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Jakob Neilsen Doesn't Get the Foleo
I just read an article that usability expert Jakob Nielsen wrote about the Palm Foleo mobile companion, a device that my team is developing at Palm. Based on the date on the article, Jakob wrote this immediately after seeing the introduction of the device. By that time, I'm sure he actually got to use it, to hold it in his hands, see how it fits in his bag, and try out the built-in software. I'm sure he got to install a few third-party applications. I'm sure he got to do some thinking about how he uses computers and see if some aspects of that could be made simpler and more efficient.

Actually, I'm sure he didn't do any of that. I can tell by the tone of the article, which is all negative, and by what he doesn't say about the device.

First, he repeats the claim that you should just buy a small laptop that's been made all over the press. Well, people haven't been buying them, even though they've been around for a while. Perhaps its because they're too expensive.

Our device was sized based on the human interface, not on the available technology. We wanted a full sized keyboard without any of the compressed keys you see on lots of laptops. We wanted a place to rest your hands while typing or using the wheel or trackpoint. There's the basic width/height footprint. If you make the device smaller, you have a poorer user interface. Could we have made it thinner? Maybe, but you'd give up battery life because we wouldn't have as much room for power cells or you'd have a weaker case that didn't hold up to extended use.

Also, the use case for the Foleo isn't replacing your laptop. I don't expect many users to give up their laptop computer for this. However, having a device like this around means you don't need to get the tiny laptop that's got the small screen and the lower capabilities; you can replace your desktop system with a more capable laptop that's portable when you need it, even if it's usually docked and hooked up to all your gear. This is a device that can remotely access your system, your files, and your email. In a sense, it's as much of a companion for your laptop as it is a companion for your cell phone, as it supplements what both can do.

I've got a Dell Latitude D610 that I take with me to California. When I'm in the office, it's locked to my desk and has an Ethernet cable tethering it to the Palm network. At home, it's usually either up on my desk or downstairs on a table. It's pretty powerful, and the screen is very nice. However, if I want to take notes in a meeting, do research web browsing on the couch, go sit someplace nice to write a web posting, or play a game of solitaire, I grab my Foleo. I don't have to grab a power brick, I don't have to wait for it to boot up, and I don't have to do some weird shutdown key sequence when I'm done, I just close the lid.

Jakob makes a big deal about us not announcing full specs. They are coming -- he misses the point that we've not actually shipped the device yet. The D conference was a technology demo and a launch of the "idea" of Foleo, but we're still finalizing everything. Some of the ideas behind Foleo are very powerful. Instant on and instant off are big. They made PDAs useful, and it's taken a lot of work to get that same experience into a larger device. Email sync to a phone is really big; it introduces the idea that your data is going to by physically on you or close to you, and that other systems, be them big or small, get to the data through that. There's been a lot of talk about "clouds of data" out on the net. While that makes sense for the information that we all own, having the "master copy" of your own information be on a device that you carry with you all the time seems better from a usability and security view.

Yes, there are some limitations to the device. Some can be fixed by refining and adding to the software that we'll ship with it, some will have to wait for future versions. Some are artifacts of our team having to pick and choose from features to spend time on in order to actually ship the device.

I respect Mr. Nielsen; I've read many of his columns and several of his books. One of his tenets is testing things on actual users. I'm disappointed that he'd dismiss our idea without actually testing what we're doing.

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I'm sorry to see you guys getting a lot of bad press; I'm sure that's incredibly frustrating. I actually had to swear off reading the Keynote forums after the app was released for the first time, because the 'net tends to compress & regurgitate negativity.

I will admit I didn't know what to think of the Foleo when it first came out, but as the idea sat in my head, I totally see where you're going with this, and what problem space it solves. I hope you guys succeed -- and I hope your marketing department figures out how to communicate the idea without people falling into the preconception traps they are falling into right now.

The idea of full featured keyboard & display with your phone as the brains -- or at least the soul -- of the computing experience is actually a pretty goddamned compelling one.

Sorry to hear about the review. Regretfully, they seem to be more the majority than the minority. Does this device have too much vision? Are people not ready for it? I think what you are encountering is the vocal minority. There are people at work that I talk to that are not technical, I tell them about the Foleo... and they are interested... amazingly, the non-tech people get it! They see how it can save them the effort of lugging around a laptop and syncing it with their Treos. Heck... I could use one this week...

Nielsen must've drunk his own kool-aid....

This is very sad. I've met Nielsen; Nortel was trying to work with NNGroup on an initiative of which I was project manager for a major component, and afterward I took the three-day World Usability Tour in 2001, at which he was a very active presence. The mistakes you describe don't sound like the man I worked with.

But reading his article, it seems Nielsen is confusing actual potential problems with the Foleo with web and marketing usability issues. He's upset that the website and promotional campaign don't follow his rules for usability and e-commerce. He writes (emphasis mine), "The product website is miserable," "Another aspect of the website's photo that doesn't work is..." and, "This is a blatant violation of all guidelines for e-commerce," linking to his own company's e-commerce series on the last comment.

Evaluating the device on its own merits is not an option for someone who seems incapable of separating marketing and web design from the product itself. (I'm not saying the Foleo marketing or web design are bad, mind you, simply that they don't work within the framework Nielsen finds optimal.)

Very sad to see a formerly clear-thinking brain so unable to distinguish between such very different issues.

P.S. I think the Foleo is a great concept, but then I loved the Apple eMate. I've been waiting for something like this; wish I could afford it :-)

Re: Nielsen must've drunk his own kool-aid....

"Evaluating the device on its own merits is not an option for someone who seems incapable of separating marketing and web design from the product itself. (I'm not saying the Foleo marketing or web design are bad, mind you, simply that they don't work within the framework Nielsen finds optimal.)"

Actually - marketing (and web presence and online evangelism) go hand-in-hand with good product design. Even if the Foleo is indeed the next perfect thing from a technology and usability standpoint, the damage done by the marketing team fumbling the launch may already be unrecoverable.

Palm should have given Jakob Nielsen and other likely critics and key thought influencers a private advance briefing. An hour with Jeff (or even Ben - perhaps even better!) explaining the real vision and potential for the product would have smoothed the waters for a much gentler launch and warmer reception.

I can think of 1000 ways this could have been handled better. It frustrates me actually - I know how much better things could have gone if I was behind the scenes like I used to be.

One comment from Jakob I particularly agree with:
"With a companion appliance for data services, mobile phones can go back to being tiny and shiny instead of clunky bricks."


Right now Palm has left users imagining themselves carrying around a Foleo as a companion to a big clunky phone and also a big clunky laptop. Three things.

Imagine instead if Palm had shown off the Foleo as a companion for a phone like a Razr or the iPhone. Or some new "Micro Treo" without a keyboard...

And then wrapped all of that with a marketing message of "the laptop for the rest of us" or "leave your laptop behind - do 95% of what you would ever need your laptop for with a Foleo and a super-small-cell..."

That gets users imaginations fired up.

*fingers crossed*

- chris

Re: Nielsen must've drunk his own kool-aid....

I completely agree with everything you said. But I stand by my evaluation of Jakob confusing product design with product presentation. You want to have them coordinated well, you want to have everything perfect—but if you're evaluating the product, you shouldn't evaluate its presentation as if they were one and the same. If you address marketing or web design, you should make it very clear that you've done your best not to let that influence your evaluation of the product itself, for better or for worse.

In fact, I'll go so far as to say that not pointing out the difference (as you so ably did), is a sin of sorts on the reviewer's part. The reviewer of a product should make a point of mentioning the difference between the marketing and the product.

It's like saying, The Departed is great—the DVD cover is particularly well-designed; or, The MacBook poses significant challenges; I found the website difficult to navigate. In an article titled, Palm Foleo: A Failed Mobile Device, Nielsen writes, "Another aspect of the website's photo that doesn't work is showing a big mobile companion next to a big phone featuring a second keyboard. For mobile, you want to cut how much you're schlepping around, so you don't want the same feature twice." Huh? Nothing to do with the seeming purpose of the article, but associated in the reader's mind with it anyway. If Nielsen's intent is to address the failure on multiple levels, including marketing, he should still state that more clearly. It's not apparent in the review.

Nielsen seems a little caught up in his own idea of what constitutes good design and e-commerce, to the detriment of his ability to review a product.

Man, this sucks. I love a lot of what Nielsen has to say. I hope this is a minor misstep, and not a trend.

"However, if I want to take notes in a meeting, do research web browsing on the couch, go sit someplace nice to write a web posting, or play a game of solitaire, I grab my Foleo. I don't have to grab a power brick, I don't have to wait for it to boot up, and I don't have to do some weird shutdown key sequence when I'm done, I just close the lid."

That sounds like a Mac laptop...

The Foleo is half the cost and has potentially an even better instant awake experience - and I am hoping that it nails this. Making even a small jump in responsiveness and usability over what any laptop can deliver may be all that the Foleo needs to be a hit.

And indeed - making the Foleo into a PC and smartphone companion both is the real key. I am really disappointed that the marketing around the launch seems to have completely bungled getting the bigger potential and vision across.

One thing that worries me is that (so far) the Foleo looks like it will in some weird hybrid place of not being able to fully replace the PC or the smartphone for a lot of day-to-day basic tasks. That the Foleo does not have a full PIM suite is shocking. It would make the ultimate day-timer if it had a great calendar, todo list, and address book in it.

And core things like PIM are not something that should be left up to third parties...

- chris

Thanks for the comments and encouragement. I'd love to answer some things, but I'm limited in what I can say about future capabilities right now.

(Deleted comment)
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