MotionBased Connect Rant II

My friend Brian Palmer who publishes the excellent and entertaining WashingMachinePost is well into a very thorough review of the new Garmin 705 hardware you should be reading. This morning he emailed me asking what all the MotionBased fuss was about... worried perhaps that I was headed towards the book repository with a sniper rifle. I'm sure he didn't expect all this.

I didn't religiously fact check my dates, reading back through email history is likely to trigger an embolism, but I'm confident I'm not substantially distorting the time line.

B

MotionBased was originally an independent company that created a web-based application to store, analyze and map ride data from GPS devices like those from Garmin. Initially they were nimble, creative and quick to incorporate feedback in a rapidly evolving product... typical behavior for a startup.

MB, like so many mash-up Web 2.0 startups (combining data with Google Maps) was initially a free service, the limitation being only your last ten activities would be stored in their database. That couldn't fly for long with users or business viability, so they created an enhanced subscription service that would allow users to see all of their historic data. That's what I paid for with an annual suscription with the expectation that features, and work flow on the service would improve. The usability issues I highlighted in my latest post have been in the product since I first joined and even the most junior interaction designer/usability engineer would identify them immediately.

Unfortunately its still typical for software projects to proceed without experienced interaction design, and the result is usually the same, hard-to-use mess of developer excess. Like you hired a plumber and they came in and ran the pipes outside the walls (in your living space). As a mac person you can appreciate the average person doesn't think like a software developer.

Garmin took notice and acquired the promising MB product (and dev team) at which point development seemed to slow appreciably. Perhaps the dev team had cut some corners in architecting the underlying platform to move rapidly. I believe the database and schema were ill-suited to scale up to meet the usage demands.

Third quarter 2007 Garmin announced a new service called Connect would replace MB, initially for new devices, eventually for all legacy fitness devices like the Edge 305. It's my understanding the dev team behind this is still the MB dev team. I'm guessing they'd come to the realization that it was easier to start afresh with a properly architected database than try to salvage the MB repository.

MB, despite protestations to the contrary has always been an amateurish outfit when it came to customer communication. Again I suspect the developer led company saw little need for "marketing types" early on and never brought in the necessary experience to avoid the gaffs that would follow. MB thinks that a terse email posted to the MB forum once every four months is sufficient communication and perhaps it would be if they were still a little startup with a handful of users enjoying a free service.

Towards the end of 2007 MB finally committed to dates for the legacy device support. I recall a February cutover for the Edge 305. That never happened and the date was pushed back to May. May of course slipped to September. Again with terrible, inadequate justification and communication "We need more time to make Connect be the best it can be" There's only so many times you can borrow money from a friend and not pay it back. They keep asking, when it suits them, for more time... like a college kid asking a prof over and over for extensions when the term paper is due.

Since you've not been through the complete cycle of disappointment, missed release promises and continuing usability friction, it's normal for you to look at the service in a more positive "first" light. Unfortunately, Garmin has plenty of apologists (not suggesting you're one of them, a Scot is culturally incapable of that unless we're talking football) that show up on the forums. "I've been using my Garmin Edge 705 for two weeks and Connect has worked perfectly the two times I've used it"

It belittles the feedback they've got from long term users and the forums are sprinkled with insightful comments that should have been incorporated. Add to that the defensive nature of the support personnel and forum admins and you get a picture of an insular team that still hasn't heard the penny drop. Garmin, with all its resouces needs to hire a world-class design team to improve usability. They need to hire better communication people to put out a consistent professional message and most importantly they need seasoned Product Management to prioritize and release on schedule.

Finally it pisses me off to no end because this is what I do for a living and I understand all the players, the competing priorities, the culture, the technical limitations and the games that are played at customer expense. Whether we're talking enterprise software (Ariba, in my case), Operating Systems (Vista) or MotionBased/Connect there's just no excuse for continuously getting the basics wrong.

Chase a new feature instead of fixing the core interactions all users endure. Wrong.

Promise a date for a new service and let it slip again, and again. Wrong.

Compound the lousy customer experience with an ill-timed "your subscription has expired communication". Wrong.

I feel better now ;-)

::M

Note: I don't want to paint all developers with the same brush. My dev team is very conscious of the user experience and I'd bet any one of them could start in cold and fix the worst MB offenses within 30 days. I only wish we could put that boast to the test.

7 Responses to MotionBased Connect Rant II

  1. Clark Weber says:

    I’m surprised that I never heard from you via email or a phone call. As I recall, I sent you an email on June 13 (see below) willing to discuss the nitty gritty details of MotionBased and the transition to Garmin Connect. I never heard from you.

    I’m happy to discuss your concerns — just give me a holler.

    Here’s the email as I reminder…

    “Hi Michael,

    I’m sorry to hear about your frustrations with MotionBased and the lack of communication about the progress of Garmin Connect. You’re correct in your assertion that we could provide more status on the progress of Garmin Connect, but to say that there is no communication is incorrect.

    We have placed several blog posts, several updates on MotionBased, posts on the Garmin Forum as well as status via email from MotionBased Customer Support. Could it be better? Could it be more accurate? Absolutely. As the Garmin Connect product manaager and co-founder of MotionBased, it pains me to have these delays. We do our best to provide accurate release dates, but there have been some architectural issues, database integration and changes to our web services that have caused unsuspected delays. Is that an excuse? Nope. We missed the mark on those dates. I’ll take full responsibility for that.

    But to suggest,that our operation is lame-duck and uncaring for our customers is incorrect. We care very much about user feedback. We aggregate comments. We prioritize those comments. And we’re trying to build a web application that not only makes our customers proud to use, but one that we’re proud to develop. Everyone on the MotionBased/Garmin Connect team is an avid user of both services. We run, climb, ski, hike, paddle, surf, whatever. We’re our most active customer, and we’re very critical of our own website. And there is no group of individuals who would be more happy than to make the switch to Garmin Connect. Unfortunately, we’re not there yet. And, we don’t want to expose that to our MotionBased customers.

    I appreciate your patience and patronage of Garmin and MotionBased. I hope you will be pleased when we make the switch to Garmin Connect. I hope you find the delays in the migration worth it. It may not be as robust as you would like right off the bat. But the architecture, the infrastructire and the web services will be in place to develop a location-based fitness platform that is ready for many years to come.

    Feel free to email or call me directly if you wish to discuss further. Thanks.”

  2. Clark,

    No sign of your earlier email, but I’m very happy to talk about where things stand and the roadmap moving forward. Sending contact info.

    ::Michael

  3. sam says:

    hey, your blog post worked!

  4. Georges says:

    I’ve always been so confused with the MB site and their relationship with Garmin. And now the new Connect thing being advertise when you register for a Garmin account but of course not available to Edge 305 users. Also the Garmin Training Center for Mac is sort of a joke (you can’t even name your rides for one). Bottom line is that there isn’t a single decent solution that takes advantage of all the feature that the device has to offer and that works reliably. I’ve started to use MB because I wanted to publish my rides online and have had so many problems uploading and waiting for data to appear that it’s clearly not something that I’d want to pay for. Let’s hope that the new Connect will support Edge 305 soon and work reliably.

  5. Sam, Georges,

    I’m speaking with Clark tomorrow afternoon and we’ll see if a little dialog can improve the situation. I’m hopeful he’ll be candid (as I will) and offer some real clues as to why the current state of affairs hasn’t improved.

  6. Dan says:

    Where are you with this conversation? Garmin Connect is still lame, but I’m hopeful it’ll be the coolest things since sliced bread. I’m getting used to tech letdowns, though. Thanks for your postings. Dan

  7. Dan,

    thanks for stopping by, wish I had better news. If you’ve not seen the post of my conversation with Clark Weber of MB/Connect, it will fill you in, and offers more detail than Garmin has made public.

    Today’s announcement at least acknowledges that Garmin can’t expect legacy users to pay for MB Standard when so many promises have been broken.

    I am disappointed to see the apologists appear again in the forum. Giving Garmin any benefit of the doubt is completely unwarranted under the circumstances.