Durability as a Mark of Good Design

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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.

Today

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.

What gives!

Why can’t companies change the focus to durability and quality over quantity of what can only be called “junk”?

Planned obsolescence

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:

  1. Why can’t companies spend more time making good products?
  2. How can we strike a balance and have better accountability for the continuous influx of crappy goods?
    Whatever happened to quality?
  3. At what point will consumers begin to push back and demand better from companies filling the market place with poor quality goods.
  4. Most importantly, for our field of practice, how do we benchmarks products overall UX considering durability as a necessary element alongside functionality and aesthetics?
Editors note: See more about the history of planned obsolescence and other product durability related facts in Annie Leonard’s excellent movie The Story of Stuff.
Top image by: PedroSimoes7

Kem Kramer

Kem-Laurin is a User Experience Strategist, Innovator and Dreamer of Solutions; she is also author of User Experience in the Age of Sustainability: A Practitioner’s Blueprint and a pioneer of formal User Experience research practice at Research in Motion (makers of the Blackberry). She currently works at Autodesk as the User Experience Design Manager for Online/Mobile Team. In her spare, you can find her at home with her two young boys or weeding her perennial garden – two of her passions.

12 comments on this article

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  3. Fabien on

    Excellent article Kem, with lots of thought-provoking questions concerning sustainable design. Your article made me think of “The Story of Stuff” video I recently watched (and I just saw that you linked to it at the bottom of the article).

    It goes back to the old story of the lightbulb, it is actually very easy to make lightbulbs that don’t burn out for decades/hundreds of years (by increasing the size of the filament), but lightbulb companies have colluded and monopolized the market to sell you a lightbulb that you will need to buy over and over again. Unfortunately consumerism driven by strong capitalistic forces expands this phenomenon across all industries.

    Within the current profit-driven system we live in, it seems to be a challenge to find business models that would encourage the durability of design, especially with consumers constantly seeking out the lowest prices / most fashionable products, it becomes a chicken-and-egg debate (are we to blame the companies or the consumers). This brings me to another interesting question that popped into my head, how can value durable design? Can companies with a strong focus on durable design survive in the cut-throat market? Seems like a tricky interaction between listening to the voice of consumers, companies, and the role of government regulation..

    Just some quick thoughts upon glancing over your article…

  4. Nick on

    I’m with you on the iphone as a design of poor endurance.

    When Safari was playing up, clearly a software problem, I recieved a brand new phone after sending it away to be repaired.

    As a consumer who avoided buying a new phone for many years, specifically as I didn’t want to bring another phone into the world, I’m now responsible for two, due to the apple replace rather than repair policy.

    This proved to me as a UX practitioner that good design and a corresponding UX starts right at the top of the food chain, it’s the design of the company, the manufacturing, the supply chain etc. and all these ‘invisible’ aspects which have an effect onthe UX, and as a result brand perception.

    It’s all very well that an interface has been honed for a great UX, but it’s definitely time for the commercial and policy-making divisions of these producers to step up if they want their products, and their brands to endure.

  5. There is something to be said about buying the core of something and then buying around it. So the idea of taking out the component you want to upgrade rather than having to replace the whole thing.

    Perhaps a deeper question – is why we feel the need to upgrade and replace in the first place?

    * Perhaps there is a real need where technology is truly superior and better all around?
    * Perhaps its peer pressure?
    * Perhaps its when people see a better alternatively staring them in the face?
    * Perhaps its all of the above?

    I do like the idea where design says – “this will not only benefit you but benefit others as part of the buy” (and not just business)

    Gets you thinking and thanks :)

  6. I think the experience economy also has a strong connection with sustainability.By buying (good) products we hope to feed this desire for a better experience.

    Most companies lose the connection with the user after the purchase. By offering newer, better products they guide us in getting more and better experiences. The current economy shows it works. Yet, it is not really in line with our notion of sustainability and durability; buying more greener gadgets doesn’t help the world…

    I believe sustainable experiences should be the focus, instead of sustainable products.

    Product-Service-Systems (PSS) seem promising to achieve this. A company makes a long-term commitment to offer good quality products. Putting many versions on the market seems less attractive.

    Question for us is; what kind of relationship do we desire with a product or company? Do we want to settle with them or still flirt around?

    Thanks for the interesting post, it keeps me thinking…

  7. Thanks for all the comments so far. Fabien you raised an interesting point when you ask: what comes first – “chicken or the egg?” Your comment is peripherally re-echoed by Martijn’s comment about where focus should be – I had not thought about it this way but it makes sense that companies should be focusing on ‘sustainable experiences” and not on “sustainable products”. I think of the analogy of human relationships in general – in focusing on the product, the relationship itself becomes less important. If a company sets out to make me a repeat customer by designing a good experience I would expect that would be the ultimate in consumer – company relationship. But where was this broken in the chain? Did we as customers decide that we would not be willing to pay more or did companies decide to keep the process of production churning by focusing on low quality products because customers demand junk? Daniel’s point on why we feel the need to keep on upgrading may have a bit of the answer. The complicated dynamics of humans always wanting more and more may be partially to blame.
    Ultimately I would think that as world citizens we should be thinking of the impact of insatiable need for more – both consumer and companies alike. But I am a dreamer to think the solution is that simple. I would hope this recession has taught us a little bit of the old adages that speak to such things as greed, modesty, living within means and others that have led us to the brink of economic collapse.
    Nick I think you also hit one thing on the head:
    “It’s all very well that an interface has been honed for a great UX, but it’s definitely time for the commercial and policy-making divisions of these producers to step up if they want their products, and their brands to endure.”

  8. Azmina Karimi on

    An enjoyable read, Kem! I particularly agree with the quotes below:

    “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.”

    “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.”

    I really wonder why the product development cycle has to push for quantity over quality just to meet timelines and keep up with the market. Who’s market space is this in the first place? Why should companies have to constantly compete for who releases the “newer and improved” models first?

    When I first got my MacBook Pro I vowed to make it last five years…it’s been two and I can definitely notice a difference. I absolutely love using it, but I’ll be damned if it lasts more than another year before I’ll have to purchase another one – not necessarily for its “new and improved” features, but simply because the hardware is failing. And what’s funny is that when I went into the store to inquire about a component for my laptop, I found out that it was not available in the store and that I would have to either look for it online or through external sources. An example of how only newer products are readily supported, and therefore virtually forced upon us as consumers.

    This creates another concern: with so many consumers having to replace their current products with newer ones, the older products get wasted and just “R.I.P.” in storage or basements as mentioned in the article. Sure, recycling is encouraged but only the more environmentally conscious bunch actually take the step to do so. There needs to be a prevalent system put in place where these products don’t go to waste.

    As important as aesthetics and functionality is, it is also important to consider durability as a scale of measure for design evaluations, or at least get solid feedback on this aspect. Sure, ease of use is important, but the thing has to work properly in the first place, and hence product, process and system durability does play a huge role in the perception of a design.

  9. We can assume that a great deal of the profit of businesses that sell products, especially consumer products, is likely derived from planned (or quasi-planned) obsolescence. We often forget that this behaviour is permitted, if not encouraged by customers. It is likely that the people making the decisions to buy these products either don’t know or don’t care about those products’ lifespans. I suspect, however, that the days in which a business can rely on the ignorance and apathy of its customers to send its profits into the stratosphere are in fact coming to a close.

    (Note: I’m by no means saying that in the future there won’t be ignorant, apathetic customers. I’m saying that few businesses will be able to rely on them for profits.)

    Customers have bigger loupes, louder voices and longer memories. Trade no longer takes the form of the monetarist ideal of anonymous exchange of goods for the best price (it is doubtful that it ever did). It is becoming highly politicized. People are demanding transparency on organizations’ supply chains from sweat-shop involvement to carbon footprint. It won’t be long before they demand an heirloom mobile phone.

    True to form, it probably won’t be the incumbents that figure this out, but a disruptor on the horizon.

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