Smarter Consumers Needed?

As some of you that might read this blog on a semi-regular basis may know, I am an engineer. I have dealt with, used, and designed high-tech equipment for over 30 years. I'd like to think I'm pretty tech savvy, that I have a handle on just about any piece of consumer electronics I come across. But I have to admit that there have been times when I have been baffled by one piece of consumer electronics gear or another. And if I have problems with some of the gear out there, what about the rest of the folks out there that are far less technologically knowledgeable? It isn't as uncommon as you might think.

The consumer-electronics industry needs smarter consumers—that’s the takeaway from a Wall Street Journal article titled “The War on Returns.” The article cites a study by Accenture noting that the US electronics industry last year spent about $13.8 billion to re-box, restock, and resell returned products.

While the technology inside a lot of the consumer electronics products out there is amazing, the biggest downfall to that technology, and one of the leading reasons for a good percentage of returns, is that the user interface is poorly designed or poorly executed. What good is the latest piece of wizbang cracker jack bleeding edge technology if it's difficult to use?

I've experienced the problems with poor user interface design first hand, having worked hard to convince someone in a marketing department that the user interface on a piece of equipment we were designing was too confusing, too difficult to navigate, or just plain outright awful.

The properly designed interface should be intuitive, requiring little need to study a user guide or memorize a series of arcane commands in order to use a device. That's true whether dealing with a piece of laboratory gear or the latest iPhone clone.

When the consumer electronics industry says they need smarter consumers, better that they check their preconceptions about their customers before going any further.

My conclusion—perhaps it’s the manufacturers who are stupid, not the consumers. If you make a product with a user interface that’s so poor the average consumer can’t figure it out, then your product is defective, even if all the transistors, buttons, displays, and other components work. (Emphasis mine)

You'll get no argument from me on that point. Quite a few of those commenting to that post on an industry blog agreed.

- “I recently purchased an LG HDTV and home theater combo. Together they have about 50 pages of instructions - all out of context and two separate remotes that each work both devices - sort of. I have a masters degree in EE and am a registered P.E. (Professional Engineer – ed.) and I am having trouble getting all of this stuff to work together.”

- “I do believe the problem is with the manufacturers, who seem to have people intimately familiar with the set-up needs write the instructions, which are NOT checked out by a neophyte. Furthermore, many instructions are obviously written in a non-English speaking country and can be confusing for that reason. A lot of problems could be resolved if they would just have 2 or 3 employees, working independently, set up the system with the instructions and not be given any additional information and not be allowed to converse with others on the set-up.”

- “When there were only a few things to remember I felt like taking the time to learn arcane procedures to make consumer items work. But when so many devices clutter our modern world that require special non-obvious steps to operate, I give up. Good instructions help a lot, but these don't usually come with the device. Many consumer items aren't expected to last more than 3 years, but the new one to replace it will have a completely new set of instructions.”

The last thing anyone needs is a 100 page manual in order to figure out how to make a call with their cell phone. But that's what it's come down to in many cases. Manufacturers should go back to the drawing board and come up with user interfaces for their products that don't require an advanced degree just to turn the damn things on. Until then they'll have to put up with the returns and the costs associated with them.

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