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Tuesday, Sep 17, 2019

When a design flaw becomes the industry norm

Manufacturers who blindly copy other firms’ designs forget they’re also copying the errors

brunch Updated: May 13, 2018 01:28 IST
Rajiv Makhni
Rajiv Makhni
Hindustan Times
Having a touchscreen inside cars doesn’t mean that you don’t have to see the road
Having a touchscreen inside cars doesn’t mean that you don’t have to see the road
         

Somewhere in an R&D lab, a design engineer seems to have struck gold. He’s come up with a radical new way to add a feature to a product. His colleagues are wonderstruck, his bosses are jubilant and the whole company is agog with excitement. This could change the world! Yes, it could – and make it a much worse place. Design faux pas are a dime a dozen. The problem is when an obvious design aberration becomes the gold standard, when a serious aesthetic blunder becomes an industry norm. This is a tale of Deadly Design. Pay attention as it affects us all.

A notched up future

Here’s a prediction to kick things off. By the time 2018 is over, you will be able to count on your fingers the number of phones that have been launched without a notch screen. Yes, the Apple iPhone X’s very controversial design flaw is fast on its way to becoming a design leader. I’m not going to wade too deep into the bickering cess pool of whether the Notch is terrible or great. Let’s just put it this way, irrespective of how big a fan of Apple products you are – the notch is a design flaw. It is a visual anomaly, the black strip with two blobs on the screen on both sides does not make it an edge-to-edge screen, and there are serious user experience flaws encountered due to it. The iPhone X isn’t even the first phone to have the notch. The Essential Phone (Andy Rubin, one of the creators of Android, is behind it) showcased the notch screen phone way before. Let me make one more prediction. Apple will get rid of it in a hurry. In fact Apple may have never allowed it if current technology had caught up with their ambitions. Apple has a patent on a true edge-to-edge screen with everything under the screen. It just doesn’t work very well yet. The minute it does, the notch will be gone from the iPhone. The problem is what it leaves behind. The design flaw notch is now a chest thumping must-have feature on all newly released phones.

Design faux pas are a dime a dozen. The problem arises when a design aberration becomes the gold standard

What bad design does

Almost every new phone released in the last month has a notch screen. The price point on a notch screen is dropping faster than Donald Trump’s ratings. In fact the race is on to be the first brand to have an under 10K notch phone and we are just days away from that happening. The main problem in this blind rush to get a notch phone out is that the operating system and almost all apps inside are blissfully unaware of the visual shenanigans being played outside. Buttons, clock, icons, notifications and many other essential features are hidden behind the notch. Irrespective of whatever ‘jugaad’ a manufacturer will do, apps will still have serious issues. Even worse, many phones don’t even need the notch as they aren’t putting essential hardware in there; it’s just design copying for the sake of it.

A history of design flaws

Design flaws in tech have been a staple force. It’s just that when they were disasters, they were acknowledged being so, and weren’t copied. The Nokia N-Gage (you had to completely disassemble the phone and remove the battery to swap games, plus you had to rotate the phone onto its side to make a voice call as the speaker and microphone were placed there). Motorola ROKR (with built in iTunes. The OS was a nightmare, the phone was fiddly as hell, the screen was terrible but the fact that iTunes would only recognise 100 songs [what??] completely killed it). No start button in Windows 8 (the essence and purpose of Windows was missing). Nintendo Wii’s Controller (you build a gaming system with full hands on action, and then build a controller with shiny, slippery plastic and a terrible grip? Broken TV screens were the norm). Hundreds of examples exist. Thankfully, design engineers learnt from these epic fails.

Design distasters: (Clockwise from top) Having a touchscreen inside cars doesn’t mean that you don’t have to see the road; Nintendo’s Wii’s Controller has a terrible grip;  Motorola ROKR would only recognise 100 songs on iTunes; the Nokia N-Gage had to rotated on its side to make a voice call; the notch in iPhone X has led to serious user experience flaws
Design distasters: (Clockwise from top) Having a touchscreen inside cars doesn’t mean that you don’t have to see the road; Nintendo’s Wii’s Controller has a terrible grip; Motorola ROKR would only recognise 100 songs on iTunes; the Nokia N-Gage had to rotated on its side to make a voice call; the notch in iPhone X has led to serious user experience flaws

Current design disasters

Not anymore. Look at the kind of serious problems being created due to blind copying. 3.5mm headphone jacks being removed from phones without a standard alternative in place (terrible idea). Touchscreen in cars (I still do need to look at the road). Microwaves with the Internet of things built in (I do not need my Internet connected to a 10-inch screen microwave to tell me how to heat my leftovers). These are all sign of this malady spreading.

It’s time to reject design flaws. Let your wallet speak. Don’t buy a product that forces a design down your throat and compromises your experience. It’s time to demand a perfect product. We’ve given them enough time and money already!

Rajiv Makhni is managing editor, Technology, NDTV, and the anchor of Gadget Guru, Cell Guru and Newsnet 3

From HT Brunch, May 13, 2018

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First Published: May 13, 2018 00:40 IST