The simplest distraction of all.

I apologise in advance for the upcoming paragraphs. Some may see this as a rant, an explosion of complaints against an innocent party. Unfortunately, you have no choice; my thoughts must be made known to the world. Let me provide some context.

The context...

My role involves a fair bit of travel. Catching planes, hiring cars and booking accommodation is second nature to me. Being quite a frugal kiwi I tend to look for deals, special offers or upgrades. So when I was given a brand new, 'elite' model rental car recently I was undoubtedly quite pleased. The mirrors folded out with a push of the key fob and lit up the surrounding area so the deserving patron could light their way to the door, the handle of which was also lit up with a white led glow. Heated leather seats, reversing camera. parking assist and my personal favourite, Apple CarPlay. Plug your iPhone in and use the large touchscreen for navigation, phone calls, and music, all with the same interface as said phone. Fantastic. You can even use voice activation to talk to Siri and, if you have your accent spot on, instruct her to play Dire Straits or provide directions to almost anywhere, including your favourite coffee stop.

All was going well until an hour into my journey I had finished changing every possible audio setting, my roasting hot electric seat was perfectly positioned and Siri was directing me through the hectic Auckland traffic. Without any distractions, I could again focus on the actual car. It dawned on me that this 'elite' version was actually completely and utterly terrible. When I muted Mark Knopfler, the road noise was horrific, suggesting that perhaps the selected tyres were the 'economy' series, not ideal if you value your spine. Even the steering, despite its selectable settings of Sport, Comfort, and Normal made no difference. It felt like the tie rods were connected with baling twine, giving a particularly unnerving feeling when approaching corners at speed. Moving onto the transmission. Let's just say, many are called but few are chosen, and those that are 2nd shall be 3rd, those that are 4th shall be 5th and those that are 1st shall rev incessantly until the driver shifts the 'auto' into the required gear. Then there is the level of available torque. Something that is necessary for forward motion. Perhaps I am used to more powerful vehicles but this one was distinctly disturbing when trying to accelerate across busy intersections and roundabouts. At some stage, I am sure I was peddling my feet on the floor like Fred Flintstone just to get some movement. And you guessed it, it drank such a prodigious amount of fuel, you could have sworn there was a 1990's V6 under the bonnet.

And again?

Tirade over, it certainly gets me thinking. Is there a basis here that this unnamed manufacturer was distracting the user away from the downfalls of the vehicle itself? Is someone in the design team so apprehensive about the given capabilities that they adorn it with fancy gadgets, lighting and a set of flashy mag wheels? Surely not! But the fact remains; there are numerous vehicles, household appliances, contraptions, and almost anything with an electronic heart that on the outside, look very nice, but when you dig deeper they are poorly designed and likely to fail, annoying the pants off the end user.

Here is another example. I purchased a new head torch as collecting firewood from the spookily dark shed was getting difficult and also to help with identifying where the dog had pooped on an evening walk. This particular head torch features about 6 different settings including a 'red light', for which I am still to find a use. It also has a comfortable, multi-adjustable headband and uses everyday AAA batteries. But, the battery casing is so idiotic you wonder if it was simply an afterthought as all their time was spent on designing the packaging it comes in. As you can see in the image below, the plastic tab that is meant to lock into the bracket is completely useless. Even slightly rigorous use of the head torch and the case pops open, resulting in complete darkness, with AAA batteries creating multiple trip hazards. This is poor design with minimal consideration for the given application, ignoring the fact that some ham-fisted bloke like me is eventually going to smash it against a wall. I just wanted the multiple flashy lights. Distraction!

The process...

Good design is thinking about how the user interacts with the end product. What is going to happen when they pick it up, put it down, drop it, step on it. Putting yourself in their shoes and recognising the areas where possible failure can occur. Consideration for the material properties and what they are capable of, the limits and stresses that they can endure. Simple engineering that is too often ignored.

Following an engineering design process is one of the ways that the user is considered, ultimately leading to the success of the product, and some extra fat on the bottom line. Check out the diagram below. Not rocket science is it?Also, I couldn't identify any point where it mentions adding silly lights or unnecessary features to distract away from the fundamental flaws of the product itself. Strange...

Flexibility is also key in design. We do not always need to follow this design process in exact order, one after another. It is highly likely that you might design something, test it, find a problem, and then go back to an earlier step in the process to make a modification or change to the design. Say hello to iterative design, a cyclic process of prototyping, testing, analysing, and refining your product. The great thing is, iterative design can be used at any step of the process, even if the product has gone to market. There is always room for improvement.

The unavoidable truth...

So we have a good design process now, but where do all these unnecessary distractions come into it? Perhaps what we view as distractions are actually meant to be legitimate features; a great addition to a product that should fulfil its intended purpose. Or maybe somewhere along the design journey, or even long before that, the product was destined to fail and the manufacturer has a 'throw-away' mentality. Not exactly what I would call responsible.

So how did my rental car end up so terrible? I am sure a large vehicle manufacturer would follow a very robust design process with multiple levels of redundancy to ensure issues did not fall through the cracks. Maybe, just like burnt muffins, it was part of an odd batch.

I will leave you with the statement below from the Apple man which really does sum up what I have just fumed about. Be worth taking a page from his book...

Is your design suffering from distraction overload or do you need assistance with your process? Get in touch here and let our engineers do the hard yards to make your product a success.