Despite decades of talk about being “in tune with customers” and huge budgets for market research I wonder how well the major corporations in the tech sector really understand their customers.
During the last two years, the leading vendors of PC and Mac have decided that users only want glossy screens. They have obviously missed that users are highly divided about this product innovation. Many users love the glossy screens with their high contrast and saturated colors, but there is an opposing camp of users of probably the same size that detest the big drawback of these screens – all the glare and reflections from the super glossy surface.
Super glossy screens were developed by Fujitsu and launched in 2003 in Japan under the brand CrystalView. Sony brought the technology to the mass market with the brand X-Brite and the other major manufacturers followed. Dell with Truelife, HP with BrightView, Toshiba with TruBright, Acer with CrystalBrite and Apple under its own brand.
The advantages with glossy screens are deeper black, higher contrast, more intense color saturation and a sharper picture. If the screen is used for DVD-films or gaming and you sit in a fairly dark room a glossy screen is superior to a traditional matte screen.
The huge disadvantage is the reflections. The glass in the screen is super glossy and looking at the screen with the PC turned off you can easily see the mirror image of your own face. Ceiling lights, windows and other strong light sources are highly visible unless the screen is tilted at an angle that removes the reflections from the field of vision.
The vendors have made these screens very bright in order for the screen’s own light to dominate over the glare. The brightness is a problem in itself as the eyes get tired from the intense light. The brightness can’t be turned down much since that will make the ever-present reflections even more visible. Another problem is that dust and stains are very visible on a glossy screen. However, if you can manage to find an angle where most of the reflections are deflected from the field of vision they work fine.
For corporate users in well-lit offices who work with figures and read texts, the matte screen is the obvious choice. In spite of the alleged superior image quality the glossy screens have actually been rejected by professional photographers and other professionals who work with graphic design. They complain that glossy screens hide problems because they produce results that are better than reality. An image that has problems with, for example, the color balance when printed on paper can look fine when viewed on a glossy screen. If you want to be sure that your website and images look good on all types of screens and when printed out, the image has to be adjusted with a matte screen.
The controversies about these screens in forums and blogs have been heated, and the proponents of glossy and matte screens have very strong opinions. A few examples can be found here, here, here, and here. I have also found a few internet polls, two with matte screens winning and one poll with glossy screens winning. Clearly the users are divided about what screen type they prefer.
Even though the advanced users who debate these issues on net forums are only a minority I find it incomprehensible that the major vendors have ignored this issue. For example, Dell, HP, Apple and most other manufacturers have completely stopped selling laptops with matte screens for consumers. If you want a matte screen the only option is the more expensive corporate models from Dell, HP and Lenovo. Last year Apple stopped selling matte screens, despite the fact that their most loyal customers are photographers and other creative professionals who rely on and demand image accuracy. Due to customer complaints Apple has reintroduced a 17 inch MacBook Pro with a matte screen.
It seems that the vendors are not even aware of this problem. After visiting the major electronics retailers on Kungsgatan street in central Stockholm I could not find any signs of them trying to hide the problem. For example, no one had adjusted the ceiling lighting to reduce glare. In the Mac store the laptops were lined up next to the front window (instead of against the window). In the ComputerCity store, HP has rented the prime space by the entrance and put their largest HP TouchSmart there. If they had positioned the TouchSmart screen vertically the customers would look down on the screen and most of the reflections from the ceiling could be avoided. Instead the screen is tilted backwards which creates as many reflections as possible.
Many participants in web forums (including me) say that the screen type is a critical factor in determining what computer they will purchase.
What makes this little case study interesting is that it reveals how internal company processes can go wrong. This is an example of how the major companies in the tech sector are technology driven in the wrong way. An industry that for decades has been solely focused on increasing raw performance as fast as possible becomes institutionally blind to everything that contradicts this pattern. The race for “better colors and contrast” is viewed in the same way as the competition for faster processors and larger hard drives. More must always mean better. For the vendors it becomes irrelevant that the users prioritize other factors such as avoiding strained eyes and distracting reflections.
The corporate Market Research departments (alternative terms: Customer Insight, Consumer Insight) have failed to put themselves in the micro situation of the customer. If they really understood the user situation and his or her context the alarm bells would have gone off when the product marketing executives wanted to introduce glossy screens on all consumer PCs. Or perhaps Customer Insight knew about this but they were unable to make their voice heard internally. In that case the problem is caused by internal corporate politics.
This article has previously been published on my Swedish blog.