How Not to Demo Your Product

February 26, 2012

I was in a branch of troubled media retailer HMV today. I only went in because of the sign outside proclaiming the opportunity to try out Sony’s Vita console. Sony isn’t doing great itself, and given the explosion of smartphones, the Vita is an important product for them. So with two companies in need of successes, everything is bound to be set up to perfection, right?

Dear Reader, I suspect you already know the sad answer. Here is what happened.

I went into the games section of this HMV and apart from a sparse PS Vita section, there was no sign of any demo unit. After a little wandering around the games section, a thought struck me: “HMV has a technology section where they sell iPads and the like, maybe the Vita is there,”. So I wandered over, and after walking past some Apple demo units (iPad, iPod) I finally found a sole, lonely Vita.

On screen was a dialog box: “You need to be connected to the Playstation Network to use this functionality”.

Not a great first impression, but not a huge deal - someone had left the demo unit in this state. After a bit of fiddling about to dismiss the dialog box and navigate some of the screens, I tried to enter some of the other functionality of the system. This was more problematic than it should have been, because despite the fact the Vita has 2 thumbstick controllers and numerous buttons, the only way to navigate the menus is by touching the screen.

At this point, the only positive part of this experience occurred. A friendly and well-intentioned HMV staffer approached and asked me if I had any questions.He also explained that the games section had a Vita demo unit with some actual demos on. When I told him I couldn’t find it when I walked through it earlier, he suggested maybe it was being recharged, and that I should ask one of the staff at the games section. This all struck me as rather strange, but this guy was actually being helpful, so no complaints about him.

I turned my attention back to the demo unit in my hands. The demo unit that was without any demos. Hmm. I tried some of the system functionality - I was curious to see what kind of OS and features the Vita provides compared to an iPod Touch. In all the cases I tried, I was presented with the same ugly grey dialog and the message: “You need to be connected to the Playstation Network to use this functionality”.

The last time I saw a demo unit this bad was for the Blackberry Playbook at a duty free shop in an American airport. I wandered past the iPads and iPod touches, back through to the games section, keeping my eyes open for a Vita demo unit with actual demos. I stood by the meagre Vita section, with an HMV staffer talking to someone (possibly another HMV staffer) near by. I figured I didn’t want to waste their time by asking to take a look at a demo unit they may or may not have, which may or may not be charging. So I went to leave, at which point the security alarm went off.

This did attract the attention of the HMV staffers, one of whom asked me: “Did you buy something?”

I laughed. “No,” I replied, “I didn’t buy anything,”.

HMV will make money by selling iPads and other tech products, but Sony needs to sort their act out. All demo units should work and have demo content (games, apps, whatever). This isn’t rocket science even when you don’t have a competitor whose demo units are flawlessly presented and just work.