Product Design: From Simple to Complex – and Back

It’s fascinating to observe the iterations of products that their designers produce. It sometimes seems like they just can’t let a good product stay as-is, they’ve just GOT to make it ‘better’ somehow. Being in the software and product design game, we’re constantly trying to make our product better and fight that urge to add improvements that really aren’t.

Many products reach a completed state where more innovation is not needed; many children’s games are essentially the same as decades ago. Monopoly, Candy Land and the Magic 8 Ball come to mind. To me, that’s really good design: a product that generation after generation will still be bought and enjoyed. The adult world has examples too. I’m on my 5th Weber Kettle Grill. I’ve worn out the first 4 and am always happy to see I can still get the style I know and am good at using.  And the Swingline stapler is the same design as 20 years ago and works flawlessly.

So what’s up with many products you see today that are constantly “evolving?” While change is sometimes good, it often seems to be done to produce something ‘new’ or ‘improved,’ but the user experience just gets worse.  Some examples:

Car dashboards
Remember when you could tune your car radio or change the fan speed without even looking? Today’s digital dashboards, with virtual or soft buttons and nested menus can do a lot, but man are they complicated! I sometimes get into a rental car and can’t even change the radio station. That’s bad design.

The computer mouse has gone full circle. The first computer mouse had one button. Then came two buttons, then four, and by 2009 there was one with 18! Cooler heads prevailed and most are back to two, which seems about right to me.

When I run the dishwasher, here’s how I like to do it: Step 1. Put in detergent. Step 2. Press “On” button. Step 3. Go watch the latest episode of Silicon Valley. But when recently shopping for a new one, my wife and I were bewildered by the options now available. Multiple temperature settings, five cycle choices between ‘Rinse’ and ‘Pro,’ tiny buttons with icons of various pots & pans, tea cups and silverware, dials for amount of soaps and rinse agent. Too much! (But I do kind of wonder what a ‘professionally-cleaned’ dish looks like.)

These have definitely gone through the full complexity cycle. Remember those good old Honeywell-type thermostats with a round dial that you simply pointed at the temperature you wanted? They eventually gave way to programmable versions where you could control the heat and cooling by day, hour or if you’re on vacation. A solid idea, but trying to change the schedule on one of those things without the (always missing) instructions was nearly impossible. Today’s internet-connected devices like the Nest and Ecobee do all those functions and much more, and are as simple as the old Honeywells to use. Ah, it’s nice when user experience triumphs!

Light switches
I’m a fan of the plain old up-and-down mechanical light switch, or the motion-sensitive automatic ones. But somehow taking a simple task like turning a light on or off or diming it has produced some stunningly bad design. My favorite example is a switch at home that controls some ceiling lights. For each light there’s a rocker panel, a little button, and a small slider that goes up and down. I literally have to go through a trial and error process every time I use it to remember how it works. Didn’t they test these things with real (non-engineer) people? I’m still waiting for a return to simplicity, a switch that can turn on & off, control brightness and sense motion… all with one button or touch pad.

It’s easy to get carried away with product design with ideas that seem cool at first, but really just make the user’s experience worse. The answer is to focus relentlessly on customers’ pain points with existing products, and their reaction to proposed changes BEFORE they become actual products. Easier said than done.

Frank Kenna III
September 23, 2015

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