Fifteen Consumer Electronics Design Mistakes

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alarm clock

Mistake #11: Alarm Difficult to Set

Device(s): Clock Radios

"Difficult to set" seems to be a theme in this list, doesn't it? Well, it's quite a design sin. Companies make some alarm clock-radios so complicated that hotels have to post 8-step instructions telling its guests how to set them. Upon seeing that, most guests probably just pick up the phone and request a wake up call, hoping in their heart that the wake-up-caller does not rely on the same alarm clock model stationed in your room.

The complexity and confusion of alarm clock setting doesn't just stem from weirdly shaped, sized, or placed buttons. It comes from embarrassingly simpler things that leave you wondering, "Why can't I tell if the alarm is active and operational or not? Will it actually go off tomorrow morning?" and "Is this thing set for 7 AM or 7 PM?"

Ah yes, the famous AM/PM issue - the subject of entertaining conjecture in a Seinfeld episode about alarm clock problems. Some clocks have a dot to indicate that the time you see is in the AM range of the day, and some clocks use the dot to denote the PM hours. Some don't have a dot at all. This inconsistency has caused many an alarm clock to ring either 12 hours ahead of or behind schedule.

A number of other people hate hotel alarm clocks as much as I do.

What Were They Thinking?

This is a result ill-conceived design, feature creep, and/or the fallacy that more design complexity looks commercially impressive to the buyers of alarm clocks. In fact, it only makes customers smash them with a hammer.


inkjet printers

Mistake #12: Clogged Inkjet Nozzles

Device(s): Inkjet Printers

How many times have you tried to use your inkjet printer and discovered that it produced streaky or half-invisible printouts? I once owned a printer that wouldn't print at all if you didn't use it for a week. That's because the inkjet print heads that sprayed ink onto the paper always clogged up with dry ink.

To get my printer working again, I had to run four or five head cleaning cycles in a row, then print out ink-intensive test sheets. Every time I ran the cleaning cycle, of course, it used up lots of ink, which is very expensive. (Expensive ink is another problem, of course, but it's a marketing mistake, not a design mistake.)

After years of printers with this problem (most made by Epson - I'm callin' you out!), I believe that the issue isn't as prevalent as it was some years ago. But while it lasted, it felt like I was flushing money down the toilet every time I used my printer. In fact, my toilet didn't even use water to flush; it used Epson Brand (TM) printer ink.

What Were They Thinking?

I doubt that printer engineers purposely made their inkjet print nozzles prone to clogging up. That problem is somewhat inherent in how inkjet technology works. But with ink prices what they were (and are), certain companies might not have bent over backwards to prevent it from happening because ink sales made/make much more money for printer companies than sales of the printers themselves.

PC load letter

Mistake #13: PC LOAD LETTER

Device(s): HP LaserJet Printers

Any fan of the movie Office Space is familiar with this problem, and in some ways it extends to devices beyond printers. It happens when a gadget's error messages are needlessly brief and cryptic.

Picture this scenario: The HP LaserJet printer you're using stops working. Its one-line status display reads, "PC LOAD LETTER." You think to yourself:

Hmm... PC. Personal computer? Load. Load what? Load a program? Letter. I'm not writing a letter. Maybe I should load a letter into the printer from the PC? Does it need an envelope? Or is the PC I'm using not sending letters (ABC) properly to the printer? Should I check the printer cable?

As it turns out, the printer is simply out of paper. The display could have said, "OUT OF PAPER," or "RELOAD PAPER," or "PAPER TRAY EMPTY." But no, clever HP engineers devised a needlessly complex coding scheme for error messages that almost always require a flip through the manual to figure out.

So let's decode this error for real. "PC" is for "paper cassette" - the plastic cassette the printer pulls paper from. The "load" is telling the user that the printer is out of paper (so load some up, duh). And the "letter" represents letter size paper. Since the printer supported multiple paper sizes, it was possible to get a "PC LOAD LEGAL" as well, which would tell the user to reload legal size paper into the cassette.

A simple "out of paper" would have worked, and here's why. I'll walk you through this, even if only for the sake of printer engineers everywhere.

If the user knew the printer was out of paper, the user would look in the most obvious places - either the paper cassette, or another paper feeder tray. Suspecting the cassette, they'd pull it from the printer to see if it's really empty. In our scenario, that would be true. Now what kind of paper should the user put in the paper cassette? Hint: what size do 99% of users print on? Standard 8.5?x11? letter size paper is the answer. If he were trying to print on legal size paper (and if the paper cassette accepted both sizes at once), he would easily see that the cassette held no more legal size paper and refill accordingly. So the entire message is useless and needlessly confusing.

What Were They Thinking?

We find here a classic case of over-engineering and being too specific when a more general (and less confusing) error message would do. The engineers knew exactly what "PC LOAD LETTER" meant (and every other combination of error words), so they found absolutely no problem in the design. The printer's error readout was accurate to a fault; so accurate, in fact, that no one understood it without a reference.

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