12/31/2001 - Updated 11:38 AM ET

When designers ignore consumers, products can flop

By Jim Hopkins, USA TODAY

SAN FRANCISCO — In the recent history of bad product design, some examples are real standouts. An automobile dashboard with so many functions that even the carmaker doesn't know how many there are. How about a combination camera, MP3 player, Web cam and audio recorder that one reviewer called a "mini-disaster." Then there was the Internet-access appliance, designed for kitchen countertops, that was so heavy the owner's manual advised caution on picking it up. These are just a few of the recently introduced tech products that reviewers panned for having crummy designs. And they won't be the last. That's because many companies still use old-fashioned product-development strategies.

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Too often, innovation is dominated by engineers who don't get enough input from consumers. Cheap electronics tempt designers to pile on too many options. Companies, having invested millions in an idea, stick with faulty designs rather than write off their investments. And products are being rushed to market faster — shortening design times for companies who don't want to be late to market.

More and more gadgets

Technology is leading to a flood of new gadgets. Nearly 160,000 U.S. patents were granted last year, including those for tech products — a nearly 75% jump from 10 years ago.

Some products are seriously flawed. This year, 319 unsafe products were recalled. That's higher than the annual median of 299 recalls during the past decade.

Experts say bad design happens when:

• Consumers are ignored. In the best cases, a company's product-development team turns to consumers when a new product is just being discussed.

The idea is presented to a consumer focus group with about 24 members. Their reactions, such as whether the product seems useful, are reviewed.

But often, the team brings consumers into the process too late — or not at all.

John Cogliandro, a design professor at Babson College near Boston, uses the example of a snow shovel he developed — and what might have happened if consumers weren't consulted early on.

Cogliandro, who leads a design firm, assumed that most snow shovels were used by men. So his firm chose a large handle to fit a man's grip. On a sweltering August day, Cogliandro assembled 22 men and women at an ice-skating rink. Ice shavings were dumped outside. The consumers were asked to try the shovel.

Listening to their comments, Cogliandro learned women did most of the snow shoveling because they're often the first ones home. So he ordered smaller handle grips. If he had not tested consumers, the shovel may not have sold as well.

• Product-design teams are flawed. Many teams include engineers — who design a gadget's technical innards — and marketers, who gauge consumer demand.

But many don't include an expert in human behavior, such as a psychologist, who could advise against frustrating control features, says Lorraine Justice, director of Georgia Tech's industrial design program.

Moreover, teams often lack industrial designers early in the process. They create a product's outer shell. Good designers can persuade engineers to move around interior components so outside control buttons can be better positioned.

Also, teams made up entirely of company employees can be too narrow-minded to fully develop a good idea. Or they may be too timid to kill a bad one — especially if it was suggested by the CEO or other high-level executive, says Anthony Warren, director of the Farrell Center for Entrepreneurship at Penn State.

• Technology runs amok. Cheaper electronics mean designers can combine many features in a single product. That leads to gizmos such as cell phones that also access the Internet, have calendars, address books and video-game players.

Marketers often don't know how to sell many-function devices, and consumers can't figure out what they are, Cogliandro says.

Also, consumers get frustrated because they're paying for features they don't want. "The process of innovation becomes like a drug and (designers) want it all," Cogliandro says.

In his Babson College classes, Cogliandro cites the dashboard of the new BMW 7 Series as an example of bad design because, he says, it has too many features. There are so many, AutoWeek magazine says, that company executives can't agree on the total. It quotes a company design chief saying there are "700 to 800."

Many big corporations are guilty of overdesign. "Companies, even major ones like Microsoft and Hewlett-Packard, still goof," Cogliandro says.

Strength to say 'no'

Industry accounts for nearly 70% of the $230 billion spent annually on U.S. research and development, the National Science Foundation says. Some of the biggest R&D spenders are tech companies. For example, Intel will pour about $4 billion into R&D this year — equal to 16% of its projected 2001 revenue.

The tech industry has another big role in the design process. Superfast computers have sped up the design cycle. That is because engineers can produce models on computers in months that once took years when built by hand.

Warren, at Penn State, helped design cell phones in the early 1980s. It took 2 1/2 years or more to design one. Now the process takes less than a year. In the auto industry, cars can be designed in less than three years — half the time it took 10 years ago, Cogliandro says.

Sometimes, the problem with faulty designs is that no one wants to say no to a bad idea. It might be the pet project of an overbearing CEO who ignores the advice of his development team. Or a company invests millions in a gizmo only to have consumers, brought in at the 11th hour, reject it. At that stage, the company doesn't want to write off its investment.

"Saying no is just as important as saying yes," Cogliandro says. "In fact, it's more important."