From The Ergoweb® Learning Center

It’s Time to Put an End to Abusive Design

"I wonder how you're going to feel about this when you're &%$#ing 80 years old."

That's the final line in Winnebago Man, a quirky movie I watched last night. Winnebago Man is a documentary inspired by a viral video featuring outtakes from a 1980's era Winnebago RV marketing commercial. The pitchman in the commercial is Jack Rebney, who has since been dubbed "The Angriest Man in the World" (warning: if you're offended by colorful, profanity laced language, do not watch this movie or the viral video's that spawned it).

That final line of the movie was delightfully apropos, because I had just experienced what I can only describe as an abusive design while trying to help my 80+ year old parents understand their new land-line telephone. Predictably, they were perplexed, intimidated and felt beaten by the technology. Actually, you don't need to be in your 80's to find the AT&T DECT 6.0 Model CL83451 cordless telephone incomprehensible (even its name carries no meaning!). I, their supposedly tech-savvy son, nearly lost my cool, and had my parents not been present I would have channeled Rebney's explicit language, easily challenging him for the "Angriest Man" title. 

I no longer have patience for poorly designed consumer products. In this day and age there is simply no excuse, because we have ample knowledge, ability and reason to produce human centered designs. It's called ergonomics.

I won't go into detail about the numerous usability failings with the DECT 6.0, but suffice it to say that forcing far more functions than any one customer would ever need or use into a small device, then providing a confusing set of poorly labeled primary button controls that don't reflect the most frequent or important customer tasks, then adding a difficult to read digital display with more confusing menu options, does not create happy customers. Providing a 56 page manual, plus a 7 page "quick start" manual, all for what should be a simple and intuitive home telephone, doesn't make them any happier. Simply put, it's outright abusive to the customer. It's a one-size-fits-all approach that, not surprisingly, fits no one well.

I'm sure that from a technical standpoint the DECT 6.0 works just fine, meaning that it is perfectly capable of processing, delivering, receiving and coordinating signals between the telephone land-line and the cordless handsets. However, from a usability standpoint, it is completely dysfunctional. It's a poster child for what I'll call "push design," borrowing terminology from Lean organizational management methods. Companies on a Lean Journey strive to achieve customer pull; companies operating under mass production theory practice customer push. 

To illustrate, imagine a company that focuses all their efforts on their customers. They carefully and continuously assess their customer needs and desires, what they are willing to pay for and at what price, and only then do they develop and continuously improve well flowing, value-adding processes to produce and deliver their product (or service), just in time, as their customers pull the products from store shelves. This is the Lean approach. This is very compatible with the ergonomics approach in that it is driven by the end user.

Now contrast that with a company that applies a hierarchical top-down approach. They tend to focus internally, acting more on what they want, and on what they believe they are quickly capable of doing, then cobble together a short-term process, usually lured by mass production techniques that deliver short term economies of scale. Once they've filled a warehouse with widgets, they push them to markets where they hope customers will buy them, often resorting to all kinds of unsavory marketing and pricing gimmicks to dump their inventory. This is not the Lean approach. This is how a chair that fits the designer, but not the target consumer population, makes it to market. This is how the AT&T DECT 6.0 Model CL83451 ended up in my parents home. AT&T was able to purge another DECT 6.0 from inventory, but they have also purged current and future customers from their sales pipeline. An obvious lack of concern for the customer, short-term thinking, but with long-term consequences. This is not conducive to good ergonomics.

On the other hand, AT&T operates in a highly regulated market, which increases their non-value added bureaucratic overhead, but also provides them with a great deal of protection from free market competitors who may introduce better designed solutions. This creates a situation ripe for a "we could care less," or even an abusive attitude towards customers, as exemplified by the DECT 6.0. Further, the land-line telephone system is declining as mobile technologies grow. However, there are still 100's of millions of users in the market, so there is no valid excuse for this lack of customer focus. This is especially true when you consider that many of those users are going to be older and less familiar and less able to understand highly technical interfaces, the very reason they aren't likely to transition to mobile technologies. As Jack Rebney said, "I wonder how you're going to feel about this when you're &%$#ing 80 years old."

There is, of course, also a "buyer beware" component to this discussion. Why did my parents purchase the DECT 6.0? They tell me they had three choices at the store they purchased from, and they selected the mid-priced option. "You get what you pay for," as the adage goes, though it's not at all clear that the more expensive option would have delivered better ergonomics (I expect it would instead have delivered more features, making the situation even worse).

This brings me to the last point I'd like to make in this "Angriest Man" tirade: consumer knowledge regarding ergonomics/usability. How would my parents, or any purchaser, know whether or not a product is ergonomically designed? This product wasn't advertised as "ergonomic," but it could well have been, like so many products are — regardless of the accuracy of that claim — because there is no widely accepted, credible certification or approval system to help protect consumers. That really, really needs to change.


This article originally appeared in The Ergonomics Report™ on 2012-10-31.