Product design is an important area for engineering managers. But there is more to it than simply either getting your design to look good or your product to work.
Just because it's got a zesty look, is Philippe Starck's iconic Juicy Salif lemon squeezer better designed than the regulation two-part plastic lemon squeezer you can get from any old bargain shop? After all, the thing's not self-contained: you have to go find a cup to collect the juice. And you get pips plus juice at the bottom.
You probably have a rough answer already formulating to the above question, but some pretty heavyweight figures find reasons to promote the Starck squeezer's function as a part of its form. In a paper presented at the Third Engineering and Product Design conference in 2005, Gordon Mair and colleagues at the University of Strathclyde argued: "The downward directionality of Philipe Starck's lemon squeezer prompts the user to interact with it in a specific way."
Well, yes, but you could counter that it's hard to imagine anyone interacting with any lemon squeezer upside-down. Starck later claimed in an interview that the Juicy Salif functions less as a lemon squeezer than as a conversation starter. "Sometimes you need some more humble service: on a certain night, the young couple, just married, invites the parents of the groom to dinner, and the groom and his father go to watch football on the TV. And for the first time the mother of the groom and the young bride are in the kitchen and there is a sort of malaise - this squeezer is made to start the conversation."
Having sold close to 50,000 units pretty much each year since its launch in 1990, the Juicy Salif has not done badly.
The reality is that the lemon squeezer is more objet d'art than kitchen utensil. As Andree Putnam and Rick Pryor argued in the 1992 International Design Yearbook: "what one is buying, of course, is... a little piece of Philippe Starck". Unlike designers such as Starck, car designers tend to be anonymous, but vehicle manufacturers have consciously used style to sell their products. Some have been raised to the status of style icon, such as the Citroën DS, eulogised by philosopher Roland Barthes in 1957: "I think that cars today are almost the exact equivalent of the great Gothic cathedrals: I mean the supreme creation of an era, conceived with passion by unknown artists and consumed in image if not in usage by a whole population which appropriates them as a purely magical object." Style played into the success of the Apple iPod; it was by no means the first MP3 player to hit the market, and its nearest competitors arguably had more features. But the player quickly established a dominant position.
Apple design theft
It had two things going for it. One was the way in which the design made the most of the product's limitation. At the time, an MP3 player was little more than a hard-drive with buttons and an audio-output socket. Instead of trying to cover that up, the design celebrated it. It was arguably the 'blockiest' MP3 player on the market. The white colour meant it stood apart from most other consumer electronics, which were generally black, metallic or both. The clickwheel on the front, the subject of an Apple patent, provided a novel way of scrolling through large collections of songs.
The combination of the two provided an effect similar to the one envisaged by Starck for his Juicy Salif: it started conversations. The iPod became so fashionable that sometimes
the conversation took the form of: "Give me your iPod and I won't stab you." London's Metropolitan Police put signs on lamp-posts that told commuters: "They want your pod." The warning told iPod users that criminals were out looking for people plugged into an MP3 player, and it was no secret which models they coveted most. The white earbuds became a marker for the iPod-touting victim who was probably stuck in an auditory bubble, giving the mugger an extra level of surprise.
But desirable technology often goes hand-in-hand with an increase in thefts. Not only is it a marker of how successful a product has become, it demonstrates how small differences in form can make one far more desirable than another. Andrew Hargadon, associate professor at the University of California, Davis, argued in Design Management Review that design is the new competitive frontier: "Because anyone can now develop, manufacture, distribute and sell new products within months, design has become the last differentiating advantage available to firms, and designers have become the newest members of the corporate inner circle." Equally, Hargadon warns that pursuing form alone will not set companies on the path to success.
To quote Ralph Waldo Emerson's advice: "build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door". Hargadon argues: "Emerson's advice is wrong, because no amount of design can save a bad business model - not even if it's for a better mousetrap."
Although the iPod's original slogan was "rip, mix, burn" - encouraging users to simply use the device to take their CD collections on the road - the device has since become synonymous with the iTunes Music Store. Hargason sees this as an example of how companies need not only to design a product, but to design a business. "New products and services will, like the iPod, increasingly draw their value - and sustainable competitive advantage - from the networks they bring together. As a result, the design process will have to include not only the box, but the entire venture: what it looks like, what value it brings to each network partner and how it will evolve," Hargason insists. The problem for the designer is that a network brings with it the problem of complexity. With something simple like a lemon squeezer, there is very little to do other than convince the buyer that they want a new utensil.
The network - the shops, the distributors, the promotional tools - is already in place. With the iPod, particularly as it added the iTunes Music Store, Apple had to build links to record companies and their distributors, which often operate under contracts established long before the Internet tore down the obstacles to transmitting digital data around the world. A deal with a major label in one territory would provide the music of one group of artists, but for consumers elsewhere, their repertoire would remain frustratingly out of reach because that demanded deals with other organisations. So that it could reach a wider audience than Macintosh users, Apple had to make its iTunes software work on PCs running Windows, adding another level of complexity in the software-creation and support process. There are many ways in which things can go wrong.
The rise of complexity in consumer devices is feeding a growth in complaints. Up to the late 1990s, according to research performed by Elke den Ouden and colleagues at Eindhoven University of Technology and Philips Applied Technologies, consumer complaints steadily fell. Since then, they have been rising again. Den Ouden identified a number of causes. One is that products are more innovative: companies are more willing to try new things to gain a foothold in a crowded marketplace. But a big leap could just be a misstep. "The main difference between developing the highly innovative products nowadays and the incremental products in the mid-1990s is that the consumer requirements are not yet fully known at the start of the development project," den Ouden comments. "Due to the uncertainties in customer requirements, specifications are not clear at the start of the project and consequently they evolve over time."
A big problem is how the new product works with other products. Consumers now expect their digital devices to work more closely with their existing hardware. For example, they might expect to be able to use USB to hook a digital camera up to a DVD recorder, whereas all they expected from an old VHS video recorder was to be able to plug it into a TV.
Problem time: format convergence
The digital nature of most modern consumer devices means being able to deal with a proliferation of formats. For some of those formats, a vendor may be unwilling to provide information to a competitor to make its products work together. But the consumer is not bothered whether one vendor does not like another making interoperable products. "For businesses today, the main risk with respect to quality and reliability of new products is not just technical failures, but also failures of a non-technical nature, that is, complaints due to the product not meeting the consumer's expectations," den Ouden claims.
The Dutch team found that half of the consumer electronics products returned to stores work just fine: the customers simply had not been able to figure out how to get them to operate properly. This finding was reflected in work performed by consultant Sara Bly and a team from Intel Research and the University of Washington.
Its 2006 report 'Broken Expectations in the Digital Home' was a litany of failure by consumer-electronics vendors to provide products that did what the users wanted. And yet each product surveyed did, at least nominally, what it was designed to do.
Through a series of interviews carried out in users' homes, Bly and colleagues uncovered frustrations with digital devices. And these were, in the main, users with a reasonable level of experience in dealing with computers and digital products. Take the example of subject 'P4': she was a consumer who built her own PC, but had to give up on combining a Wi-Fi and video card because they simply would not work together. 'P3' wanted to enable streaming audio on his home wireless network but, because his audio player could only understand the WEP security protocol and not the more advanced WPA he wanted to use, he could not get it to work. He admitted that he could have done more research to establish compatibility but, in reality, that level of information was not flagged up by the vendors before he bought the equipment.
Bly and colleagues came up with a phrase to describe the acts of making this equipment work within a bigger environment: "We call this overhead of making digital devices support a person's desired activities problem-time." They add: "We find that a significant portion of problem-time is not because anything is broken - except the users' expectations of what should be working...
"In general, problems arising from broken expectations are not anticipated, either by the consumer or by the manufacturer."
Product support: no 'picnic'
The support environment is not exactly favourable to consumers who want to get their products to work the way that they expect them to. Computer support technicians have an acronym for users, or at least their role in IT problems: PICNIC. Standing for 'problem in chair, not in computer', it's a phrase that neatly encapsulates the fraught relationship with IT support.
And the implementation process for software can reek of similar contempt with often-bizarre error messages. For example, attempts to upgrade the firmware of a Garmin sports watch will cause the device to display the cryptic message "Loading loader..." It's perhaps no surprise that, apparently devoid of a loader to load the loader, the process sometimes hangs, leaving nothing but that message. Design consultant and author Don Norman points to the example of one odd message that now permeates software in a book he plans on what he terms 'sociable design'. When backing up, the Mozy software issues the message: "Reticulating splines".
It will apparently also volunteer the information "validating proof of the Poincaré conjecture..." at times. Norman explains: "The phrase 'reticulating splines' turns out to be an insider's joke. The game developer Will Wright inserted the phrase into his SimCity 2000 simulation game because "'it sounded cool'… even a nonsensical phrase is reassuring: 'Don't bother your pretty little head about this,' my technology condescends to tell me, 'I'm on the case.'" Part of the problem, reckons Norman, is that product designers tend to only cater for situations when things work normally. Error conditions are generally afterthoughts - something that is reflected in the codes that appear in dialogue boxes when things go catastrophically wrong: "Copy failed: error -38". That error has a meaning. It's just that no one considered it important enough to attempt to fix or even document properly. Describing a ticket machine that would talk to users when things worked fine, but resorted to beeps and buzzes when things were not working as expected, Norman writes: "Machines are stupid. The problem is that those who design them do not seem to realise this.
"They assume perfection, a smoothly operating ticket machine, always performing smoothly and efficiently." Of the people who implement the systems, Norman conjectures: "'If only we didn't have all these people around,' one can imagine them saying, 'the machines would work fine'. Actually, I don't have to imagine: I have heard designers say just that.
"The result is the use of terms such as 'idiot-proofing', putting in words the contempt that engineers and designers often feel for other human beings: fools and idiots, they call us."
We may imagine Starck possibly laughing at us for buying a lemon squeezer that is not necessarily designed for that task. But, we should maybe take him at his word: he sees design as something that makes people feel proud about what they buy and put on display. If your team is not designing something that users will be proud to use - and at worst, is just frustrating or irritating - should they be calling it design at all?