A few months ago I decided to upgrade the radio in my car, to make my now 10 year old vehicle a little more interesting to drive. Since I hope to have this car for another 10 years, the ~$500 investment made sense to me.
I started out on Crutchfield, where I last bought a car radio back in 1989 (from their printed catalog, natch). The experience was very similar – pick out a radio, check the compatibility and then place the order. The web made the experience a little easier, but only just.
Since I’ve got the space in my dash, I opted for a double-height, touchscreen unit. The first learning: Car radios have standardized sizes, either single- or double-height. This was not the case back in 1989 when there were still slight variations in sizes.
So the car radio industry has learned in the value of standardization. Or so it appears at first blush. When you go to plug that radio in, you’ll soon enough learn the harsh reality that the wiring harnesses are different from vehicle to vehicle. This is just unacceptable these days. All radios have the same connections – speakers, antenna, power, possibly some steering wheel controls – and the interface for all of these should be universal. But this is where Cruthfield shines. They offer (free of charge) connector units with clear instructions that make it easy to connect the right wires to the right places.
The second learning: Customer service pays. I knew enough about wiring up a car radio to know that I couldn’t just buy the radio from Amazon and save ~$50. I knew that by paying that extra amount I would have access to Crutchfield’s customer service. Throughout the install I had to contact customer service 3 times: once because I ordered the wrong part (replacement shipped free of charge); once because of difficulty with the steering wheel controls (replacement part shipped free of charge); and another call to the steering wheel interface company to validate my thinking and wiring (thinking was spot on, wiring unfortunately, not). There is still an absolute value to these services – there are times when I know what I’m doing and I only want to pay the cheapest price and there are times when I don’t when I am willing to pay for some additional services.
Companies today need to understand who they want to be: The low-cost, no service provider or the full-service, higher-price provider. Falling somewhere in between is following a path to failure. Pricing information is too readily available to consumers and if you charge more without providing additional service, you will be ratted out.
With the unit fully installed and working, the third lesson is bad user interface makes for a bad experience. While I like the features that the new radio provides (bluetooth, navigation, ipod integration, etc.,) the interface is really clunky. The screen is not pleasant to look at, the buttons are not in consistent places, and key functions are not readily available in the default screens. Too many gadgets today are plagued by horrible interfaces. With a consolidation in capabilities, the best way to make your product stand out is through an excellent interface (hello.. Heard of Apple?)
The Fourth lesson? Allow configuration and customization. With such a bad interface, I wish there were more option settings where I could set up the screens the way I want. This is something Apple doesn’t really do, as they believe (often correctly) that their implementation is best for most users and therefore has no need for customization. Even in Apple’s case, with their great designs, individuals will always appreciate being able to put on their own personal touch. Non Apple products? Don’t even consider that your interface is the best with no need for customization/modification.
Finally, the fifth lesson: Apps! In the iPhone/Android world, apps rule: Your devices (and it doesn’t matter what it is: fridge, car stereo, television) needs app integration. All devices benefit when you open up the capabilities to inventive developers. I’d love to be able to install apps (the obvious ones like Pandora, etc.,) to my car stereo but there are other possibilities as well: points of interest are another obvious choice but what other capabilities could be thought of?