Bad Design

I usually carry my cell phone in my trouser pocket. My previous cell phones were non-folders and occasionally made calls on their own even though I used the “key lock” feature. (One phone dialed 911. I found out about it because a 911 dispatcher called back to ask if I was OK.) So I made sure that the next phone was a folding model.

However, it turns out that even folding phones are vulnerable to inadvertent activation. Yesterday I was in the dentist’s chair and heard the stupid click sound from my phone’s camera. Sure enough, the phone was on and its memory contained numerous photos, recorded on different days, of the insides of my pockets. This happened because the phone’s camera is activated by a switch on the side of the phone. This isn’t a significant problem, but the other side of the phone has a rocker switch that controls sound volume, and I often find that I have to adjust the volume during a call because the setting changed when the phone was in my pocket. In the aggregate these issues significantly reduce the folding phone’s benefits for me.

(The problem is not confined to phones. I have a small camera that occasionally turns itself on in my pocket because its on/off switch is poorly designed.)

I carry things in my pockets as many men do. Why do designers place protruding controls on the outsides of small electronic devices that will inevitably be carried in pockets? Even for products that are developed in a hurry to keep up with rapid marketing cycles, there ought to be enough accumulated knowledge to indicate that some design practices are unwise. (And not all designs are bad: my other small camera has a recessed on/off switch and has never turned itself on by accident.) So why are so many products flawed in this way? Is it a lack of feedback from customers? You would think that even some phone designers carry their phones in their pockets. Is there a systematic answer to these questions or is it simply the case that some designers are better than others? Or maybe the designers are competent but their pointy-haired-bosses force them to add features based on non-design criteria. But PHBs should be as sensitive to design issues that annoy customers as designers are. I don’t get it.

9 thoughts on “Bad Design”

  1. “mature” men carry phones in cute little holdezrs and such things do not happen. Younger fellows use pockets and shit happens. They make phones to suite the manufacturers ease of production. I used a holder made of leather but then my son laughed at me when I offered to buy him one. I now use pocket.

    Women do not have such problems: they never let them out of a clutched fist.

  2. “Why do designers place protruding controls on the outsides of small electronic devices that will inevitably be carried in pockets? ”

    Probably for the same reason that we see these controls but buy the product anyway. Lack of due diligence. There is a lesson here, a sweeping generalization that is ready for birth, but requires a midwife to coax it out into the light.

    Telephone designs are kept secret because technological advances create enormous shifts in market share. This secrecy creates a competitive advantage but prevents using consumer panels for pre-production testing, leading to less than optimal ergometrics. Secrecy always has unintended consequences (sweeping generalization). You can’t make an omlette if someone hides the eggs.

  3. Guess I’m still a “younger fellow” at 48. I’ve taken several photos of the inside of my pockets, frequently activated the voice-command feature (in which a strangely insistent female voice, speaking from my pants, says “SAY A COMMAND!”), and evidently connected to the web a few times by mistake, one instance of which caused my phone’s OS to acquire a nasty virus that required my entire phone book to be deleted.

  4. I think that part of the problem is design “churning.”

    Churning happens when individuals in a certain area of endeavor have incentive to create something new just for the sake of novelty. Artist, academics, educators, stock brokers etc all face the need to produce something new just to justify their jobs even though the last thing they did might continue to work fine.

    People working in consumer design must crank out new looking gadgets continually. They must alter the interface and external appearance even if the internal functioning remains essentially the same. Inevitably this almost random alteration effects interface elements such as buttons which leads to faults as buttons and functions get positioned for the sake of novel aesthetics.

    We’re all to blame here. As consumers we tend to buy to many items based on form over function. As long as we buy style instead of function we get more style and less function.

  5. I finally gave up finding a good phone w/o a camera feature. First, I have several very nice cameras, and if I want a picture, I know how to take one the right way. Second, some of the places I go are fairly well locked down for security, and if you have a camera phone, you have to leave it with the receptionist. No exceptions.

    I guess the logical end state will be when bicycles are equipped with water filters, aerators, and fish food dispensers. Take that, Gloria!

  6. My phone cost $60. I could have bought a non-camera phone for $40 but I wanted to try a camera-phone. Also, the non-camera phone was not a folder, so I would have risked more inadvertent calls. It turns out that the additional 20 bucks buys a camera that is of such low quality that I won’t use it. So much for my cheap experiment. Overall, however, I come out ahead by trading inadvertent calls for inadvertent pictures.

  7. “Why do designers place protruding controls on the outsides of small electronic devices that will inevitably be carried in pockets?”

    In order for you to buy the carrying case that clips on your belt.

  8. I actually couldn’t get a non-camera phone, which disappointed me. I want a phone that lets me talk to people. It doesn’t need to play music, take pictures, check my e-mail, send text messages, or any of that other stuff. But they don’t sell cell phones without all those features any more.

    (Some places are locked down so tight that they don’t care if your phone has a camera or not, it’s not allowed in. But at least if you bring a regular phone in, you get yelled at and have to meet with security. If it’s a camera phone, it will go through the industrial shredder.)

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