We were trying to be patient. The cable installer had clearly been trained to walk new digital cable customers through a complete orientation. He was not going to be dissuaded just because we said we knew something about the technical details of cable. He was serious about doing his job well.
As he was finally wrapping up the details of "enhanced TV" services, he asked "Do you have a computer?" When we said yes, he continued: "So you know about control-alt-delete, right?" Now he really had our attention. "Well," he continued, "when you select something with your remote, be careful not to push it again until the little icon stops moving" (pointing out where to look). "Otherwise, you might hang up the set-top." Then he said brightly, "But don't worry, in case that happens, all you need to do is push these two buttons at the same time" (pointing to the bottom right of the set-top) "and it will re-start, just like your computer".
At that moment, we both had the same thought: Alan Cooper's question in "The Inmates Are Running the Asylum" (see BBHR May 23, 2002) "What do you get when you combine a computer and [name any useful object: a car, alarm clock, camera, etc]?". As Cooper predicted, the answer was clear: combining a computer with a set-top, we got a computer.
We really love the content of our digital cable service. We get video on demand, a useful program guide, some interactive features, and lots of new channels. But we also get frustrated training ourselves to be patient for literally seconds at a time while the logo slowly spins and we tap our fingers and wait. And we found that the set-top can crash even without pushing buttons on the remote: while we were away for two weeks, all the episodes of "Sex and the City" we thought we had recorded on our PVR turned out to be the Weather Channel (selected when we left).
What's the lesson? The good news is that our cable operator is no longer buying those set tops and we hope the new ones have better human factors. The cautionary tale is that real users don't want to re-boot their set-tops and watch logos and wait.
To create experiences customers really love, new services need both great content and great user interaction.