Managing the risks and trade-offs when pushing the boundaries of product design
The tales of poor performance of the antennas on the iPhone 4 might be a blemish on the normally stellar performance of Apple at making consumer products. Their reputation is for chic physical design with “I never realised I needed one” functionality and user interfaces that even technophobes can love. But in crafting the smartest, coolest, easiest to use devices have they paid enough attention to the most important question of all – does it work?
Of course Apple is not the first designer to find its latest starlet misbehaves. The new Millennium Bridge in London famously developed a wobble when people tried to walk on it. The Audi TT sports car had a rear spoiler added a few months after its launch following reports of erratic handling at speed.
All three instances have ended up with a hasty modification after the launch or construction. The TT got its spoiler, the Millennium Bridge had vibration dampers fitted and now iPhone 4 users are being supplied with plastic ‘bumper’ to prevent contact with the antennas.
All of which prompts the question of why such big names with all the financial and other resources at their disposal launch products with flaws in their designs that the end users find so quickly?
Part of the problem lies in the ever-increasing complexity of consumer devices. The sheer number of permutations of operating conditions makes it very difficult to test every one of them; even when an apparently minor problem is discovered in testing there is the pressure not to delay the launch in order to rework the design. This applies especially in a market such as consumer electronics where the time to market for a new product is critical to its success. The manufacturer must judge whether the implications of the problem warrant delaying the launch. The challenge of avoiding that problem in the first place runs deeper.
The requirement for a function and the desire for an aesthetically good design will often be in contradiction. For example minimising battery size runs counter to maximising battery life. Most consumers will prefer a sensible trade-off between the two. Look at the various forms of text keyboard that have appeared on mobile devices as manufacturers struggle to find the best way to shoehorn dozens of keys into the smallest volume and still leave something useable by most humans.
Coming back to the iPhone antenna problem, the purely financial cost of putting it right will almost inevitably be higher than the cost of building it right first time. Beyond that are intangible costs of reputational damage and the corruption of the original neatly styled design. It is in these areas that the biggest names have the furthest to fall. Would the media furore that Apple experienced have been anything like the same level if the same problem had been discovered in a phone from a lower profile brand? For Apple and antennas you could also read Toyota and throttle controls
Consumers always prefer products to look and feel good - and it is to all our benefits that there are the Apples of this world who are prepared to take risks and push the boundaries of product design. But in doing so we must not overlook the need to fulfil the product’s basic function as effectively as possible. The trick lies in finding the right trade-off.
Author: Simon Tonks, Expert in wireless technology, PA Consulting Group
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