Spend as much time around smart products as I do and one thing becomes abundantly clear: most UIs suck. Like really, truly, suck. It is easier to count on a single hand the number of UIs in this business that are truly excellent than it is to keep track of the bad ones.
A user interface, for those of you who may not be wholly familiar with the term, is a fancy way of describing the menus or screens by which you interact with any given device. UIs have been with us since the dawn of AV, the small analog window on the front of an old radio tuner being a familiar example. As is the display on the front of any modern AV receiver. But what I'm really talking about is a product's internal user interface, or its onscreen menus.
Menus have no doubt gotten slicker and more refined over the years, but flashy graphics and smooth animations don't necessarily make a good user experience. If anything, they can result in a less useable one. The point to having a good user interface and thus a positive user experience is two-fold: first, a good UI allows for the quick setup and/or access to functionality within the product or system that enables the user to navigate and thus enjoy their task of choice with relative ease; and second, a proper UI will embolden the user, and encourage them to use said product or device more. The latter is arguably the more important of the two, since a product that is so convoluted that you don't enjoy using it is one you likely won't use and enjoy nearly as much.
These days, so much of a product's day-to-day functionality or performance is all about how we engage with it, and less to do with the sound or picture it produces. So, while designers and engineers may have once slaved over frequency response or pixel count, future (or maybe even present) designers are more likely going to put their focus upon obtaining faster processors, more memory, and color and design schemes. The more important job in an AV company may not be to be the "golden ear" anymore, but rather the app designer or programmer.
This is why I believe future products will be judged less on their performance as we like to think of it today (subjective sound or image quality), and more on its daily integration and success as a gateway between you, the user, and your entertainment needs. Brands that understand this will stay; those that don't will be left out in the cold.
Sony's recent success with integrating the Android TV OS into its smart TVs is an example of a UI experience done nicely. Samsung's too is starting to really hit a stride in the UI department as well. Brands like Hisense and TCL have all but abandoned doing it themselves, opting instead for tried-and-true platforms like Roku to do the heavy lifting in the user interface department, and that's fine too. LG continues to struggle, in my opinion, as their gesture-based, cutsie menu is about the only thing I continue to despise about the company's otherwise-perfect displays. And don't get me started on Vizio's SmartCast platform. Sigh.
It's not just tech that understands the importance of the user interface and experience. Content providers like Spotify and TIDAL are all about making life easier for their customers, and as a result continue to grow and bring new fledgling markets along with them as a result. Does anyone honestly think the streaming/DAC portion of the market within specialty AV would be as popular as it is right now if the services these devices connected to were crap to use? Of course not.
But there's no denying the reigning king of the user experience is Apple. Love the brand or hate it, Apple dominates in the UI space and its customer loyalty (not to mention sales) reflect this. While it may be possible to do more for less by going with Android or a PC-based platform, Apple is proof positive that when you nail the user experience, people will reach into their pockets and dig just a little deeper. Give them an experience they feel they can't get anywhere else and they'll be loyal to the bitter end.
One only has to look at Sonos, who despite almost kneecapping itself not a month or so ago by "end-of-lifing" some legacy products and bungling the PR surrounding the announcement, will continue to dominate the specialty AV smart speaker landscape. Sonos still doesn't hold a candle to Amazon's own Echo devices, however, as Amazon is yet another brand that understands the user experience more than anyone. Hell, Amazon is so dialed in with what people want and how they want it, that they're singlehandedly changing the very landscape of the wireless music streaming marketplace.
It's no longer enough for an AV product to simply be "connected," or for a company to offer app-based control. We're rapidly approaching an era where most modern components offer that, and aren't the better or different for it. Very soon, there will be a proverbial arms race for who has the best user experience, and right now, the only high-performance AV company that has figured this out is Kaleidescape.
What products do you own (or have used) have the best UI? What are some stinkers? Share with us below in the comments. We love to hear from you.
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