Kindle Problems Offer Insight Into Kiosk, M-Commerce Strategies

A good kiosk tries to replicate the charm and persuasiveness of a veteran sales associate in much the same way a well-developed mobile app tries to deliver on the best of in-store and online, enhanced with complete mobility. But what undercuts most of these development efforts is that IT gets so excited by the prospect of leveraging the new, the department is too quick to ignore or give up on the current.

Then customers, who are used to the niceties of that sales associate interaction or the tactile feedback from inside a high-end clothing store, show no interest and developers are baffled. That's where a bunch of Amazon Kindle developers find themselves today.

Amazon itself—when it used to mostly sell books for a living—patiently did iteration after iteration of "Look Inside" before matching the advantages of a user flipping through a book before buying. But the developers working on the Kindle have not been so lucky. In a series of Kindle tests on college campuses last year, the electronic book reader utterly failed. Why? Because its developers hadn't sufficiently studied how students use books. It's a great case for retail IT shops to study.

The Seattle Times detailed the blow-up wonderfully. Although developers believed the Kindle might have some sales challenges in many locations, they felt it would be a shoo-in on college campuses. Why lug a dozen or more heavy textbooks around when the full contents of those books can fit on one 10-ounce Kindle?

But students said the machines wouldn't let them work with textbooks the way they need to. Users are unable to write notes in the margins, adequately highlight sections or get the most out of color charts and graphics. (We would have expected the Kindle to get that color chart part, actually.)

"You don't read textbooks in the same linear way as a novel," one University of Washington student told the newspaper. "You have to flip back and forth between pages and the Kindle is too slow for that. Also, the bookmarking function is buggy."

Students also complained about the lack of titles available. That fact had been expected, but not the "all or nothing" issue. Some students only wanted the Kindle if it could handle all their book needs. If they have to carry some dead-tree books anyway, the Kindle quickly made no sense to them.

"It's a classic chicken-and-egg scenario: E-readers won't gain widespread acceptance on campuses until more content is available and publishers won't provide more content until e-readers are better suited for college students," the story said.

Retailers should truly read the full piece, but it's critical that IT does not think of this situation as merely an electronic reader issue. Kiosks, M-Commerce, new payment devices, CRM programs and 2D barcodes are just some of the technologies that require a sophisticated mastery of what customers like about their current systems.

Developers are typically mesmerized by new functionality, and they are always quite willing to abandon the old. But it's up to IT management to insist that if you abandon what customers like about today's old-fashioned offerings, you may find much more resistance than anticipated.

This point doesn't require a research study or focus groups. Just go into your stores and watch and listen to your customers. Surveys are useless; few customers understand why they like something. A survey of U.S. college students likely would have suggested overwhelming Kindle support, because those students wouldn't have thought through use of the reader enough to recognize the need to scribble in the margins or to quickly move between chapters. For your development team, you may want fewer software writers and a few more software watchers and listeners.