Amazon’s Tricky Proposition
This week, retail juggernaut Amazon doubles down on hardware by expanding its repertoire into the smartphone market with its new device, the Amazon Fire Phone. As we consider the play, it’s important to understand the nuances of the decision to enter the fairly crowded playing field that is the smartphone realm. As I see it, the Amazon strategy has three considerations. The first involves the market opportunity that exists for a new smartphone. The second involves how Amazon hopes to extend its relationship with its customers. Finally, there’s the design of the device itself. If the market opportunity is daunting, ecosystem and design become even more important. On the ecosystem side, Amazon has an advantage, but where does it come in on design? Also, at the end of the day, has Amazon bet the farm on possible novelty features such as Dynamic Perspective?
Since announcing the Fire Phone in June, everyone from tech pundits to business magnates to UX gurus has chimed in on the relative successes and failures of the yet-unreleased device. These critiques cover the overall user experience of the phone, the limited ecosystem and apps, and even the likelihood that the new phone will entice customers to tackle the hidden costs of shifting platforms. Many have wondered, nearly a decade into the smartphone revolution, why Amazon has decided to enter the fray at all. Although they continue to be the dominant force in e-readers, holding practically the entire market with their suite of Kindle devices, their premier tablet device, the Kindle Fire, is much less of a player in that market. Further, in a world increasingly dominated by two forces, Samsung and Apple, it’s hard to see where, if at all, Amazon’s opportunity space exists.
The Amazon Ecosystem—Shop EVERYWHERE
Ultimately, the Fire is less a smartphone than it is a means of pushing the Amazon ecosystem further and deeper into their customer’s lives. The Kindle was really a tool for connecting users more seamlessly to the Amazon bookstore. The Fire Phone is following the same strategy—and it may turn out to be a very good one. Mobile commerce is still the uncharted frontier, as sales still represent a fraction of traditional e-commerce formats. Amazon is placing a stake in the ground and attacking the problem, somewhat unambiguously, by marketing what it deems one of the premier features of the Fire: Firefly. Take a picture of anything, and Amazon will serve it up for purchase. This is, of course, nothing new, as it’s been integrated into Amazon’s iPhone app (as “Flow”), for some time now. Still, it speaks volumes to Amazon’s intent with the Fire Phone. Whether or not this feature, as well as the deep integration with the Amazon mothership, will help drive m-commerce revenues for Amazon remains to be seen, but it’s a fertile space for exploration, as sales via mobile are expected to increase 7% over the next five years. This certainly puts Amazon squarely in the lead in the space.
Moving beyond the business strategy driving the Amazon Fire, we can discuss some of the specifics of the device itself. Clearly, there’s a lot we could talk about. However, being a UX designer, I’ll take some time to discuss one of the oft-touted selling points of the Fire phone: Dynamic Perspective.
A popular trope in UI design for mobile operating systems today is the idea of dynamic backgrounds. For example, parallax scrolling has become a dominant theme across multiple platforms (including full non-mobile sites). Parallax scrolling is really nothing new as a technique. It started showing up in cartoons in the 30’s and 40’s, and gained a new level of popularity in the 8-bit revolution, as video games such as Super Mario Brothers employed it to create a sense of depth in an otherwise pixelated and decidedly two-dimensional world.
At this point, it’s important to emphasize that parallax scrolling is a technique rather than a technology.
Which leads to my fundamental problem with the Fire’s Dynamic Perspective: its relative uselessness as a technique.
The name Dynamic Perspective is confusing to me, as the second word of the name sums up succinctly the lack of need for the feature at all: Perspective. Artists have long understood the usage of perspective to create depth in their artwork. It’s also an integral tool for any architect or designer. Other tools for creating the illusion of depth include the use of overlapping objects, color gradients, and focus. Not coincidentally, these tools are the basis for any graphical user interface (GUI) operating system. They create a foreground and a background, giving a shallow illusion of depth that enables users to manipulate elements within a faux three-dimensional space, moving them along the x, y, and (perceived) z axes.
Conversely, three-dimensional effects (3D), in film and elsewhere, use an optical illusion where it presents us with two slightly different images, and forces our binocular vision to reconcile those two images (often through the use of glasses), with the result being an illusion of three-dimensionality. In the context of film, there are two camps regarding the use of 3D: Those that see it as a natural enhancement to the experience of film, and those that see it mainly as a means of charging ridiculous ticket prices in order to gouge the consumer. The late Roger Ebert has a great piece on the use of 3D in film.
For the Fire, Amazon has added a new trick, using three cameras integrated into the face of the phone that constantly assess the orientation of the users head relative to it. The Fire than alternates the viewport to suit, giving the illusion of shifting perspective and depth within the screen (a positive parallax). You can learn more about the mechanics of Dynamic Perspective by reading this Mashable overview.
This is all well and good.
Lots of math.
Lots of interesting mechanics and technology at play.
However, all of this feels like design for design’s sake, rather than design for a purpose. As mentioned, techniques such as perspective and the use of overlapping objects have long been effective tools for conveying depth in two-dimensional spaces. The question remains: Is there a real, tangible user benefit to Dynamic Perspective? As the Fire lingers in the pre-release state, the jury is out on this subject. The developing crux of the argument in the “pro” column lies in the user’s ability to shift the Fire, adjusting the viewport in the process, in turn enabling the user to see “behind” the focused window or app.
In order to assess the value, it’s important to understand how users are engaging with their phones. On average, users spend approximately 30 hours per month engaging with apps on their smartphones, translating to roughly an hour per day. Further, the average user has about 27 apps on their smartphone that they use with regularity. Broken down, in completely non-scientific terms, the amount of daily engagement with a particular app totals in the minutes per day—skewed by demographics towards specific categories of apps (e.g., social media and games).
How does this relate to Dynamic Perspective? It all comes down to duration of interaction and concurrent usage of apps in the smartphone context. Most interactions with apps are discrete, lasting mere seconds. For example: checking the weather, viewing status updates on social media, reading email. Long, immersive engagements with smartphone apps in a single setting are much more rare. As such, the primary use case of Dynamic Perspective, enabling a rapid shifting of context to support multi-tasking activities across multiple applications in the smartphone environment, seems questionable.
Further, a general rule for apps with the smartphone is responsiveness. Apps are expected to load quickly and operate smoothly and efficiently. Smartphone users are much more likely to abandon a process if it is taking too long than users on a tablet or laptop. Given the relatively modest technical specifications of the Fire (compared to the marquee Samsung and Apple devices), and what must be a performance hog of a feature with Dynamic Perspective, this does not bode well for functional performance. Amazon may surprise us with a piece of functionality that generates no lag or performance slowdown, allowing a smooth transition across apps, but even then there is no clear evidence that it is needed or will add to the overall experience of using the device.
In conclusion, Amazon has made, in many ways, a very bold play: venturing, what many would call late, into a crowded marketplace with limited opportunity to pry consumers from ecosystems they are already steeped in. At the very least, they have two outs in this scenario:
The first out is the connected Amazon shopping megaplex. If features such as Firefly add only tiny percentage points to Amazon’s bottom line, they can still consider it a roaring success. If it moves the needle on mobile commerce as a platform, enabling them to mold and shape the mobile shopping experience for their customers into a seamless, multi-channel experience, then that’s a huge win, regardless of any experiential or hardware deficits the phone itself may have. This is, after all, their first smartphone, and they will continue to improve the hardware and operating system in successive generations.
The second out is user delight. Like it or not, Dynamic Perspective is unique in the marketplace. If it turns out that users adore it, then it quickly becomes a differentiator that you can be damn sure Samsung and Apple will be scrambling to copy in future OS updates. If other features and functionalities within the Fire OS hook users in a novel way, then they can expect more and more to make the switch to their product.
Only time will tell, and the clock starts Friday.