Sunday, February 10, 2008

Consumer Design is Easy?

Steve at tingilinde sent me a link to David Pogue's NYT piece on design flaws in digital picture frames. From the intro section:

"We learned deeply a few hard lessons," he said. "Consumer electronics is a very difficult business. It's difficult to get it right." ...

Maybe this particular guy is rightness challenged. Or maybe he meant that getting things right takes time, money and effort, which is true.

But it sounds like he's saying that it's hard to know what's right in product design, and he'll never convince me of that. A ten-year old could have identified the design flaws in the frames I tested this week.

I don't agree on all points -- Some of the design flaws he identifies are tricky "icing" on the consumer cake that it takes a clever designer and a budget to go after: like having a little pocket on the frame back for a remote control. Nice to have, but not mandatory, even for a good consumer experience.

But getting things right does take time, money, and effort; as well as "big-picture" design management of the sort lacking at all but few companies. Someone needs to remember the people you're designing for, and to represent that by stepping backwards out of the details of schedule and bug counts and putting into perspective: "...Hey, can your Grandfather use this for the baby pictures you're sending?" It's the responsible executive's position to make the call to change the schedule to accommodate the experience-breaker issues that will threaten you in a crowded market, and to champion processes like in-home user testing as part of the design cycle.

Kodak, who comes out pretty well for their frame design in his piece, hires interaction designers, although I don't know if they have a Chief Design Officer. So why hire an interaction designer instead of, say, a 10-year old? 10 year old finds fossil. Because most 10 year olds aren't up to arguing with project managers and engineering schedules, and generally keeping their head both in the gritty details and well outside, for that important user perspective.

Pogue's piece is still good and also funny. As a former TiVo designer mystified by the crapness of most "consumer" electronics design, I especially liked this one:

Question 10: Which is the right way to label the jacks and buttons: White lettering on black (or vice versa), white on white (Momento), or with no text labels at all (eStarling)?

We did think of this at TiVo (of course), but I still wish we had added a little LED flashlight dongle to the back, since there's always bad light at the back of your cabinet!


Anonymous said...

I also liked that he included Palm on the list of companies that refused to compromise on design -- it didn't seem to do it much good in the end. I wonder if that was because it started compromising or because not compromising is *necessary* but not *sufficient* for victory.

A 10-year-old could have told you which of two designs was better, but I'm not actually sure a 10-year-old would've been able to detect the "obvious" flaws in the products before they shipped without other, competing products to compare it to. I suspect most of those "obvious" flaws were only obvious once someone else did it a different way. I suspect, for example, that a properly done "just plug the frame into your laptop and it'll figure out your Wi-Fi settings" would trump the "fiddle around with the Wi-Fi settings on the small frame screen with not enough buttons to enter a WEP key" -- the fact that the company that tried it did it badly doesn't mean it's automatically an inferior design.

(That is, assuming the target market includes those that have laptops or other computers that are already on the presumed home Wi-Fi network.)

Lynn said...

I totally agree! And yes, good design is necessary but not sufficient. TiVo (for all the flaws I feel it has) is a good example of this.

I thought some of his points were more cleverly observed than others. Feature-itis is not always wrong, if you execute well, as you say re wifi. (To be honest, it wouldn't have occurred to me to go near wifi for a consumer digital frame. But I'm not as ballsy as some of these companies.)