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Technical Design Flops and Blunders

Ludicrous compulsions force companies typically renowned for their design sensibilities to end up creating massive blunders. Let us delve into what happens when design goes bad.

Albert Einstein once said “The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.” However, this maxim does not hold true when it comes to product designers who have to stretch the boundaries of creativity to come up with products that aspire to become the next big thing. Often in this process designers lose sight of things that are important such as rationality and common sense. We, the aesthetically challenged lot, get a glimpse of this in the movie Elizabethtown — a humorous take on a product designer who falls from grace when he ends up making a shoe that goes on to become not just a failure, but a fiasco of mythic proportions. Like the case of products in real life we don’t know exactly what went wrong with the shoe except for the fact that it was inspired by a stingray and ended up looking really stupid when worn. Not many people would want a fish on their feet right?

There can be several things that go into making a bad design. Aesthetics — as in the case of the above narrative, is just one example. We tend to overlook these fauxpas and focus on the products that are design successes. The fact remains that good design is difficult to come by. The bulk of the products — especially in the consumer goods segment — are badly designed. They are inefficient, cumbersome, difficult to use, and will not have any of the elements that we’ve come to expect out of good design. Products by and large are wasteful, and worst of all, not nice to look at or touch.

So why exactly do product designs fail? It can’t be that designers set out to make crappy designs. Somewhere along the way the goal probably gets obscured by mitigating factors and the end result is a sub-optimal product. The standard set of reasons like budgetary constraints, time crunch and lack of talent can’t be helped. There are however some ludicrous compulsions due to which companies known for their good design sensibilities end up creating blunders of epic proportions. Flops can happen to anyone. Flops can happen in any category of products. Heck, flops can happen to an entire category of products. Buckminster Fuller, the famous architect and futurist put it quite succinctly when he said “When I am working on a problem I never think about beauty. I only think about how to solve the problem. But when I have finished, if the solution is not beautiful, I know it is wrong.”

Too ahead of its time

Designs and products that go beyond the norms of what is acceptable for that point in time usually don’t work. Consumers want to be fed changes one mouthful at a time. Progression amounts to stuffing ones mouth and leads to choking i.e. rejection. In keeping with this philosophy, Panasonic’s slogan until some time ago was “Just slightly ahead of our time”. They were trying to proclaim their semblance for the contemporary. What happens when you don’t? Take the case of Apple. Some of the best products recognized for their design have come from the gloriously creative drawing boards of this company. Does that mean the giant is immune to design failures? Certainly not. In 1993 Apple launched a product that would go on to become the precursor to an entire category of products (PDAs or Palm Pilots as they’re wrongly known) — the

Apple Newton MessagePad. The device however was criticized for being too bulky and the handwriting recognition software on it too buggy. Perhaps they were hasty with incorporating handwriting recognition when underlying technological infrastructure was not quite in place. A blogger on networkworld.com said, “What these reviews don’t tell you is that Apple did get the handwriting recognition down soon after its initial release, to the point where the handwriting recognition worked as fast a typing, at least for me. But since most Americans can’t write, the Newton is an easy target for using ‘selective memory’ in the media blurbs on it.” Aptly put. But Apple should have nailed down the peculiarities of its audience before the releasing the product.

Too simple?

Forgive us, but Apple comes into the picture again. Case in point; Mac and its single click mouse. Agreed that things need to be simple, but do you need to dumb things down so much for the common denominator of the audience? For a long while up until the mouse came into being, Steve Jobs stubbornly stuck to philosophy of having a single button on a mouse. Twitter is another product that faced the problem of over-simplicity that necessitated a whole legion of third party apps that run on top of it or use the API. In fact, they recently had to beef up the level of complexity of their home page. The inference we can make here is that a reasonable amount of complexity might add to the feature set of a product or device, while definitely making it more suitable for so called ‘power users’ — people that thrive on complexity. Whichever way you look at it, we feel the choice of the level of complexity should be left to the user, much like video games have varying levels of difficulty.

Design before usability

Some designers fall into the trap of making products that pick design aesthetics over usability, comfort and ergonomics. This leads to some serious consequences. We asked Hayley S. Rosen, Industrial Design student at Philadelphia University what she thought. “This is the age-old question of form vs. function”, she said. “I feel that the beauty in products is if the form dictates the function. The beauty in an object is if it works the way it should and gets the job done in a proper fashion. Aesthetics can sometimes be a shell for a great idea.” Back in the day Nokia came up with a phone called the Nokia 7600. Sure, the design was unlike anything ordinarily witnessed, but what about usability? The phone had a screen in the centre and two lines of buttons at either end. Because it didn’t follow the conventional arrangement of keys, typing became a pain. Eventually users did get used to it but at the cost of speed and the learning curve was painfully steep. Another example of this would be the new Mac Book Pro. Surprised? Yes it is an excellent piece of machinery that looks great, is fast and very powerful. But the notebook actually hurts like hell when you use it for a while! The edge of the palm rest gouges into your wrist with every passing hour, till ultimately you’re left with large suicide-attempt like welts on your wrists. This flop on an otherwise great product probably happened because Apples new design ethos of sharp edges is a little to err sharp for comfort.

Ignoring consumer categories

Very often designers are guilty of designing for those that are aesthetically enlightened i.e. connoisseurs with an eye for design. These designs will surely work in concept awards, but will they work on-road? The choice of words here refers obviously to cars, since they’re the most likely to fall prey to this oversight. Traditionally cars have had some of the most beautiful and atrocious designs that have seen the light of day. Cars also ignored for a long while an entire segment of consumers — women. Many women would find that great looking cars were not ergonomic to use. They faced simple issues like chipping fingernails in badly designed door handles to grave ones like fatigue with bulky vehicles. An exception to this norm was the 1990 Mazda Miata —a sports car loved by the female populace. We wonder why some men prefer not to be seen in one of these nimble machines.

Product differentiation

Form factor is very important when it comes to product differentiation. Companies that have a handful of products need to follow a strict differentiation policy in terms of form factors. Cowon for instance has a few PMPs in its portfolio. Each one is unique in form and design. When this is not followed it can lead to confusion in the consumers mind. One product might end up cannibalizing the other or eating into each other’s market segment or share. The Windows Mobile platform may not be something to write home about. But as Mr. Sumeet Gugnani, Director — Mobile Communications Business, at Microsoft put it “Windows Mobile 6.5 comes in the widest range of form factors through our partnership with a number of OEMs. You have everything from candy bar to sliders to QWERTY to full touch. All options are available.” It can have disastrous consequences when differentiation is not followed in the public utilities domain. Take the freshly minted batch of coins from the Indian treasury. The rupees one and two denomination coins do follow certain design norms like keeping in mind the illiterate sections of society by clearly displaying value using symbology depicting hands holding up the appropriate number of fingers. Yet the coins are so similar in size and shape that we can’t differentiate them quickly. The older generation of coins were so different that you could tell them apart just by feel and touch.

Uninvited Innovation

Sometimes mundane objects can go through a revamp with the thought of bettering them. The adage ‘old is gold’ holds true and some tried and tested things should be left alone. Questioning tradition for being irrelevant is fine but respecting it for its longevity of existence is also a virtue. The perfect example of something that doesn’t need reinventing, apart from the wheel, is perhaps the chair. We’ve been sitting on these things for ages now and there’s not much room for something radical to be done there as the human form hasn’t changed much over the past 2,000 years or so. A while ago, we came across a design called Stenstool Chair by Jimmy Kessler. It’s basically a stool that’s a rock supported by four spindly legs. Why would you want to sit on a rock? After all, it was these that prompted our ancestors to invent chairs in the first place! Another example is the Sideways bike by inventor Michael Killian. You sit in the centre but face and pedal sideways! Wonder how that would work. Check out sidewaysbike.com for pictures and videos of this weird contraption.

Ignoring scalability

When you build something, it should form a platform on which further improvement can take place. Take the case of pagers. “Pagers lasted for sometime but never reached the potential they were touted to reach they were not the easiest to use and not very intuitive. They were banking on text for communication thereby limiting the usage amongst literate population. With the advent of mobile telephony they just disappeared”, says Anirudh Maitra of Pictualize Edutech, a start-up engaged in designing educational and learning enhancement products. Another one would be the 1995 offering, Sega Saturn. It’s often criticized as one of the worst gaming consoles in history. It was built on the cutting edge of technology yet something went wrong. The complexity of its dual Hitachi CPUs caused problems in game development. Soon game designers started moving towards the easier and cheaper PlayStation platform. The problem was no scalability thus sealing Saturn’s downfall.

The me too effect

Have you noticed that most MP3 players coming to the market lately look conspicuously like iPods. The same round dial, similar screen size and all other attributes, only they look like country cousins of the original. ‘If it worked for them why can’t it work for us?’ — is perhaps the thought design houses are struggling with. Since the CoverFlow format of displaying elements became popular, you find it in every other place from TV programming to websites to even print. Websites today follow the tried and tested web 2.0 sensibilities and end up looking like they came out of the same mould. If it works, it works but here is the caveat - at some point people are bound to get up and say – hey this is getting boring now. What then?