, this is much too few, 7 would be much fairer. Shoot, I could imagine being sent a song, and forgetting about it for 3 days. Also, the Music Gremlin did sharing much better. With the Music Gremlin, if the recipient of the shared song was a subscriber to their unlimited download service, and the song is from their catalog, the user can keep the song indefinitely. This makes sense; as a subscriber can just download the song anyway, so why force a customer to download it twice? Furthermore, by enabling users to provide songs to each other they reduce strain on their servers.

The lesson:

The restrictions imposed on sharing music indicate to me that Microsoft is attempting to change user’s behavior when it comes to sharing music. However, by making the limitations so strict all they’ve done is encourage people to go outside their system, thus totally defeating its purpose. This is the same argument Steve Jobs has used to keep the iTunes prices low; if the prices are too high people will go back to downloading music illegally. If you want to change user’s behavior, make the desired behavior attractive or at least acceptable.

5. Sharing In Reality

Another bizarre implementation of song sharing with the Zune’s is while it’s possible for one Zune user to wirelessly view another Zune user’s music library, there’s no way to “request” a song. Instead, you have to find the person and ask them to send you the file. I may be an exception, but I don’t even know the names of half my songs. If someone asked me “Hey dude, can you send me “Down by the Water”?” I’d think they were crazy.

The lesson:

To encourage social interaction providing decent tools to facilitate that interaction is absolutely necessary.

6. Does not Plays For Sure

Before the Zune, there was “Plays for Sure.” It was the brand for Microsoft’s music format that was playable on devices made by many hardware partners. Much to everyone’s surprise the Zune does not play “Plays for Sure” music. So previous customers (and vendors) who supported Microsoft’s prior digital music attempt are totally out of luck.

The lesson:

First of all, don’t punish customers for loyalty. And second, if you’ve got the balls to call something “Plays For Sure,” make sure your own device is compatible.

7. Price

The 30GB Zune is priced the same as the 30GB iPod. While the Zune does have WIFI and an FM tuner, the price is too high. Microsoft should have taken a bigger loss on the Zune, just as they do with the XBox.

The lesson:

Again when creating a competing product, it may be tempting to price it the same as the competition to imply that they are both on the same level and the new product isn’t the “cheaper alternative.” However, in this case, the Zune is the alternative player and it doesn’t have the credibility (or desirability) of an iPod. They should have priced it at $199 or $150, or bundled a free 6 month or year subscription to the Zune Marketplace.

8. Zune Marketplace

Zune Marketplace is iTunes for the Zune. But previously this job was done by Windows Media Player, so why the redundancy? Also, to purchase music on Zune Marketplace store you have to first buy “points.” But the minimum amount of points you can buy is $5, so if you just want one $.99 you have to give Microsoft and extra $4.01. Furthermore, there 1 penny doesn’t equal one point, for instance $50 buys 4000 points. So $1 actually buys 80 points.

The lesson:

David Pouge summed up the problem with Zune Marketplace best: It’s a ridiculous duplication of effort by Microsoft, and a double learning curve for you. [Source]

9. No Touchscreen, a step-up for a knock-down

The Zune essentially has the same button layout as the iPod which is fine. Except that since early 2006 rumors have been circulating that the next major iPod revision would include a wide aspect touchscreen. Reportedly Apple has had production problems with the touch screen, perhaps because it will support proximity detection and multiple touch points. Microsoft could have capitalized on this and built the Zune around a simple touchscreen on par with the Nintendo DS. Instead, they’ve destined to make the Zune look like a pathetic joke when the touchscreen iPod comes out. Plus, with WIFI and a touchscreen the Zune would have been able to effortlessly browse the web.

The lesson:

Pay close attention to the competition, and try beat them to where they’re going not where they are.

10. The Name

While iPod sounds like a declaration (“iPod, therefore I am.”), Zune sounds like the name of an alien planet from a cheesy sci-fi novel.

The lesson:

Names don’t actually matter that much unless they suck. They would have been much better off with a more anonymous or ambiguous name like “Model One” or perhaps even trying to piggyback on the XBOX brand with something like “XGo.”


Who cares?

yes you were right from the start --- it truly does make a difference that you've never touched a zune before. it really, really shows.

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