Fifteen Consumer Electronics Design Mistakes

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Mistake #7: The Ultra-Tiny Cordless Phone

Device(s): Cordless Telephones

cordless phones
In Mistake #6, I mentioned cordless telephones small enough to accidentally inhale, and I meant it. Since the early 1990s, cordless phone manufacturers have been in a heated-yet-pointless race to miniaturize their phone handsets to levels beyond human usability.

These aren't mobile/cell phones I'm talking about, mind you, but traditional landline phones with a wireless handset. While we consumers were perfectly happy with human-sized phone handsets that we could easily operate with human-sized fingers and comfortably cradle between our neck and shoulders, cordless phone makers were continuously shrinking and slimming the size of the handsets down to Lilliputian levels. We can sum up the futility and needlessness of this design choice with one sentence:

Cordless phones aren't cell phones, so there is no need to shrink them.

Let me repeat that for you consumer electronics companies out there who weren't listening. This is very important.

Cordless phones aren't cell phones, so there is no need to shrink them.

Do these companies expect me to carry around my house-bound cordless phone in my pants pocket throughout the day just in case I get a call? Do they expect women to carry them in their purses around the house while they're at home? If that were the case, then super-tiny cell phone-sized cordless handsets would be nice. But I'm guessing that 99% of cordless phone users don't treat their cordless phones like a cell phone.

While it's handy that modern cordless handsets are relatively small and portable, they've been as small as they need to be since 1990. Please, cordless phone designers, I beg, you: make your cordless phones human-sized again.

What Were They Thinking? (Benj's Theory)

This seems to be a case of unnecessary feature creep in the name of product differentiation. I also suspect that tiny, ultra-modern looking cordless phones look more attractive from a marketing standpoint - especially in a world dominated by super small cell phones. But I fear that almost everyone who has purchased such small cordless phones has regretted it.

proprietary connectors

Mistake #8: Flimsy Proprietary Connectors

Device(s): Cell Phones

There was a time when every single mobile phone manufacturer used a different proprietary connector for its adapter. Sometimes different phones by the same manufacturer used different connectors. That's annoying enough: it forces users to buy the vendor's official accessories to use with the device-at least for a couple years before the cloners catch on.

Even worse, in the quest to make the most unique, newfangled proprietary connector possible, phone designers (cough Motorola) began to pack in too many flimsy little pins that rarely stay springy and resilient, then mold it into an overall shape that tended to break with minimal use.

One your charger connector is broken, you have to buy a new one. Not so fast - it has to be a charger designed for one specific phone model only produced for six months in 2006. What? It's no longer in production? Tough luck-you can either buy a refurbished adapter from the vendor's back stock for $100, buy an even crappier built 3rd party charger that will break in three days, or buy a completely new phone and be their contract slave for another two years.

While there are movements to push phone charger connectors to a unified, industry-wide standard, we aren't there quite yet. Today's cell phones are generally more compatible, charger-wise, than those of the 1990s - especially thanks to the use of USB on smartphones. But there's still variability in USB connector size and the issue of whether a particular USB connection or adapter will provide enough juice to charge the phone properly.

What Were They Thinking?

Customer lock-in, poor design, planned obsolescence. It's hard to design a connector that's tiny, durable, and does everything you want (not just charge, but carry data and audio). That's why some companies (like Nokia) use two separate connectors for charging and data synchronization on some of their models, with the simpler connector being the one for charging, as it should.

battery life

Mistake #9: Poor Battery Life

Device(s): Cell Phones

Modern mobile phones are the Swiss Army Knives of the digital age: every year, they gain another feature that has nothing to do with talking on the phone. First it was fancy ringtones, then keyboards, then color backlit screens, then cameras, then full-blown computers with email and Internet access. All that functionality uses up a lot of juice, leaving little battery life left for talk or standby time.

What Were They Thinking?

There's feature creep, of course, which adds new features to phones that continue to push the limits of what current battery technology can handle. Then there's the bedazzled consumer: Who cares if you can only talk for one hour if your phone lets your browse the web from anywhere for 30 minutes?

So the even bigger problem might be on my end: believing that cell phones are still designed primarily with speech-based communication in mind.

answering machines

Mistake #10: What Time Did They Call?

Device(s): Digital Answering Machines

In the brief age before ubiquitous voicemail services, digital answering machines commonly drove their owners to the brink of insanity by forgetting their date settings every time the power briefly dropped out. The result? The machine tells you (in that sultry, husky voice) that your old college buddy called Sunday, 4 AM, when in fact he called Tuesday at 6 PM. There's a big difference.

I owned such a machine; it shared a kitchen outlet with a microwave. Every month, the microwave would pop the local outlet circuit breaker, taking my answering machine's date/time data with it. Thankfully, it at least remembered the messages without power. At least.

After a power loss, you fall into a similar situation as that with the VCR: the time/date is too cumbersome to set quickly - who has the time for that these days? - so you leave it alone, and the date is always wrong.

What Were They Thinking?

It's cheaper to make answering machines that don't use clock battery backups. I guess the designers also assume that either (a) your power doesn't drop out very often, or (b) even if it does, you aren't lazy enough to not re-set the time.

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