F**K You, It’s the Future

My uncle is 70 years old. He lives in Cleveland now, but he's lived and worked all over the world. His orbit includes many of the most interesting pop and counter culture figures of 60's through the 90's. He watched the Sex Pistols perform their last show at the Winterland Ballroom & was told to "scram" by an elderly Moe Howard. Unafraid of technologyhe built his own Triumph Bonneville chopper in the late 60's. He was never a motorcycle mechanic, just a smart guy who likes to figure things out.

In early in 2017, my uncle got a letter introducing him to all the new features that he was about to get from digital cable. None of these features interested him at all, so he the ignored the sales pitch. He didn't need a DVR, or want to watch anything on a second screen. If he missed a show, life went on. He likes reading the TV guide in the local paper. And actually, he's right about that. Some of the descriptions are pretty funny in a "nobody cares what we write any more" kind of way. On the 4th of August 2017, at precisely midnight, Spectrum Cable (formerly Time Warner, formerly…) foisted all these new digital features on him.

On the 5th of August 2017 all of my uncle's TV sets stopped working. Why? Because these new digital features, that he didn't want, came at the expense of the analog features that he'd been enjoying for years. So yeah, his TVs still work, but Spectrum no longer sends them the analog signal that they were made to display. To help my uncle, I took him to his local Spectrum office to pick up the new equipment that he needed. Upon arrival, we were herded into a corral of "old folks". Each old person was accompanied by a somewhat less old person. My uncle is 70, so he was accompanied by 45 year old me. To be clear, nobody in this line would be considered young by someone in their 20's or 30's (the average age of the staff at Spectrum). Cool water and tarps for shade were provided for our comfort. As was armed security. Seriously, three guys with guns.

When we finally reached a customer service representative my uncle was given a new cable box with a complex remote. By given, I mean that he was leased new equipment. 2 of his 3 televisions don’t have an HDMI port. They require an additional piece of hardware. Again, none of this is bringing him any new benefit. It’s just more stuff he has to do to watch TV. The cable company was actually quite nice about all of this. They patiently explained that his older sets should be replaced, but that they will provide special converters at a low cost. In the end, he got one cable box but didn’t buy the extra converters. His bill still went up, but lost the use of two screens. He pays more for a box that makes his remaining television harder to use and turns the rest into doorstops. 

I have digital cable. I stream 4K content from apps on my smart TV. I time-shift my viewing. I use second screens. Everything Spectrum (although I have Comcast) did was to improve the viewing experience for people like me. Unfortunately, this is at the expense of people like my uncle. His new cable box came with a remote that is substantially more complex than anything he has used in the past. The single button operation of turning on the TV now takes three buttons that must be pressed in the correct order. His new remote is filled with buttons that occasionally lead him to features that 1) interrupt his viewing experience and 2) are difficult for him to exit out of.

With a little effort, “classic” TV features could be provided to customers that don’t want anything else. There are simplified remotes. Companies like Flipper make models that seem very easy to use. They cost about $30.00 — or ANOTHER $30.00 as my uncle would say. These remotes do provide the correct level of functionality and should have been an option. With just a little more effort, the necessary digital adapters could be provided to customers in a way that doesn’t make them feel second class.

My uncle is a cool guy. Cooler than me, probably cooler than you. All he wants to do is relax in front of his television. It made me sad to see him placed into the literal corral of annoying old coots. As a paying customer he deserves better. Especially since all he wants is the services that should be at the core of a TV providers business. Namely, TV. Sometimes designing a good user experience takes more than concocting a clever interface that's verified by a well designed user study. Sometimes it requires empathy.

This willingness of technology companies to leave people behind isn’t unique to the cable TV industry. People routinely buy cars with "infotainment systems" that they can’t use. Times change, technology keeps chugging along. The baby boomer generation may not be the target market for some of these new products, but they do have and spend money. They aren't "legacy customers". They are customers.