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Why nothing works anymore [Ian Bogost / Atlantic]

February 24, 2017


[via NC]

As an engineer who does a lot of what is called product development (though not consumer products), the subject of crapification[*] is one I think about a lot. It is most certainly not because we can’t do better. 100% sure of that.

Yesterday, in fact, I angrily hurled a printer-scanner out the back door after it malfunctioned for the n-th time and, as was its habit, asked insistently if I want to change the paper size, and demanded a new ink cartridge (something whose responsibility lies between the cracks of Microsoft, Adobe, and the printer manufacturer or the company (multiple companies?) they hired to do their firmware and driver code.) A half hour later I felt bad and went outside to clean up the thousand little pieces, I was marveling at what a nice efficient and well performing mechanical design it was, and all in vain… Ugh.

At work I am wrestling with a technologically amazing and sensor product made by a well staffed Swiss company, which apparently assigned its quality and documentation functions to summer interns (ones not familiar of the concept of standard deviation, it seems), with predictable results.

[*] crapification – the tendency of technological products to become less and less user-friendly over time, due to:

  • Adding more and more features, resulting in complexity, past a point of diminishing returns.
  • Incompatibilities intentionally added by a manufacturer to prevent interoperation with products of competitors (de-facto sabotage of industry standards), to achieve vendor lock-in.
  • Redesign of interfaces driven by industry fads, forcing users to re-learn complex interfaces from scratch
  • The tendency of “smart” product features to interact in unintended and annoying ways, or simply to malfunction.
  • Reduction of quality due to simple cost cutting. Driven by global “race to the bottom”. Typical example: substituting a less corrosion-resistant materials to save 3-5% upfront cost, reducing lifetime by 30%.
  • The flip side of the above – a culture which undervalues quality and reliability, or after enough time passes, is not even able to recognize it in some fields.
  • The proliferation of smart product features for the purpose of constraining or steering behavior of users, for the benefit of the manufacturer or its business partners, rather than for the benefit of the users.
  • Side effects of converting manufacturer’s business model from selling a product, into a selling a service (or the closely related “razor blade vs handle” business model).
  • The “disposable” product philosophy (vs servicable)
  • Loss of designer expertise due to labor market phenomena, with products design decisions made by increasingly junior staff.
  • Pressure to exaggerate claims of performance or reliability for marketing purposes.
  • Short time horizons of businesses
  • global B-school culture which deeply learned the “Microsoft Lesson” — the winner is not the one who makes the best product.
  • Twisted designs due to IP constraints
  • Design, manufacturing, and quality departments starved of resources, diverted to IP, accounting, and finance.
  • The best and the brightest work elsewhere (well funded but short-lived cel phone apps, banks)
  • The temptation to show off engineering ability (e.g., 8-piece linkage to hold up the hood on a BMW? Why? … Electronic interlocks on car door windows, making window inoperable if door lock sensor (normally non-critical) should fail due to ice, etc…)?
  • Biting off more than one can chew, as an engineering team
  • Start-up mentality. inexperienced & overworked, hours past the point where the effects of hasty/tired decisions start to multiply and reach critical mass. Fad-following, emphasis on exponential growth above all, incentivized by IPO treadmill to make promises that cannot be kept.
  • Tendency to outsource core competencies such as design, manufacturing, and applications to firms with short term thinking.
  • Collateral damage from hard-headed tactical negotiations. E.g., in labor-relations situations, interdepartmental competition, corporate dysfunction, etc.
  • Multi level supply chain structure, compartmentalized manufacturing and product knowledge, which (intentionally??) dilutes responsibility for overall product/process quality.

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