How many times have you asked yourself why something was even designed in the first place? Or why some designs endure and others don’t? In this article the focus is one of the key dimensions of ‘sustainable design’: Durability.Note: from here on I will refer to “sustainable design” also as “good design” which can be defined as a well-thought out design that embraces an ethical and sustainable design philosophy. From a sustainability perspective, a design can be said to be durable when the product’s creation and its serviceable life span (a.k.a its performance) has absolve its Eco-impact. A simple and over used example relates to the cutting of trees to build homes. This would mean that the homes built from these cut trees would have to be built to last as long as it takes to replace the used trees.
Just as we can measure whether or not a design is ‘usable’ or has a high ‘emotional appeal,’ we should begin to develop a framework to understand whether a design is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ in a sustainable sense. Durability is a key dimension of what it means to be sustainable and therefore is seen as a contributor to the “goodness” of the design. Consequently, any definition of good design must transcend the traditional ‘eye of the beholder,” definition, which is based only on a subjective aesthetic meter and define a more objective definition of good design. But where does a good meter of good design come from? Do we base this on its adherence to fundamental sustainability principles?
As UX practitioners the challenge is a more complex than can be imagined. First, many of us lack the skills to judge if a product is good or bad; second, we often lack the buy-in and insight into the production process to contribute to the creation of good design. Third, we are creatures of the aesthetic realm and often our aesthetic instincts controls our view of design. However, as UX evolves we face the challenge of defining new frameworks, processes and guidelines that embrace a more comprehensive definition of good product design.
Today it is simply not enough to focus just on functionality and aesthetics. As stakeholders of design production, our goals should be aligned with the direction of global thinking. To date, there are a number of well-defined dimensions of ‘good’ design that has its roots in ‘green’ thinking and that have had tremendous global impact. Key of these are energy efficiency, the other being packaging which combined have impacted the way we shop as well as the overall cost of things based on combined impact of growing transportation costs.
In line with meeting new global mandates, many innovative companies are going the distance to involve UX designers in initiatives to move the companies to meet legislated guidelines to meet new design standards. The dimension of Durability as part of the ‘good design’ checklist is therefore not far behind.
How can we determine whether our products are durable or not?
Many companies have dedicated departments that test both software and hardware to ensure that their products are well built. But by who’s standards? And is durability a key measure of what it means to be well – designed? Clearly by the number of bad products that seem to flood the market place the answer is mostly no!
This article is a step to open discussion on new guidelines and frameworks to advance the state of practice and assume a better strategic placement of UX as a key driver for better designed products. As one of the many principles of good design, durability stands front and foremost at the moment because it strikes a chord with many consumers in the current economic climate. Today, consumers are ever more focused on getting value for their money – translated into “making things last.”
The connection between hardware and durability is evident but some of you may be thinking how can something as intangible as IxD designs be durable? Any good principle applies across the board in its applicability. In the context of IxD it can be interpreted as a design that is of its time and can transcend its time by remaining relevant, functional and aesthetically pleasing – in other words classic and timeless all in one. For this article the focus is targeted mostly at the physical aspects of design as it is the aspect that is most tangible and apparent.
In more recent years as the end user becomes more product savvy, companies have a lot to fear. Today all it takes is a motivated and frustrated consumer with one bad product experience, a blog and a few followers. Case in point Dooce vs. Maytag, which illustrates the case of broken product experience, a savvy blogger and a well-followed Twitter site, which brought Maytag to its knees. And while some tweet their disappointments others use the old fashion grapevine which also has an effect. Recently while speaking with a small group of friends on the overall topic of consumer products, one friend, relayed her frustration about poor product quality as follows:
You think you have the newest model and you don’t. How would you feel if you just bought a new car – you drive off the lot and all of a sudden you have the last year’s model because the company just came out with a new one while you were shopping? Just makes you feel so jipped
She was referring to a product she had just purchased where an improved model was immediately released because of bad product quality.
I began thinking of the growing issues that so many users face with products that simply miss the durability mark where follow up products have to be built to fix the previous release issues. It is definitely a feeling that many of us have experienced at least one time or another.
Another friend recalled a time when there was one product release a year and products were so well-built that you could “pour acid” on it and it still worked. Today in the same market space there are sometime 4 and 5 releases of the same product with minor hardware and software modifications at the expense of high product churn rate because of poor quality.
Why can’t companies change the focus to durability and quality over quantity of what can only be called “junk”?
Sadly and seemingly unnoticed by consumers many companies practice what is less commonly known as “planned obsolescence” or “built-in obsolescence.” Planned obsolescence is the process of product becoming obsolete or non-functional after a certain period of time or use. Obviously the benefit is for the manufacturer and not the consumer as there is the pressure to purchase a newer version of that same old thing.
Think back at a product you recently purchase that should have lasted closer to 5 years but only lasted a year for whatever reason. For me it’s my Sony video camera I purchased in 2003, which lasted up till the warrantee expired a year later. Today, it R.I.P, still gleaming new and useless in my basement because the hassle of getting the right person to solve my problem on the phone at Sony had become a full time job. The same goes for my Canon s400 camera, which only three month after purchase, displays an everlasting e18 error. It has now joined my Sony camera in a neighboring grave site of other junk products I have purchased over the years. I reasoned for the near $350 I spent on the Canon point-and-shoot, it simply was not worth the repair. I now regret not taking the advice of my professional photographer friend who swears by Nikons. Perhaps thrice would have been the charm but I am now jaded.
While the case of Sony and Canon may or may not be intentional planned obsolescence, it speaks to the deplorable lack of overall quality of almost any piece of electronics you buy these days.
Junk is the new black, the new status quo in product design and manufacturing. It is a case of short sighted thinking and a complete violation of Sustainable design at its core. Unfortunately the pervasive practice of planned obsolescence makes it not matter where you purchase as you may find yourself buying the same product type very soon again.
Junk is the new black
What then is the role of UX practitioners in tackling the issue of planned obsolescence and enabling the design of products with increased longevity?
It is a tricky rope to toe as we have little ties in most cases to the day-to-day operations of product marketing and manufacturing. However, we do have an ‘in’. The kinds of feedback that we get from our users about product quality should have a voice. It is one thing to report satisfaction and efficiency ratings alongside affective data. Beyond that we should create the opportunity to direct these often unsolicited user feedback about such aspects as quality, battery life and durability of hardware etc… all elements of ‘good design’ to the appropriate people who can make a difference? I will go so far as to say it should be part of our protocol of product inquiry and be a standard usability component of our reports as we move forward. Some of the barriers that make this difficult is that we are not always fortunate to have continuous contact with our end users over the lifespan of the products – purchase to grave cycle to determine how we are doing along the continuum of product use. But what if we did?
These problems, left unaddressed, often makes headlines and ruins a company’s reputation even for a cycle. Lest we forget the energy sucking iPhone of recent times. Though iPhone bounced back it certainly ruined my image of the product as an energy guzzler.
Who also decides how long a product should last based on its value? Is it the user? Is it the manufacturer? Do their ideas on durability map? Highly likely not. The motivations are mutually exclusive – one to save money – one to make money. I will end this post by providing a few questions for thought:
- Why can’t companies spend more time making good products?
- How can we strike a balance and have better accountability for the continuous influx of crappy goods?
Whatever happened to quality?
- At what point will consumers begin to push back and demand better from companies filling the market place with poor quality goods.
- Most importantly, for our field of practice, how do we benchmarks products overall UX considering durability as a necessary element alongside functionality and aesthetics?