Here’s the problem: Many of these are poorly designed. Created without a deep understanding of their end user, these devices end up making life more complicated instead of easier. In an age in which Apple has offered visible proof of how good, user-focused design can drive business results (Apple stock just hit an all-time high), and in which good design has become an expectation of the masses thanks to places like Target, consumers are nonetheless forced to do battle with poor design every day.
I experienced this firsthand the other night when a faint, intermittent beeping tortured me for hours and then finally woke me up. Tracing the noise throughout the house, I finely found a little Bluetooth-enabled, portable speaker phone that I loved when I initially got it. Small enough to fit in the palm of my hand, it literally transformed my cell phone into a conference room speaker phone. But I had stopped using it because the big, flat on and redial buttons were easily bumped in my bag or pocket—resulting in inadvertently redialed calls and loudspeaker transmitted conversations that were meant to be private. Here was a product made for a road warrior that turned out not to be designed for the realities of the road. And stuck in a bag in a closet, with something pushing against it, it had just woken me up in the middle of the night.
Or take a new smart phone case I recently bought. This little amalgamation of plastic and fake leather has added a bitter new layer of annoyance to my life. I now have to lock my phone EVERY time I put it away or—without fail—it manipulates buttons to randomly dial from my address book. People call me to tell me they hear me talking and bumping around. With hundreds of contacts including friends, family and colleagues, this has embarrassing potential. I feel like I am being held hostage by an inanimate, anonymous, poorly designed object.
One last example: I use a back-up power source for my laptop on long flights and when I otherwise need power to charge small devices. The on/off button on the front is easy to find and push thank you very much—which is great when it is sitting on my desk, but not so great when it is jostling around in a bag. I now end up duct taping a bottle cap over the button before I pack the charger to make sure the button stays off and the power doesn’t run out. That’s right, duct tape and a bottle cap. Very MacGyver. Not very high-tech.
All this compensating behavior provokes a fundamental question: Is technology like this helping me and improving my life, or is it just creating more work for me and making my life more complex? Lately it feels like the latter as I burn more and more time and brain space to manage my arsenal of technology’s shortcomings and flaws.
Of course, there’s an easy answer to this. Design thinking, which has been percolating out there for years and is being driven into the corporate world by firms like IDEO, is all about focusing on the end user and integrating their needs into things that will genuinely make their life better. It happens through close observation and understanding of peoples’ needs and simple prototyping to test out the bugs and make sure that stuff works.
Simple, right? Not really. As anyone who works in innovation and product development knows, there are a lot of competing agendas in product development and the end user can unfortunately take a back seat to technology requirements or timelines or just plain old lack of thinking things through.
Just last night I unboxed and plugged in a new LCD TV I had purchased over the holidays and was dismayed to find a small red power light on the front panel that’s intense enough to distract from what’s on the screen (think laser pointer). It’s sufficiently annoying to have me thinking of returning what is otherwise an excellent piece of technology. Or maybe I’ve got some black duct tape lying around somewhere....
Originally published 1/8/10