[Previously published in The Tributary]

Choosing the right stuff
and, boy, have I got some stuff for you…
By Jerry Pape, Jr.

Remember the American car of the 1970’s? If it drove off the lot, that was an accomplishment. The Chevy Caprice station wagon is a perfect example. My family had two or three of these. Every one ended up the same way – major systems failure and lots of little nagging faults like power windows that wouldn’t close all the way, door handles that would fall off, light switches that wouldn’t light, power seats that didn’t power. Back then, Detroit was focused on making big cars, not lasting driving solutions. And it wasn’t just Detroit that produced these flawed solutions. The early Volkswagen Jetta fell apart around you, sometimes while you were driving.

The commitment to user-testing and refinement just did not exist. Post-industrial America was a nation of product innovators, not product refiners, but that’s another story.

What is a product, anyway? From stone tools to pneumatic nailguns, products are the transformation of an idea in our head to a tool in our hands. Elements common to the best products include proper design and testing, a suitable combination of reliability and usability and adherence to the “form follows function” concept. When a product is founded on these three elements it is far more likely to have a very positive cost-benefit ratio.

Proper design and testing

Old product design was inventor/invention centered, oft-called an “idea in search of a problem”. Modern product design, on the other hand, is user-centered and proceeds from a needed, well-understood solution to a problem. We call this “a problem in search of an idea”. These two very different approaches yield profoundly different solutions; the best products typically employ the latter approach.

Similarly, the approaches to product testing vary based on the product design approach. In the early era of product design, most product testing was focused on just getting the idea to work. Now, product testing is based on creating a solution that has long-term reliability.

Reliability and usability

25 years ago, my father leased our Chevy Caprices. By the time we turned them back in one or two years later, they were shot to hell, even though they had already had all sorts of major service (in part because my father is unfamiliar with the phrase “preventive maintenance”).

Today, due in large part to Japanese auto production, we would be indignant if our car was falling apart after year one. To produce a satisfactory solution, designers must achieve satisfactory reliability – we’ve come to expect longer functional lives from our products.

One way to evaluate product reliability is to look at demonstration models. If the demonstration models on the showroom floor look really beat up, are missing buttons, or simply don’t work, it is a sign that the product may have reliability issues when you bring it home.

Consider this concept carefully when looking at today’s cheap laptop computers. Many simply have a very low price point and barely survive a single year of use. The old adage “you get what you pay for” is surely true.

Another excellent way to evaluate reliability is to consult Consumer Reports – the ultimate reliability index.

In addition to reliability, a product must be easy to use. The most user-friendly products are those that leverage old metaphors – concepts we already understand – to do something new, thereby unlocking our prior knowledge and intuition.

This concept is what made the Macintosh computer so revolutionary. By using old metaphors like images of a desktop and trashcan, Apple made the computer easy to use, because, in a sense, we already knew how to use it.

It is important to remember that usability isn’t just about metaphors and concepts. It is also purely physical. If the location and operation of the power switch is not intuitively obvious, you’re in for an uphill battle.

Form and function

Now, for the feng shui of product design. In the best products, form follows function. That is, the appearance, means of use, and durability – its form – is reflective of and complementary to the function.

The best way to understand this aspect of product design is to look at the bad examples. A blender that looks like a toaster is not the best way to make friends in the kitchen. Or closer to home, consider the three tine dinner fork, found at certain a local eatery my roommates will not let me name, where the signature house salad comes with a sunflower seed garnish. Try to pick up the sunflower seeds with three tine fork – I dare you – and you will see what happens when form does not follow function.

Another great example is the airport/train station where there are two signs pointing in opposite directions for the bathroom or the concourse you’re trying to reach. It’s horrible form to make rushed people decide which way to go when their choices point in opposite directions. Clearly the architects/designers were not thinking about stressed-out, three kids and a screaming baby, late-for-their-flight folks.

But enough of this blah-blah theory. What I’m really interested in is applying the theory to our benefit. So, first, I offer a series of questions that I ask myself when I evaluate new products. Then, I offer a list of really cool and personally tested stuff just in time for your Christmas shopping.

What is the purpose of the product?
How well does the design and testing solve the problem?
What is its projected reliability?
How usable/intuitive is it?
Does “form follow function”?
What are the Pros?
What are the Cons?
What is the cost-benefit?
What is the total cost of ownership (TCO)?
How strong is the company?
What version of the product is it?
How good is the technical support?
What is this best local source based on cost and experience?

iJoy Massage Chair - $599
Purpose: To relieve back pain, tension and stress
Design/Testing: Certainly not a professional massage, but a very good in-between solution at one-third the cost of the big massage chairs. I have used it for many hours as have my friends – the consensus is good.
Reliability/Usability: The mechanism looks to be reliable and is easy to use. I would project the lifespan between two-to four years depending on use.
Form/function: It is both effective and attractive.
Pros: Provides the basic four massage chairs functions at a fraction of the big massage chair cost.
Cons: The headrest can sometimes get in the way.
Cost Effectiveness: the average massage Bozeman is around $60, so it costs about ten massages.
Company Strength: One of the largest massage chair manufacturers.
Version: A middle generation product.
Technical support: Called to get an answer about different models and was pleased to get a quick response and competent help.
Total cost of ownership: It is possible to replace the pad in the back. I don’t know the cost, but otherwise there are no other known maintenance costs.
Least expensive local source: Costco / www.ijoy.com

iRobot Roomba 520 Vacuum - $279
Purpose: Vacuums a great portion of your house better than you do all by itself.
Design/Testing: This is true innovation. The product has had more thought put into it than I would have thought possible. It has benefited from extensive testing. I have used the last three versions and each has improved significantly on the last.
Reliability/Usability: The units look to be good for about two years with proper care. It can get stuck under certain objects, but it is smart enough to stop and call for help. It is quite easy to use, but as noted below does require some TLC from time to time.
Form/Function: With this device, form is a lot of the function in that the small form allows it to get under things you would never vacuum under.
Pros: Does the dirty work you don’t want to: When was the last time you vacuumed for an hour three times a week including under the bed, the chairs and the baseboards of the whole room?
Cons: Needs real TLC every three to five uses to function well: you can’t empty the bin once a year like your old vacuum. Additionally, you can buy replacement brushes and filters when needed. Though it won’t fall down the stairs, it won’t vacuum them either so you will not be entirely cut loose from your prior vacuum.
Cost Effectiveness: Considering the much higher cost of the Dyson vacuums and lesser vacuums in general these days, paying this price for something that not only vacuums more often than you do, but does the job for you and puts itself away when it’s done, it’s pretty effective.
Company Strength: iRobot builds industrial/tactical robots and appears well-capitalized.
Version: Currently in its 5th generation
Technical Support: Have called three times in two years and had satisfactory results.
Total cost of ownership: Given a two-year lifespan and the cost of parts weighed against twice the vacuuming you would usually do, this product would cost about what a traditional vacuum would cost over four years.
Least expensive source: Costco / www.irobot.com

Ultreo Ultrasonic Toothbrush - $130
Purpose: To clean your teeth better than anything you have used before.
Design/Testing: Designed by the team that made the SonicCare. Uses an ultrasonic bubble field to cleanse your teeth. Tested extensively by the company. I have used the product for about three months, and it makes my teeth so damn clean I’m not sure if they’re my teeth anymore.
Reliability/Usability: Takes a little getting used to. You don’t really brush as much as you glide it over your teeth and let the ultrasound bubble field do the work.
Form/Function: Form makes it easy to use on back teeth.
Pros: Makes the SonicCare look like your parents’ first motorized toothbrush. Think ultrasonic jewelry cleaner for your teeth. Your mouth is so clean after each use, it may put your dental hygienist out of business.
Cons: Takes a little getting used to: you will notice any areas that you have been missing with your old toothbrush.
Cost Effectiveness: At $130, it is certainly the most costly toothbrush you will ever buy, but considering the biggest dental threat to people our age is periodontal disease, $130 is cheap.
Company Strength: Well-capitalized with great founders.
Version: First version, but long company track record should be reassuring.
Technical Support: Unknown, haven’t had to contact them.
Total cost of ownership: Not yet clear on how often you really have to replace the brush head. My indicator has not come on yet, so I can’t easily calculate the cost. I think it should be figured over a two year span.
Least expensive source: James Booth, DDS on Kagy in Bozeman / www.ultreo.com

Jerry Pape has been both Mr. Magoo and Mr. Peabody. He has a degree in Science and Tehcnology with an emphasis on Usability Engineering from Stanford University. He can tell you what is wrong with your product in under 60 seconds.