Sony may be renowned for making great hardware, but its actual use has not always lived up to purchasers' expectations. But that, apparently, is all going to change: "User experience, not just solid hardware is the way forward for Sony", new Sony CEO Kaz Harai believes. But what does he mean by this in terms of PlayStation? Is he referring to user experience to mean only game experiences, or is he being more wide-reaching?
User experience begins far before the purchase. The Sony brand, experiences with previous products, marketing campaigns and other factors create a series of expectations in our minds. And with first impressions being so important, it's critical for a product not to break these expectations.
The out-of-box experience, or OOBE, is the term used to describe these initial moments with a product, from unpacking it to getting it up and running. Has Hirai delivered on his claim that the user experience will take a central role at Sony? Well, at least for Vita's OOBE, it's a definite no. My initial moments were met with confusion and frustration, not quite the experience Mr Harai had in mind. Let's do a walkthrough.
If we lived in a world without Apple, Sony's packaging could be considered quite good, but since the introduction of the legendary iPod box design, the bar for consumer electronics packaging has been greatly raised. Opening the box of Vita, the first thing I expected to see was Vita itself. Not the case. I saw a quick start guide and then hiding underneath that wrapped in a polythene bag was the Vita. It was almost as if Sony is embarrassed by it. Contrast this with the perfectly presented iPhone unboxing, in which lifting the lid of the box you see your new iPhone sitting on a tray.
This may seem like I'm nitpicking, but all of these small points affect the user experience. If Sony doesn't seem to care about how they present the product to me, what else doesn't it care about? My thoughts during this precise moment of the unboxing centred on exactly this – Sony just hasn't taken the time to understand what I want from an initial experience.
Before turning it on, I looked at the quick start guide, which left the impression it was anything but. The sheet is quite lengthy, full of small, hard to read text, and is double-sided. It starts by detailing the three types of card media Vita uses, describing them as (1) Memory Card for the PlayStation Vita System, (2) PlayStation Vita card and (3) SIM card.
Now, this sort of terminology is fine for techies, but I can easily imagine anyone else becoming confused. What do these cards do again? Why use so many words? What's wrong with keeping things simple, you know, that user experience thing we talked about? How about (1) Memory card, (2) Apps card, (3) SIM card?
I also had trouble trying to find the slot where the memory card goes – sorry, I mean the Memory Card for the PlayStation Vita System. The diagram the user guide depicts is difficult to interpret, but shows the Vita facing screen downwards. I think it would have been much more meaningful to show the Vita the way most users would be viewing it – which is to say, screen facing them.
Still, once I turn it on I'll have forgotten all about the packing and overly complicated quick start guide. Right?
I pressed the Power button, expecting some feedback to reassure me that the Vita is coming to life, but nothing appeared. Being foolish enough to think that I could turn it on without fully consulting the quick start guide, I soon learn that I need to hold the power button down for five seconds.
Finally, the beautiful screen lights: we've arrived at the Vita experience. The first task is to set Wi-Fi up, something that fills me with dread on PS3 as it means I have to grapple with its text input system. Thankfully Vita's touch screen makes this a breeze.
But the next step marks the point at which Vita's OOBE becomes a car crash of an experience. Sony says it's down to a bug, but the Vita asks me if I have a PSN account and I confirm that I do. It then informs me that the system requires a firmware update before I can enter my PSN details. If a firmware update is needed, why not just say so instead of asking me a pointless question by disregarding my answer?
I'm then returned to the initial question, 'Do you have a PSN account?' This could go on forever in an endless loop, but by selecting 'No' I can get out of it, but only by setting up a trial PSN account, during which I have to enter my date of birth among other details. Sony claims it's down to a bug, but is this the user experience on a launch device that is going to save Sony?
What bothers me about this trial account is I'm now wondering how this may impact on my real PSN account. Regardless, with new trial PSN account set up, I update the firmware (playing a few iPad games while I wait for it to download), and then link in my real PSN account.
During the process, some dialog boxes exhibited unusual behaviour. For example, while about to download the firmware, a box appeared telling me how to put icons on my home screen. Is this really the most important time to tell me this? Is this dialog related to what I'm about to do? No, and no.
They were yet another niggle in Vita's out-of-box experience, which just doesn't support Vita's brand positioning as a premium product. It presents ample opportunity for users to get confused, and yet, frustratingly, Sony could, and should, have addressed these issues before release.
Does the out-of-box experience represent Vita's overall, long term user experience? It's too early to say. I'll be examining exactly this, from new games to interaction methods, in my next column.