Is Bad Design a Nuisance?

Advertisement

A Dutch scientist has discovered that of the new electronics products returned to retailers for not working properly, half in fact work perfectly well. Their users just can't figure out how to operate them.

Elke den Ouden, a Ph.D. candidate at the Technical University of Eindhoven, in the Netherlands, found that 50 percent of product complaints for consumer electronics such as cellphones and home entertainment systems are being logged in as design issues. But manufacturers simply ignore these gripes as nuisances--they don't go back to look at whether they've inadvertently built something that is too complicated for its intended use.

Den Ouden also learned that the average consumer in the United States spends about 20 minutes fussing with a new gadget before giving up on it completely and deciding it doesn't work. No surprises here; consumers have a low threshold for frustration. But when even the managers at big consumer electronics firms can't get their own products to work, as den Ouden observed, then you've probably got some real problems.

Trying to pinpoint where the process goes wrong, den Ouden points a finger at the first step in the design process, product definition. What is this product actually supposed to do? Do all consumer electronics need to have cameras and calendars and MP3 players in them?

As today's devices get ever more complicated, manufacturers need to put more emphasis on the end-user experience. If insufficient attention is given to the interface of a new product from the beginning, it won't matter how sophisticated the technology behind it is. Consumers simply won't use it.

We congratulate den Ouden for reminding us that consumer complaints are more than nuisances. They are warnings that our clever ability to stuff more and more functionality into supposedly user-friendly devices can't replace taking the time to understand how and why people want to use them in the first place.

The editorial content of IEEE Spectrum does not represent official positions of the IEEE or its organizational units. Please address comments to Forum at n.hantman@ieee.org .

Advertisement