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Recently we celebrated Christmas and for those of us with small children, that means a day of watching them ignore the toys you bought them to play with the boxes those toys came in.  We have a choice when watching them.  We can either get angry after realizing that we could have bought them a bunch of crumpled paper and cardboard or we can smile and watch them, content in knowing that they are happy and having a great time.

As difficult as it may be, I generally take option 2 and just enjoy my time with my daughter as she plays with whatever she wants.  This Christmas was very interesting for me, however.  She's getting old enough now to start getting some really interesting gifts and I love watching her using them for the first time to see how she reacts.  As a techie, I love putting technology in her hands and seeing how she reacts to it.  I especially like to just hand her something and see how she figures it out with no instructions from me at all.  She's only 7 and sometimes it takes a little help from me to get her pointed in the right direction, but usually she's able to pick things up pretty quickly.  It didn't take her much time a couple of years ago when we first got our Harmony One remote to figure out how to use it effectively.  Actually, I think she picked up on how to use the remote quicker than we did.  This year, there were a few gifts for her that I couldn't wait to have her open and starting playing with.

She may be 6, but she is a voracious reader.  Instead of taking tons of books with us on trips, we decided to get her an eReader.  After weighing all of the choices, we decided to spend a little more and get her a Kindle Fire so that she could play a few games, read books and go to a few kid-friendly websites as well.   So far it has worked out extremely well - we've put a number of free ebooks on it and she is devouring them rapidly.  More importantly, she's not begging to play any games on it - she loves just having all kinds of choices when she wants to read something.  We haven't even gotten to the point of talking about any other rich content that the Fire supports such as magazines.  She would enjoy that sort of thing but Amazon provides such a large number of free ebooks that we can put on the device that we don't need to worry about any other content right now.  I would rather see her reading something like Treasure Island, her current favorite, than some magazine anyway.

I handed her the Fire.  She squealed.  We smiled.  With no prompting, she looked around the device until she found the power button, press it and slid the bar on the screen to unlock the device.  Within a few moments she had played with the navigation, found Angry Birds and tapped on an ebook to begin reading it.  No ifs, ands or buts.  Just that quick.  She started highlighting phrases, entering notes about highlighted passages, setting bookmarks and playing with the font size all without my intervention at all.  I was impressed - not just with her being able to pick the device and use it so quickly, but with how intuitive the interface is on the Fire.  I have an Android phone and tablet and, even though the Fire is based on Android 2.3, the user interface is totally different.  Amazon designed it to mimic a bookshelf and they explicitly place applications and content such as books and videos on the bookshelf together.  She had no trouble understanding this or in navigating the device at all.

The second gift I wanted her to play with was a Kinect for our Xbox 360.  Now, I'm not a gamer.  We had two Xbox 360 consoles for our house and we didn't even own a single game for them.  I bought them used a number of years ago and we use them to stream media to the TV sets in two rooms.  They worked extremely well from the start and have grown along with us as Microsoft added support for Netflix and other new content that we have ended up consuming over the years.  I didn't just get the Kinect sensor for my daughter - I got it for our whole family, thinking that it would be something that we could all play with and have lots of fun with together.

The Kinect sensor came with a couple of games in a bundle for a really good price and we bought a couple of other games as well.  I hooked up the sensor the night before and did the proper setup that was needed so that we didn't have to deal with an impatient child on Christmas day who couldn't wait to play with their new toy.  The next day, I turned on the Xbox, put in one of the games, sat back and watched.  The screen told her to wave to engage the sensor and when she did a hand appeared on the screen.  She immediately moved her hand which in turn moved the on-screen hand over a menu choice.  She then paused, noticed that a circle around the on-screen hand began to fill up and then watched as the choice was selected when the circle was completely drawn around the hand.  Done.  From that point there was no stopping her and she needed no instructions whatsoever.  It was amazing to watch how quickly she came up to speed on the interface.  In general, the games are all similar in the way that they function as well - this helped her navigate menus and game options easily no matter what she wanted to play.

The final gift that interested me was a gift from my parents - it was a set of two messaging devices that looked like a pair of old cell phones with a full Qwerty keyboard.  According to the package, you could send messages between the devices and they looked pretty cool.  However, I worried about the fact that there were a large number of keys on the device that were not part of the keyboard.  To me it looked pretty complex.  We opened the package later that day and tried not to slice our hands off with the sharp, thick plastic of the blister pack.  I put some batteries in the devices and opened the instruction book.  The 47 page instruction book.  To describe how to send "text messages" between the two devices.  Wow.  I started reading and immediately got a headache.  The more I dug into the book, I realized that the devices actually did a number of things other than just sending messages between each other.  However, I couldn't figure out how to do them.  I took the devices, pointed them at each other and dove in.  It took a while, but I finally was able to send a message from one to the other - but it was a hollow victory.  I had to create a profile on each device.  Each profile had to have a secret key that matched.  Each time I turned them on I had to re-enable the profile and make sure that I could see the other device.  To send a message, I had to press 7 keys just to get to the point where I could type the message and then hit 2 keys to send it.

Wow.

Now, you might be thinking that my daughter waved off this toy because it was too complex to use.  In fact, she loved it.  After I showed her how to use the devices, she carried them around for the rest of the week, sending messages to anyone she could con into holding the other "phone".  The problem was that I had to give her so much instruction on how to use them.  The interface for the devices was just not intuitive at all and contrasted against the easy-to-use Fire and Kinect, the difference was magnified greatly. 

I really started thinking about Track-It! and what it takes for a customer to use it.  Track-It! is a complex piece of software because it does a lot for the customer on a lot of fronts.  We've tried to make it as easy to use as possible and especially in creating the new Track-It! Web and Mobile Web solutions, we spent a lot of time ensuring that existing customers were able to just pick them up and use them.  I was very proud several months ago when we held a bug bash for Track-It! Mobile Web and some people from another product team who had never seen Track-It! before in their lives were able to use the Mobile Web during the bug bash with no instructions at all.  To me, that speaks volumes about the ease-of-use of the product in certain areas - areas that we have developed recently and where we have placed a very high priority on the interface and how easily it can be navigated.  We've also gotten rave reviews from customers who have been using the new Mobile Web and that's really what is important to me.  Making Track-It! easy to use is in the forefront of our thoughts now as we look at new features.  Implementing them in the Web or Mobile Web makes that easy to do as we are building on a platform that was created to provide a simple, clear view into your Track-It! data.

I would be interested in hearing from you regarding the things that make software easy to use for you.  Is it the platform on which it is built?  Is it the user interface?  Great performance?  Wizards or guided tasks in the interface that help you learn how to perform common tasks?  A great community around the software?  I'd love to hear from you in the comments below.

It's time to get back to work.  I've gotten used to the Kinect sensor on the Xbox and have caught myself waving at the TV while watching regular channels more than once.  I guess that's a sign that using the sensor is pretty natural to use. 

Just don't expect Track-It! for the Xbox 360 anytime soon...

-- You can reach me at benny_morrison@bmc.com or on Twitter (@BennyMorrison) or Google+ --