Controlling the user experience: an example of non-control

A great user experience is at the core of Apple’s products. Apple controls the Mac OS and the computer hardware. Apple controls the iPod, the iTunes software, and the iTunes Music Store. For the most part (although you are locked in to the platform, DRM, etc), the user experience is great because Apple controls all aspects. Lets take a look at the opposite end of the spectrum: Sirius Satellite Radio.

First, you have Sirius Radio, the service provider of the satellite service. There is also Sirius branded hardware. The stand-alone units are also known as “plug and play,” to imply that setup is easy. You just plug it in and it works. Sirius’s branding is so ubiquitous that it has caused confusion for consumers. Some Sirius tuners available from Radio Shack may have no branding other than Sirius. So, what brand is it? Sometimes it is Sirius, other times, it is another manufacturer. A customer may know that these other stereos “work with Sirius,” so maybe it is one of them? Some car stereos are “Sirius Ready,” meaning that have the ability to control a special Sirius tuner, but the tuner must be purchased separately. This is not an easy concept for some customers to understand.

Next, you have the various manufactures of the hardware. Sometimes, you have two or three manufacturers of hardware to make one complete system work. “Sirius Ready” car stereos are available from Alpine, Kenwood, JVC, Sony, Panasonic, Clarion, Sanyo and Panasonic. Each manufacture requires its own proprietary tuner unit. To add to the confusion, within a single brand, there are sometimes specific tuners that do not work with specific car stereo models (older stereos will not work with the new tuners). When Sirius launched, each manufacturer was branding, manufacturing, and distributing its own Sirius tuner. Now, Sirius had made Directed Electronics the only manufacturer of these tuners. So, now we have no fewer than three separate entities involved that the customer may need to contact:
-Sirius, the service provider
-the manufacturer of the stereo
-the manufacturer of the Sirius tuner (Directed)
-In some cases, you can replace the supplied Sirius antenna with a Terk Sirius antenna.

When a problem occurs, whom should the customer contact? Could the customer be passed between each different party more than one time? Is there any easy way figure out where the problem exists without taking everything to a dealer or sending everything to its respective manufacturer’s service center?

Sirius support reps do not even understand the difference between the plug-and-play and a Sirius Ready car stereo. When customers call Sirius to activate their accounts, they ask for the ESN or SID (electronic serial number or Sirius ID number, lets pick a name standard) without asking if the customer has a Sirius Ready car stereo or a plug-and-play. In some cases, the customer has a Sirius Ready car stereo without the Sirius tuner, and does not understand the Sirius Ready concept.

XM Satellite Radio seems to push their plug-and-play radios more than their XM Ready radios, which I could only find a couple of on the XM website. Did they understand that the user experience is better if you don’t have to explain what “XM Ready” means? Maybe. And I say this because they have an XM tuner called the XM Direct that is compatible with most Sirius Ready car stereos. They are using Sirius’s “integrated” solution against Sirius, for yet another layer of customer confusion, thanks to XM.

The plug-and-play units can usually be used in a home or in a car. There are usually special kits that allow it to be used in each one. One expects that these accessories would be available for years to come. This is not the case. Some of these plug-and-play units are made so inexpensively that they are not repairable; some have no replacement parts. So, when a defect is discovered when it is under the warranty, it is replaced. When it is outside of the warranty, the customer is S.O.L. The least the customer could do is buy a new tuner or a new kit to work with their existing piece. But are these available over a year later? Usually not. By law, parts need to be available for a unit for seven years, but apparently this means only if spare parts are made available, and apparently this does not apply to accessories required to operate the unit. I guess Sirius (or one of their radio manufacturing partners) just wants you to buy a new one. What a great user experience.

This last point does not have to do with control of the hardware/service combination, but just another pain point that a customer may have as a result of the manufacturer not putting the user experience first.

Sirius, fix your problems, seriously. There is competition from every angle: iPod and iTMS, subscription services like Yahoo Music, Napster, Rhapsody, and free music licensed under CC featured in podcasts. These all use an open standard that will never be discontinued: audio output to audio input connection. They do not rely on satellite reception. They all allow for a wider choice of music.

Update 8/2/206:
Apparently this example has been written about in a book that compares XM’s and Sirius’s strategies. More here.

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