User Experience Design: When good ideas go dark

Davey Jones LockerRecently I started walking more often, trying to maintain my boyish, 35 year old figure a bit more… pro-actively, which led me to buy what has to be one of the worst devices I have ever purchased; a pedometer. It doesn’t interpret my footsteps accurately, it cannot account for change of stride and/or speed, and the battery life is ridiculously short due to the fact that it is incapable of being turned off. Granted, the retail outlet for said device is the horrendously predictable Wal-Mart.

The device is poorly designed, from soup to nuts. The interface is passable, and the device design is inexcusable; a device this simple should require neither directions or a battery change every 2 weeks. This has led me on a very short trip down the road of oh well, it was only 10 bucks.

Thinking of a replacement device, I started really looking at how companies design their products, and how few actually get it right. The first portable MP3 player I had was an Archos Jukebox. It worked well enough; played the songs like it was supposed to; but the User Interface seemed to be designed by drunken apes hopped up on Quaaludes. The complexity and lack of intuitive flow was stunning, and that’s why I had it less than 9 months before I traded it in for 60 gb portable hard drive. It was about a year and change later that my ultimate goal of owning an iPod was finally realized and I was in UI heaven. That is the not-so-secret of Apple’s success with this thing: it is simply the best designed MP3 player made. I’m not going to go into any kind of review; everyone knows why Apple products are so well regarded.

Just tonight I stumbled onto a small device called the Nike + iPod Sport Kit; at first glance it looks really sweet. The screen shots of the software look good, and the device is small – integrating nicely with the base of an iPod Nano. The first thing I noticed however that there were a lot of complaints in the reviews that there was no battery replacement for the foot sensor. This is the unit that goes into your shoe to send the data to your Nano of how fast you’re going etc. Kind of an important part, so God help you if you ever leave it on. There goes another $30.00. What puzzles me is why companies do this, and why consumers lap it up? Polar used to do (or still does) the same thing with some of their Heart Rate monitors, the battery was not user changeable and it would cost $15.00 or so to get them to change the battery? This isn’t first time I have heard of this, and it’s always a bad idea. The Polar device in question is submersible to 30 meters, so it’s at least understandable – if not altogether excusable.

Design that fails to take into consideration the needs of the end user over the needs of the developer, or manufacturer is simply bad design. Although this is not a new phenomenon, it is just as exacerbating now as it will be in a decade, or a decade ago. The web is littered with bad design, poorly considered and constructed interfaces that fail to meet even the most basic of requirements to get the information to the user in an efficient and friendly manner; it’s not hard to find. My reaction to products and websites of this poor caliber is almost identical. It’s easy on the web, I just simply forget about the offending site and move on. It gets a bit more complicated with products, only because even some of the best companies, with critically acclaimed products can have ginormous brain farts from time to time; so luckily for them I will give them benefit of the doubt and do a ton more research before purchasing from them again. In fact, that’s the end result in all cases, I tend to do a lot more research on products before I buy them so I don’t get burned – because when I buy things spur of the moment, it often times turns out badly.

As it turns out, there is a replacement sensor available for the Replacement Sport Sensor for the Nike iPod Sport Kit; and it’s only around $5.00.

Unfortunately, it’s harder to discern how well a product will function or hold up with a cursory inspection. Since most stores have return policies designed to bigger their money, rather than comfort customers into buying from them – it’s generally rather expensive when mistakes in buying happen. If you can go to stores (like the Apple store) and play with what you want before you buy, well; that’s ideal. Otherwise look for stores with excellent return policies like Circuit City.

The best thing you can do for yourself, is a little research on what you want before you start flipping bills off of your Michigan bankroll. This will at least give you a leg up, and help to avoid you sending your next purchase to the murky depths of Davey Jones Locker.

1 thought on “User Experience Design: When good ideas go dark”

  1. Doh! As soon as I started reading about your bad pedo, I knew exactly where you bought it. How did I know this ? Cause we bought one in the same place and had the same problems. Wal-mart sucks for quality, that’s fo’ sho’! 😉

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