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On Site: An 'Out-of-Box' Experience

By Jason W. Fouts

Communications of the ACM, Vol. 43 No. 11, Pages 28-29

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For the past several years, companies have been working to improve users' initial experiences with their products (called the "out-of-box" experience or OOBE). IBM's AS/400 system comes with a card that sits on the box when opened, describing unpack and cabling instructions, and an EZ-setup CD. Sierra Wireless includes a wizard utility, offering a quick path for software installation. Acer greets users with a color poster that walks them through a seven-step set-up process. Silicon Graphics engages users in an extensive VRML world to educate them about the functionality and architecture of their high-performance workstations. These efforts, without a doubt, provide users with the ability to effectively accomplish their goal of starting to work productively, as soon as possible.

What happens when a single goal extends across several of these companies? For instance, does the OOBE design of Sierra Wireless influence users' ability to perform well with Acer's OOBE design? The following experience of helping my mother "get online" suggests that one company's OOBE design can adversely affect or contradict another company's OOBE, as well as, influence how users perceive each company.

Several months ago, my mother wanted Internet access. She did not have a computer, modem, or Internet Service Provider (ISP). She saw an advertisement from Office Depot for a Compaq Presario, and decided to buy it after talking with many people. After bringing her new computer home, she stored it on a shelf for almost two weeks until a qualified computer expert (me) could help her with the process in case something went wrong.

When it was time to set up the computer, we opened the box to see a nicely designed set of instructions and color-coded cables. Without much difficulty, we were able to set up the hardware and turn on the computer. Our next step was to choose an ISP.

From the desktop, we were able to click on "Internet Providers," and have three ISPs displayed in the window. Since my mom had never heard of two of the options, we decided to try America Online (AOL). As the computer was connecting to AOL, the screen went blank and the computer shut down. Not knowing what had happened, we tried again and the computer shut down at the same point in the process.

I called AOL to see what the problem might be. After answering several questions, the customer service representative told me to hold down the control-alt-delete keys. Following his instructions, we chose to end task on all but three programs that were running. During this process, I depressed control-art-delete twice and had to start the process over again. After ending task on several programs, we were able to connect with AOL without additional problems. By the way, the customer service representative mentioned there might have been some "conflicting" programs (Why would the computer be loaded with conflicting programs?) that were interfering with our ability to connect to AOL.

The experiences and difficulties described here may be very common, and not worth noting. However, they point to a much more complicated issuedesigning the OOBE when products and/or services from multiple companies are needed for users to accomplish a single goal (getting online). My mother bought the Compaq computer hardware from Office Depot, used Microsoft Internet Explorer software, and wanted AOL's services. She could not have avoided the problems that arose because they were invisible to her. However, insightful designers should have been able to predict and eliminate these problems. Good design is founded on designers' ability to look beyond tasks (buying a computer, setting up the hardware) and identifying user goals [3].

The interdependencies of each company in helping my mother accomplish her goal seemed to be largely ignored. Testing in a usability lab, heuristic evaluations, surveys/questionnaires, and other usability techniques cannot begin to address the concerns raised here without a broader scope (such as looking at the goals users might have and what other products influence the achievement of those goals). When designers only look at their specific product without a better understanding of the users' goals and environment (other software products) users suffer. Failure to anticipate these dependencies influenced my mother's OOBE and her initial impressions of each company.

I would like to suggest that as designers help users to use the products they design, they reach beyond single products and identify more closely with users' everyday environments. Within user environments, the dependencies upon other companies that users encounter should be identified and resolved. Several others have advocated this approach [1, 2]. Moreover, designers could extend this approach to include their colleagues working at other companies. I acknowledge implemention would be complex; but let us not forget that when people are able to accomplish their goals effectively and efficiently, everybody wins.

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1. Beyer, H. and Holtzblatt, K. Contextual Design: A Customer-Centered Approach to Systems Designs. Morgan Kaufman Publishers, San Francisco, CA, 1997.

2. Chapanis, A. Human Factors in Systems Engineering. Wiley, NY, 1996.

3. Cooper, A. About Face: The Essentials of User Interface Design. IDG Books Worldwide, Foster City, CA, 1995.

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