Friday, November 25, 2011

Planned Obsolescence: Designing Products to Break

The concept of planned obsolescence has been with us for over a century. Basically, the idea is to drive consumer demand, not by making great products that people want then making even better versions that they want to upgrade to, but to intentionally design products to fail and force consumers to buy newer versions.

The reasons behind this practice are many. But the most common reason cited is that, if you designed products that lived forever, nobody would ever upgrade and the economy would grind to a halt. Obviously, this isn't true. Consumers will always want better versions of the stuff they have and companies who innovate will never find themselves short of customers. In reality, there's no justification for designing a product to break. Yet companies have been doing it since shortly after the design of the electric light bulb.

The documentary above, called "The Light Bulb Conspiracy" looks at the practice of planned obsolescence and discusses how prevalent and widespread the practice is throughout product design. From consumer electronics down to automobile makers, almost every product you own is intentionally designed to fail for absolutely no other reason than to make you buy a new one.

If you've never heard of the concept, this film will shock you. If you've ever wondered if your suspicions about why products fail might be true, this film will leave you nodding your head. Definitely worth watching for anyone interested in sustainability.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Product design sucks

Over the last few weeks I've started to pay more attention to product design.  I don't know if that's because I've recently read the Steve Jobs biography that paints him as a legendary stickler for good design or if it's because I'm slowly moving my company towards its first real product release but, for whatever reason, I've started taking notice.

Largely, I've noticed how much most product design sucks.

Walking through a large department store the other day, I started looking at some of the home appliances; looking for anything that jumped out and grabbed my eye. Nothing did. I saw the same smooth curves or sharp angles on everything. Nothing looked remotely different, unique, or exciting. Everything was just really boring.

It's not just home appliances. Look at your computer, your television, your MP3 player, your car. None of it truly has the style to grab you by the neck and make you take notice. None of it is beautiful or looks like anyone paid much attention to pleasing the eye. It's the same tired, old, motifs repeated over and over on product after product. Nothing is special.

As our company starts designing its own product, I wonder if we'll be faced with the same dilemma. Will our product pay more attention to function over form? Will we seek to delight the users eye as much as we strive to meet their tech needs? Is there a need for compromise between radically different product design and really great functionality? Can you have both in the same product?

Personally, I believe the dearth of boring products is because consumers don't really notice anymore - especially on the low end. Sure, someone who pays $3,500 for a home stereo system is going to want something that looks amazing but what does someone who pays $159 for one expect?  Good sound. That's it. The lower we go, the more function seems to become more important than form.

When I worked at Walmart, I had a mantra I lived by and still live by today: Every customer gets the million dollar purchase treatment even if they're only spending $5.  When you choose to give me the money you worked hard to earn, you deserve to be treated to a spectacular experience. How much you're spending doesn't really matter. The fact that you're spending it with me instead of a competitor is what matters.

My coworkers and managers often didn't understand why I'd spend enormous amounts of effort helping customers choose sometimes incredibly cheap products. It's because they deserved my time and effort. The deserved the best. That's how I feel about product design: customers deserve the best effort and I don't believe designers are giving them that.

How about you? What are some products who's designs just 'wows' you? Why does it make such an impact on you? What about shoddy products? What would you do to change the design to make them amazing?  Leave your comments below or send me an email and discuss it.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

What the classroom of the future might look like

The public education system in the United States is horrible.  While it's never been a great system, we now have a situation where students are graduating high school without the ability to read well, do basic math, or solve even the simplest multi-step problems.  Students in the United States are woefully unprepared for the global business environment they will be entering and most are skilled only enough to be worker bees instead of heads of industry or world changers.

Most people blame the lack of money for the crisis in which we find our education system,  but I think that's not going far enough. We've dumped billions of dollars into this failing system for decades and it's only getting worse. The real reason our school systems are crumbling isn't the amount of money we pay teachers, or the curriculum we're teaching our students but rather the way education is being delivered.

Every day we pack millions of children into little sardine cans and bus them to the closed, guarded, uncomfortable, tightly controlled prisons that we call schools. There, their every move is monitored, evaluated, and controlled. They are told when they can go to the bathroom, when they can interact with their fellow students (even in positive ways) and when they can leave. They learn their studies through the rote repetition of facts and figures and are punished for being creative, challenging,  questioning the facts they're taught, or pushing authority.

Obviously, this system is broken. It's so broken, in fact, that I don't think it's worth fixing. It needs to be completely gotten rid of and something new should take its place.

Technology has brought us to the point where we now know what that 'something new' could be. We can imagine it. We can build it. And we can create an order of magnitudes better system than the one we have now.  Let's imagine what the classroom could look like if we were to effectively use the technology we have right now to build a better system.

First, we eliminate the concept of centralization. There's no need for students and teachers to be in the same place physically anymore. Students in the future may choose to learn from home, may attend classes while on vacation with their families, or might even skip a day or two entirely knowing that they can go back and watch the recorded class and interact with the teacher virtually should they need help. All live interaction would be via video conference or maybe even happen in a virtual world like Second Life where the students could come together in a virtual classroom, interact with one another, and experience many of the same benefits of a classroom environment without all of the drawbacks.

The learning environment would shift from being the stark, prison like experience it is today, to the comfortable familiarity of home where students would be surrounded by the things and the people they love. Student stress would be lower and, thus, bad behavior would become less of a problem.

Teachers in the new system could teach from anywhere and could provide their students with amazing experiences by better integrating their lives into the curriculum. Ordinarily, a teacher might deliver lessons from a small home office or living room, but what if she decided to travel to a foreign country for an extended trip? Her daily lessons could still be delivered on time and with the same level of interaction as when she was at home but now she could include the cultural experience of her trip to Spain or wherever she was into the lessons. She could take her students with her to exotic, historic places and provide them with a live education, guest lecturers, amazing things, all while not disturbing the order of the students lives or inconveniencing her vacation or trip very much.

Books would all be digital and provided on either PC's or tablets that would be updated to the newest version automatically. Since they're digital, they would be much more affordable than they are now and even the poorest communities might be able to afford the latest textbooks as they come out. Also because they're digital, the books can contain a full multimedia experience where video, audio, and animations are seamlessly integrated into the book itself, offering students an incredibly engaging learning experience.

As a result of the correct and efficient use of technology, teacher pay could increase thereby pulling better teachers into the system while allowing more per-student spending on the part of the school.  Administrative costs would be lower as well since the challenges of maintaining physical facilities would be eliminated or greatly reduced.

We have the technology to implement a system like this right now. The only thing stopping us is the fact that we're stuck in an old model mindset of what education should be. We're not looking to the future, we're not pushing the limits, we're not thinking 'what if'.  Modern technology, not to mention what might be here in 5-10 years, offers us an opportunity to provide our students with an amazing, world class, educational experience. One that would not only prepare them to work within the global marketplace, but dominate it. We just have to be willing to break from tradition, admit that what we have now is simply trash, and start over.

I believe small private schools are going to be able to do this first. They are the ones who are most willing to experiment. I expect to see a school take this path sometimes within the next 5 years. Public schools, which are almost to the point of collapse under their own bureaucracy, will take a bit longer but will eventually come around when they see the results. Eventually, we will have a completely decentralized education system that works better than anything else we could imagine.

Who will be the first to dare to think big and lead the way into the future? That's the only question left to answer. Everything else is implementation.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Canonical continues to amaze and confuse Ubuntu users and developers alike

With the most recent Ubuntu Developer Summit wrapped up, many are looking at Canonical, the company behind Ubuntu, and scratching their head. I'd assume no greater amount of head scratching is going on anywhere else than in the developer community. Canonical has become a confusing company who's CEO, Mark Shuttleworth, seems to be a confusing man.

At the last UDS,  Shuttleworth shocked attendees by saying he wanted a push for 200 million users on Ubuntu in 4 years. Ambitious, to be sure, but everything in the Ubuntu world seemed to be aligning perfectly to bring those users in: the new software center, the introduction of the new Unity desktop environment, look and feel redesigns, everything.  Linux developers were overjoyed because, a 200 million user base also means 200 million potential software users as well. Everyone got to work trying to make Ubuntu as user friendly to newbies (especially those coming from the Microsoft Windows world) as possible. Everyone was excited and ready to go.

Now, less than one year later, that push seems to have changed. The push this time around isn't to hit that 200  million user mark but rather to push Ubuntu onto smartphones and tablets. Now, granted, having Ubuntu on those devices is going to increase the Ubuntu user base. But it's not going to help the legions of developers who've spent the last year fervently developing for the desktop and who now find that their creations probably won't work on tablets or the ARM archetecture that many tablets run on. To those developers, they must either completely scrap their work and start over with the new focus (which might change again next year) or continue to develop for the desktop with the hopes that more users of Ubuntu of mobile devices will also translate to more users of Ubuntu on the desktop (which it might).

I think Canonical and Shuttleworth are missing a huge point with this push to smartphones and tablets: on these devices, operating system doesn't really matter. With a huge section of computing moving to the cloud, users are being abstracted further and further away from the hardware and the system that drives it. It doesn't matter that your device will run Ubuntu because, ultimately, the software you're going to run will run on anything. Tablet users aren't likely to interact with the underlying OS in any meaningful way. They'll click to start a web browser, browse to their favorite web applications, maybe play music or video, but having Ubuntu on a device, overall, will make very little difference in the lives of most users.

Personally, I believe Canonical is shooting itself in the foot with this new push. Focusing on the desktop market makes sense because, on the desktop, the operating system you use matters. It ties into the software you use, the service you use, everything. On tablets and smartphones, it doesn't and Canonical is going to lose what little chance it has to hit that 200 million user number if it doesn't abandon the schizophrenic 'we want to be on everything' attitude and focus on their core.

The desktop, contrary to what ZDNet might way, is not dead. There's a lot of users to be won there and a lot of money to be made. Canonical would do very well by continuing to polish Unity, provide developers with great tools to develop new and compelling desktop applications, deepen the desktop-cloud tie-in, and focus on giving desktop users the absolute best experience out there.

That said, I would still kill to get my hands on an Ubuntu based tablet. So maybe all hope isn't lost after all.

What do you think? Does the operating system that runs your mobile devices matter that much to you? Would you buy an Ubuntu tablet or smartphone? How do you feel about the new push to mobile? Leave a comment and get in the discussion!