Today I’m going to talk about embedded design, the user experience, and business ramifications.

My friend Zonker, who is always insightful, just said this in his blog:

It’s amazing what people consider an “effort” now compared to 5, 10, or 20 years ago. [...] People have little to no tolerance for what they consider inconvenient. Even if that inconvenience is, realistically, very minimal. It can cost thousands or even millions of users for a platform if people perceive it as inconvenient.

This is absolutely true, and doubly—triply—so in embedded systems design. User experience (UX in the industry) is king, more now than ever. As an example, let’s look at something we all now take for granted: the lowly telephone.

Believe it or not, 200 years ago, smoke signals and jungle drumming aside, it was not possible to contact someone electronically, electrically, or any other way besides (1) being there in person, or (2) writing them a letter. In 1844, 166 years ago, Samuel Morse demonstrated the first commercially viable telegraph system, building on a design Joseph Henry demonstrated in 1830. The UI was crude—a simple switch—and involved trained operators at both ends who understood Morse code, but it was a vast improvement over the physical transport of either people or parcels. Messages that previously took days or weeks to arrive now took minutes. Interestingly, the user experience for the average person was not much different from one they were already used to—the mail. Instead of dispatching a handwritten letter, people would dispatch a “telegram” via human messenger. This was the primary method of non-physical communication for the average person from the 1840s nearly until the turn of the 20th century. (Note: one could still send a telegram via Western Union in the United States until 2006.)

Telephones enabled individual users to actually talk to each other directly without need for an intermediary, vastly improving the user’s experience. Granted, most lines were “party lines” in which everyone could listen to the conversation, rendering secure audio communication an impossibility. (I can verify that party lines were still a reality in my ancestral village in northern Iowa until the early 1980s.) Still, it sure beat the pony express. Individual lines slowly became a reality through the mid-1900s, to the delight of teenagers everywhere.

Eventually came the mobile phone, now with Jetsons-like features, that fits in my pocket. The cost of sending a message or talking to someone far away is a very, very, very small fraction of what it ever has been before, throughout the history of electric communication briefly described above. The device itself can also play games, track your every movement and give me directions to get where I want to go, play music, and operate toy helicopters.

Yet the major difference between a no-holds-barred winner in the device marketplace and an also-ran (sorry, Palm, but it’s true) is its user experience. UX (user experience) (learn more here) is a far more important differentiator in a device than, say, performance, screen size, or available storage, up to the point where any of those incur costs in UX. And UX isn’t just the UI on the device, it is the ecosystem around it, as Apple uniquely proved (again) with the iPhone. In most ways, the iPhone didn’t provide anything that HP, Palm, Sony, and others hadn’t already provided before them. What they did was provide a solid UI and an ecosystem that made using the device seamless and fun.

The magic in UX is setting expectations and then meeting them. We must treat the users themselves as kings, otherwise the most clever devices fall by the wayside. Good ideas don’t win markets—treating the user like a valued customer is what does it.