Nikon Coolpix 4800

A friend and client of mine purchased her first digital camera today, a Nikon Coolpix 4800, in part because of my advice. But I also learned that despite the many practical and enticing factors that hundreds of other cameras offer, one simple usability feature can steal the show from dozens of seemingly more important ones.
My friend first sent me a brief outline yesterday of what she had in mind:

“I’m in the market for a digital camera – one that has the capability of taking short (1 – 3min) video clips as well. My main thing is not being able to see the viewer on some cameras – too small, not enough definition. Do you have any recommendations?”

A couple other remarks concerned the price (max. $500) and an “extremely frustrating” experience years ago with a video camera battery that repeatedly died after only a few minutes. But it’s significant what she addressed first.
I’ve known her long enough to have an idea of what she doesn’t want or need from a gadget. She surfs the net, sends a ton of email, but still calls me up to burn a CD. So I replied with an outline I thought suitable: cut down the jargon, simplify the issues and offer some suggestions. The gist of my reply:

  • Nikon vs. Canon (vs. Pentax vs. Sony vs. etc.): all the major brands make great cameras and all are very competitive in that price range
  • Batteries: avoid cameras that don’t include a lithium rechargeable. It’s not worth it to buy your own rechargeable AAs
  • Mega pixels: not always an accurate gauge of image quality; anything over 3 is good, once you hit 5-7 you won’t notice the difference
  • Digital Zoom: not a factor as it’s always low quality

There were a few more points, but I’d say this partial outline equally arms the first-time buyer against most manufacturer’s misleading marketing (and the salesmen’s) as it does someone like myself.
I also touched on the size issue, which is something I still debate over myself when discussing consumer-level cameras. A tiny camera like the Canon SD500 that could fit in her cycling jersey or jeans pocket seemed the way to go. Despite the slightly shorter battery time and less manual features, she would appreciate it more for its convenience.
So today we went to London Drugs together to get a better idea. But what happened is many of the issues I outlined to her, including ones I haven’t touched upon here, were not her real issues at all.
Here’s the main reason she went with the Nikon 4800: the viewfinder. It came down to the fact that even with the larger LCD on the Canon SD500, it was still too dark and lo-res for her without her glasses on, while its tiny viewfinder was craptastic enough that even I couldn’t use it. The Nikon’s LCD wasn’t much better (and even smaller than the Canon’s) but its viewfinder was. She could put her eye right up to that viewfinder–something she was also more familiar with from her point-and-shoot film camera–and take in the scene with clarity and high contrast. (The Nikon 4800’s viewfinder is actually a tiny, projected LCD screen, but it looks crisp and large inside its dark tunnel so close to your eye).
And that was that. There were a few secondary reasons (easier to hold and her friend had just bought one) and if I hadn’t endorsed it, she probably would have moved on. But she ultimately bought the camera for her reasons, or in this case, one reason.
I had specifically avoided confusing issues like shooting modes, types of memory cards, software, etc.; she wants to turn it on and snap pictures, record a few videos and view them on her computer. There’s also a whole other issue to be addressed about the ridiculous state of multiple, confusing and redundant camera choices the industry has come to. But I also ignored–or was at least less concerned about–the very first issue my friend brought up.
So maybe there’s a sub-lesson in there: that users will often address their most basic problem first. It may be trivial among other problems, but if their first needs aren’t satisfied no other number of usability pros will outweigh it.