Sidebar to Jakob Nielsen's Alertbox, March 9, 2009 on the usability of Kindle 2.
Amazon clearly hired a fancy industrial design agency for Kindle's reasonably slick packaging materials. And those first 20 seconds when you tear the box apart do matter.
But, more importantly, the following 5 minutes also provide a good user experience as you get to the hardware itself.
I was very impressed by the fact that "read me first " was imprinted on the Kindle screen itself, rather than on a cheesy sheet in the box. You can't miss it. Even better, the instructions were simple — (1) plug it in, and (2) turn it on — and had arrows pointing to Kindle's plug and power button. We know that users don't spend time reading detailed instructions anyway, so it's good to make it easy and fast to get the device up and running.
These "how-to-turn-me-on" instructions also made great use of Kindle's ability to retain a visual on its e-ink screen without consuming power. It would be harder for other devices to ship with power-on instructions on their screens. However, they could emulate it by printing instructions on the protective plastic overlay that's often stuck on screens for shipment. In fact, this is what I initially thought Kindle had done — until I peeled off the overlay, and the instructions stayed behind.
Once you power up Kindle, it displays a reasonably simple set of initial instructions. Again, this is something that's easier done on a reading device than on most consumer electronics. Still, kudos to Amazon for leveraging its device's abilities to improve the start-up experience.
The most important way Amazon reduces the set-up hassle is by pre-registering the device. When I turned on my Kindle for the first time, it already displayed its name as "Jakob's Kindle" and the home screen had entries for two e-books I had bought on Amazon.com while waiting for the device to ship. (Less good: the books didn't auto-download. I had to push buttons to move them from the archive to the bookshelf. Who buys a new book to put it straight into the archive?)
No need to manually register, enter an email address, password, and credit card, or to do any other setup. Once Kindle was powered, I could start buying and reading books.
Pre-populating the device with the user's info hugely improved the out-of-the-box experience. Of course, doing this requires a proficient logistics operation to correctly code the machines and then match up the correct hardware with the corresponding mailing labels so that users receive their personalized Kindles and not someone else's.
Also, Amazon is different from most websites in having a huge number of close customer relationships. When people buy an Amazon-specific device for their own use, the company has all the required pre-registration information and is smart to leverage it to improve the initial user experience. Fewer other companies have such info, so their devices are inherently harder to set up.
Even Amazon can't pre-register all Kindles. Customers often buy devices for other people, and such recipients will have to go through a registration process. Still, because the fact that something doesn't help all users is no reason to avoid it. People buy Kindles for themselves often enough that it makes sense to provide a particularly easy experience for that use case.