When Design Goes Backwards (or Why Don’t Teapots Pour Properly?)

When I was a less seasoned but more youthful entrepreneur, a good friend of mine and I used to joke about having a future consultancy which would specialise in advising companies on improving – what today I would describe as – the product experience.

Our consultancy was to be called “No, Not Like That!” (well either that or some expensive sounding agency name akin to Saachi and Saachi ).

My friend James was quite successful in his late teens, buying a new BMW every year as the new model came out, replacing the old. Within days of cruising around in his shiny new automobile we just couldn’t understand some of the design decisions BMW had made which clearly made this new motor car a worse product than the last.

It seemed to us that charging BMW $10,000 per hour to fix their product before it shipped would be small fry compared to the improvement  our genius deliver in user experience and thus customer satisfaction.

James in one of his BMWs, pretending to type on my old Toshiba laptop. Not sure what this photo was all about really; although it was taken with one of the first ever digital cameras with some stunning top resolution like 480 pixels.

These blaring errors are not of course with just cars but are everywhere, but never having given the time or discipline to formally study usability, anthropology, HCI (or any of the other very worthy academic courses or disciplines in this area which teach one to think through, articulate and justify rationally why things should be created as they) I never felt appropriately predisposed to start such an agency.

For a few years now I’ve wondered if that was an entirely wrong conclusion.

Products are used every day by people without these qualifications. As a consumer and user if I can see it’s wrong, illogical or difficult to use, may be it simply is. Furthermore, how was it not spotted by the very designers who penned the product?

Do you understand this sign?

Poor design is everywhere. This brand new sign which I had the misfortune to need while at Barcelona airport en route to Mobile World Congress was helping no-one. Neither of those things were in either of those directions. How can you look at this sign and think it’s clear, especially if your expertise is sign design?

No! Not Like That!

Companies continue every day to produce new products which beggar belief in their poor design. One wonders sometimes if people do it intentionally; some perverse enjoyment being taken on making people’s lives miserable.

Even basic household objects are afflicted. Poor teapot design is a particular pet hate of mine.

A tea pot has to just ONE bloody job and that is to pour tea. Yet how many tea pots simply don’t pour properly? They fail at the very first, indeed only thing they were designed to do or need to excel in.

Interesting tea pot design, but does it pour?

An additional trick is when the handle material is chosen so that it’s actually too hot even to pick up the tea pot to pour the tea. Why chose a material which is excellent at conducting heat when you know someone needs to pick it up? Some saucepans suffer from this affliction too.

I don’t need a degree to realise this is tragically poor design (no pun intended). It is entirely beyond my comprehension how you put a tea pot to market which guarantees to spill tea everywhere on every use.

You might argue that I should not be surprised that no great design process nor testing goes into a the average tea pot. I disagree; but instead lets move on then to companies who really should know better.

Microsoft 3000 mouse turned off automatically when you slotted the USB stick back into the base. Sensible.

The last mouse I bought was actually superb. The Microsoft Wireless 3000 had a clever clip in USB adapter, which stored it nicely AND turned off the mouse automatically (without the USB plugged into the Laptop, you can use the mouse of course). Great neat piece of design. Sadly, someone nabbed, or I mislaid my beloved mouse.

Off to Amazon .com I trot to buy another. To my surprise Microsoft has a new shinier better model. Naturally I buy this new model.

New design; tiny USB slots into mouse, doesn't turn it off. There's a separate off switch. Bad design IMHO.

Bad idea. The new model does away with this extremely useful feature and replaces it with a) an off switch for the mouse and b) a tiny USB stick which might both easily be lost and pop out of the mouse housing. Leave it in the laptop? It still ticks out too far to be practical to do so and anyway you then risk it falling out.

No! Not Like That!  

This change in the new mouse design is clearly a step backwards. Brooding on my reaction I realised that much of my response is driven by expectation.

So much in life is management of expectation and companies large and small frequently over promise and under deliver when the reverse should so obviously be the goal.

Designers, engineers, human beings of the world: let us unite in our attempt to not make things worse, let’s make things better!

How do you do it?

Simple: Use your own bloody products more.  If you’re “improving” a previous model, make damn sure you’ve lived with that previous product day in and day out before you start doing what you think is best to make it better. Then, just maybe the next tea pot I pick up will pour a cup of tea without ruining my mother’s doylies.

STOPPRESS: Great list of terrible designs of things here on Quora: http://www.quora.com/What-is-the-worst-piece-of-design-ever-done


2 thoughts on “When Design Goes Backwards (or Why Don’t Teapots Pour Properly?)

  1. Brilliant blog post AJS, and brings back memories Shame we never did get around to starting ‘No, Not Like That!’, as we could’ve spared the world some atrocities by now! There was also that book we were going to write – but let’s keep that to ourselves.

  2. I had that old mouse design and hated the fact that my son always banged it some how plus pulling it out all the time mine came apart. I live the new design it doesn’t get broken and I do leave it in my laptop. So I guess it depends on the person to if it works for you.

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