TCS Daily

The Way Things (Don't) Work

By Glenn Harlan Reynolds - October 9, 2002 12:00 AM

I like stuff. Hardware, software, electronics, firearms, whatever. If it does something, I tend to like it.

Unfortunately, I often get the feeling that the people who design things never actually use them. I get that feeling because so many products have designed-in flaws that should have been noticed at once if anyone had spent any time with them, flaws that - though minor in a sense - make all the product's good points, well, beside the point.

For example, my Nomad portable MP3 player has a lot of good points: its electronics work perfectly, the sound is great, and it's rugged enough to have withstood over two years of pretty rough service. Nonetheless, I don't like it that much.

Why? Because somebody didn't do his or her job. The Nomad's Achilles' heel is the plastic belt clip on the back, which must have cost all of five cents to make. Trouble is, they apparently didn't spend much more than that on the design, either, because the clip won't hold the Nomad on when I run - which is a pretty major flaw in a gadget designed for, well, people who run, and that touts its shock-resistance as a major part of its appeal. Walking around the gym, it's fine. But if you actually try running with it on, it bounces loose every single time. You can tighten an "adjusting screw" on the back, but it doesn't do any good.

The Nomad has other ergonomic problems, but most of them can be explained away, or at least partially excused, by the need to fit a lot of functionality into a small gadget with a limited display. But there's no excuse for the plastic clip. Anyone who actually tried running with one of these would have spotted the problem right away - as apparently a lot of users did, since Creative Labs quickly released a new version with an improved belt clip. Which was fine, except for those of us who bought the old one. Even on a rush-to-market basis, this problem should have been spotted.

My Rio Volt portable CD player has an even worse problem: the battery compartment cover slides off at the least provocation. That's because it uses a configuration (sliding panel with two flimsy plastic hooks) that always slides off at the least provocation. I know this because it's been on many TV remote controls that I have known - remote controls that always wind up with the battery cover "fixed" with a liberal application of duct tape.

Why is this problem worse? Because it's even less forgivable. Creative should have figured out the belt-clip problem before they went to manufacturing - but the battery-cover problem has been obvious for a couple of decades. It's a design that just doesn't work very well, but that keeps being used. I guess it's cheap, and it's obvious that nobody must care very much.

What's the point of these Andy-Rooney-like rantings? (Er, besides making me feel better, that is.) It's that bad design is all around us, and that it usually results from people not thinking, and not testing, before they build things. The website BadDesigns.Com has an amusing catalog of examples, ranging from the mop sink that looks like a urinal (observation: "When simple things have signs, especially homemade signs, it is usually a signal that they aren't well-designed.") to the MiniVan ejection seat "feature."

Most of us could come up with more examples of our own. I think that most such problems come from a few simple failings, for which I offer a few simple solutions. First, if you find a design approach that works, it makes sense to stick with it. Designs are often changed for no real reason, simply to do something new. If you're going to make such a change, then you need to follow the next rule: Test things on real people. Don't just test a new design with engineers. Engineers are not like other people. (They read manuals, for one thing). Third, if you have a design that doesn't work, get rid of it. Little annoyances, like the battery compartment door on my Rio, leave people unhappy. I spent a hundred bucks on something that I now don't like very much because of a two-cent piece of plastic. (The money spent writing the code that displays dancing stick figures on the LCD panel while the Rio boots up would have been better spent on a battery compartment door that doesn't slide off at the slightest touch!) I probably won't buy another product from Rio as a result. This can't be a good investment.

My sense is that makers of electronics, in particular, seem to treat the electronic parts of the gadget as important, while regarding cases, battery covers, belt clips, buttons, etc., as afterthoughts. Yet those things play as big a role in making customers happy, and unhappy, as the electronics - and there's more room for a company to set itself apart with quality in those departments, too.

There's a market opportunity for someone there, it seems to me.



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