Bad product design is everywhere

I used to not think much about product design. Sure, I thought about the design of shoes, which I love, and even more so when I worked at Nike. I didn't pay much attention to the design of the every day things interact with. That's until I started building software in 2010. The software industry is, rightfully, obsessed with good user experience. They design for it. They do so because technology products are used by so many, especially software. Build once, get used by billions. What a departure from the days of physical products that differed in each region, where users had little visibility into how good things could be.

With technology making so many more products available to us, and with smart companies showing us what good user experiences can look like, its easier to notice when bad product design happens. Turns out, poorly designed products are everywhere! These days, I quickly notice when products put a button in an inconvenient place, when the visual they want me to see is covered up, or when there is an unnecessary step or barrier that prevents me from completing the task I want to complete, in a timely fashion.

My favorite example of this is when users are asked to select what type of credit card they are using, followed by the credit card number. You may not know this, but there is absolutely no reason to ask software users to tell the web site what credit card you want to use. Credit cards have standards. Visa cards always start with a 4. American Express will start with a 34 or 37. Mastercard with 51 through 55 or 2221 through 2720. Go ahead, check our cards, I'll wait.

See, its a totally unnecessary step, yet just about every web site you purchase from will require you to do it (there are some good ones that don't, thank you). Why don't we make products easier to use?

Recently, I found another example of poor product design, this time with a physical product. My office has a few coffee makers, just like every other American office. One of them is a fancy coffee + espresso drinks machine. The user experience design on this thing is absolutely terrible!

Coffee machine with a terrible user experience, and my favorite coffee mug

I am guessing you are looking at the above picture, wondering what could possibly be wrong with it. Allow me to explain. There are 3 examples of terrible user experience design in this one product.

First, notice the coffee bean hoppers at the top of the machine. They hold 2 different types of beans, labeled #1 and #2. As most English speakers would expect, #1 is on the left, #2 is on the right. However, there is a 3rd hopper for beans, which my company uses for decaf. Its inside the machine, with no easy external access like #1 and #2. As such, we had to place a label on the front of the machine to let users and servicers know that there is in fact a 3rd option. The lack of uniformity and the hidden option are both failures in product design and user experience.

A close up of the 3 coffee bean hoppers

The second problem comes when its time to brew a cup (lets be honest, thats the worst time for a caffeine junky). Remember, the coffee beans are labeled left to right, one, two, and three. So what happens when you are presented with a menu to selection your option? Have a look for yourself.

Since when did 2 come before 1?

Coffee #2 is on the far left, followed by coffee #1 and coffee #3. They couldn't even stay consistent with their inconsistency. The following three options are extra strength #2, followed by extra strength #1, ending with extra strength decaf, instead of calling it extra strength #2.

Our poor user experience doesn't end there, and at this point this shouldn't be any surprise to you. Once the brewing starts, the screen that displays while the user waits for a dark, steaming mug of energy, offers more confusion. My go-to coffee #1 is now referred to as coffee A. You can't make this stuff up.

This list actually goes on from there. This machine has 2 spouts where mugs can be filled from, but for the life of me and my colleagues, we can't figure out how to use the spout on the right. Therefore, don't even try to use the second spout when someone else is waiting for their coffee to finish brewing, you'll just have to wait!

In closing, if you have anything to do with taking a product (or feature) to market, whether you are an engineer, a software developer, product designer, product manager, or anything else, please do right by your users. Take a moment to stop and review your products design. Remember that design isn't just about visuals and color, its about the experience a user has. Ask if you can remove steps, make things easier, or make things faster. Ask a customer, a friend, or a colleague to look at your work and point out any inconsistencies or oddities that you may not have noticed. A little bit of time spent here can have a small impact on the daily life of thousands, millions, or even billions of people.