When designers ignore consumers, products
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.
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
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
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
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
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,"
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
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."