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March 23, 2007

How good design costs jobs

Stephen Baker

As I reached the exit Newark airport long-term parking lot, I pulled out my credit card and tried to figure out how to put it in the machine. There's a diagram of a card, but does the black magnetic stripe go up or down? I never can tell. Luckily, there was a woman working the booth. She opened the window and instructed me.

"I never can figure out which way to stick in the card," I said, feeling dumb.

"As long as it's hard for you," she said, "I'll have a job."

It struck me. Earlier that day (before several hours on the tarmac at O'Hare), a woman at Continental had instructed me how to use the "automatic" machine. (I didn't need her help quite as much.) But the point is that lots of people owe their jobs to bad design--confusing instructions and diagrams.

Perhaps the most prominent case of this are the armies of accountants and consultants who owe their livelihood to the miserable design of our state and local tax forms.

09:44 AM

"Perhaps the most prominent case of this are the armies of accountants and consultants who owe their livelihood to the miserable design of our state and local tax forms."

Well said.

Posted by: CH at March 23, 2007 10:42 AM

Here's something pretty similar that has stuck with me over the years.

Years ago I worked on the design of an RTA cabinet. The mirror-image side walls were flat, blow-molded panels (blow-molding creates relatively simple, hollow parts like milk jugs). The bottom was also blow-molded but with details to receive two snap protrusions from each side wall. The top snapped onto those, the back was a simple piece of flat plastic held in place with four screws, and the front was a series of interlocking extrusions which sat in a track created by the walls and which worked like a rolltop cabinet.

The problem was that after doing the bulk of the CAD and passing it to the engineering group for detailing, they made the snap features entirely symmetrical. The problem was that the right wall could mistakenly be assembled in the base's left wall position... permanently; the snap features were one-time fit only. Worse still, a wall could simply be rotated 180 degrees in place and still snap into the base inside-out. Of course, because there was a track for the rolltop door, there was only one way to assemble this thing. Most people could probably figure it out, but it's almost a certainty that some wouldn't.

As the "Designer" I instructed the engineering team to offset the snaps accordingly to ensure that endusers could *only* assemble the parts as intended. Each wall was to have unique snap locations so that their positions couldn't be swapped (easily accomplished by changing the spacing between the two snaps). And to prevent the 180 problem, the snaps could be offset along the front-to-back axis. These were relatively easy-to-implement solutions. Lastly, to make it easier for people to assemble, I provided a set of simple graphical shapes (squares, circles, aso) which were to be molded into the walls at appropriate locations... a "no cost" option for all practical purposes. Even without paper instructions, people could match the shapes and properly assemble the unit.

The engineers fought these changes. We wasted time arguing over them. To this day I can only guess at why. It took the VP of Engineering to direct them to implement those changes, and if I were not also a degreed engineer, it's possible that I'd not have gotten that high-level support and that product would have shipped as it was... and resulted in the hiring of some additional customer support people.

One of my pet peeves is when consumers place blame for a product's problems on the "Designer". What they should understand is that many of the products with which they have problems are *not* the end result of a Designer's effort. They are the result of a Team effort. Sometimes it's the Designer's fault that something doesn't work as it should. Sometimes it's the CAD detailers making their own private contributions. Sometimes Marketing instructs Engineering to make changes without informing Designers. And believe it or not, sometimes Tooling decides to surprise everyone and change parts altogether (sometimes legitimately but sometimes inexplicably; I've had tool shops ignore usability and change designs to make a mold simpler; I've had shops convert one part into two in order to both simplify molds *and* keep people employed with extra work; and other times, to get some experience, I've had shops make a part more complex by integrating multiple parts).

From tax forms to the Tacoma Narrows bridge, that's just how it goes.

Posted by: csven at March 23, 2007 11:34 AM

With all the emphasis on design these days, including a design and innovation mag at BW, it would seem that someone should sponsor a design inventory of the U.S. economy, and detail the areas where bad design undermines our happiness and productivity. I bet design companies would provide plenty of leads. This would be similar to the way the Gates foundation analyzes global disease. Then it's a question of picking the areas where we could get the most bang for the buck by revamping design, interface, etc. Of course, I'd start with tax forms. But that would spark enormous and wasteful political debate--the antithesis of what we're looking for here. I'm sure there are other areas where consensus would be a snap.

Posted by: steve baker at March 24, 2007 09:48 AM

Good luck with that kind of "design inventory", Steve. There's a lot of ego in some "bad design" and it comes from all quarters, so I'm not sure what kind of response you'd get.

Posted by: csven at March 26, 2007 02:32 PM

Toyota's Hydrogen Man
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