Archive | March, 2012

Six Dreadful Product Designs Part 3

30 Mar

See Part 2<<

2. Kids’ Products Designed to Ruin all they Touch

Beware of alien slime

When we were kids, my mom made us this stuff that the recipe book called ‘Pud’. It was made mostly of corn flour and water (although it may require baking soda… Who cares! Get on with it!). The point of this concoction is that it usually has the properties of a goopy liquid, but when you squeeze it, it has the properties of a solid. It’s a non-Newtonian fluid, apparently; one of those that thickens (or thins – e.g. tomato sauce) when pressure is applied.

Well, in spite of the fact that the goo requires a maximum of 2 common household dry ingredients, someone decided to package the powder as an educational toy, and someone else bought it and gave it to one of my kids as a birthday present. Unfortunately, to justify selling it as mysterious ‘Alien Slime’, or whatever they called it, the manufacturers added a third ingredient: weapons-grade colourants.

Artist's impression

For the purposes of mixing the ingredients with water, I stirred with my finger for about 3 or 4 seconds. When I removed my finger, it was dyed bright red. After scrubbing with soap, I had done nothing more than exercise futility, and my finger remained that colour for more than a day.

Realising that this substance should not under any circumstances be allowed to touch anything important, let alone be put in the hands of children, it got binned.

Finger Paints

As far as I am aware, finger paints are not really intended for the use of the Great Masters of the art world. At least until artists get committed to convalescent institutions, finger paints tend to be off their repertoire.

Invented by Michaelangelo for all those fiddly parts of the Sistine ceiling

That is to say, it’s a medium intended for kids. It’s instant, there’s no need for set-up and brushes; they get to use their hands, make a mess. Oh except for the mess part. They shouldn’t make a mess. And they probably shouldn’t use their fingers, because kids tend to touch other things using their fingers.

If you or I were making a substance for the world’s messiest creatures to smear on things with their hands, it’d probably occur to us to ask, ‘Say, I wonder if this wipes off?’ This seems not to have worried whoever made this stuff. The photo above left includes my daughter’s dress after being laundered twice. Those blue drips haven’t budged. Here’s another part of the dress:

I have a shirt with a small blue dot on it where she merely touched me as I was dragging her to the sink to clean her off. It’s fading now after the fourth or fifth wash.

This is a product designed for making a mess. With psychotic staining power.

1. Game Token, Demonic

I was at the SPCA yesterday, and a woman who’d had her guard dog confiscated came in to get the dog back. She was on the warpath, and madly shouting and pointing at the lady behind the counter. The conversation went,

Mad Irish woman: ‘I want my dog back! I’m not leaving until I get my dog back!’

SPCA lady: ‘You’ll need to talk to the inspector who…’

Mad Irish woman: ‘I’m not talking to anybody! I just want my dog back!’

SPCA lady: ‘Um…’

Mad Irish woman: ‘Fine! I’m calling the POLICE!’

<Storms out>

Mad Irish woman to stranger in hallway: ‘If you take my dog, then I take your rabbit!’

<Attempts to take stranger’s rabbit>

<Confused stranger with caged rabbit enters room>

As this good article points out, shouting at the only person who can help you with your problem is a stupid decision. Nevertheless, there are not many circumstances that make people angry enough to attempt a public rabbit kidnapping (yes, that was an entirely true story). One thing that recently made me this angry was a game token for a snakes and ladders game, again given to one of my kids for a birthday present.

token

You shouldn't look a gift horse in the mouth, but if the gift includes one of these, you should punch that horse's teeth out.

The only necessary design features of a snakes-and-ladders game token are that it should fit on the board, and it should be distinguishable from other tokens (say by colour); that’s it. So the cone shape above with all of its flutes and lips has been designed for one purpose. That purpose is…

Finger trap!!

As a game token, this object is rather poorly designed. As a finger trap for three-year-olds, it is incredible. Firstly, making an opening that is exactly big enough to accept a finger but not release it is easier said than done. That alone must have required hours of research. To improve its effectiveness, the designers conceived of an innovative lip design, loosely like the barb of a fish hook.

It is smooth when pushing into it, but as you can hopefully see on the above image, a millimetre or two in, there’s a tapered, sharp-edged rim around the circumference. This means that when attempting to pull it off, not only does it grab and hold enough skin to thicken the knuckle, but it also hurts. So after promising once or twice not to hurt her, and failing to keep that promise, eventually she would not let anyone even look at the finger.

We therefore had to conduct our remaining removal experiments while she was asleep. These involved trying to immobilise the hand and gently saw through the plastic rim with a blunt hacksaw (night one); then clipping through the thin cone with hedge clippers and breaking through the remaining third (night two); and then trying again with the saw (night 3). By the end, we had discovered something else about the design of this thing:

They didn’t skimp on plastic quality. What one needs in a trap (but not in a game token) is strength, so that your prey cannot escape. This plastic is not flexible enough that it can be stretched, and it is not brittle so that it can be snapped or prised apart. It is also quadruple thick at the rim. The two pictures on the right show what the cone looked like on the final day: sawn, clipped down both sides, but firmly secured to the finger. My wife suggested seeing what could be done to break another token not stuck to a finger, and that’s what you see on the left. I sawed the lip as deep as could reasonably be done — and pulled apart harder than could reasonably be done — if it were on a finger, and nothing. Not even close to breaking.

Eventually, we went to a doctor, who I had hoped would have some sort of plaster-cast saw that could cut it off. Instead he helplessly poked at it with scissors. Having no more ideas, he had her tied in a blanket to restrain her and he me and the nurse hold her down while he grotesquely prodded around with a comically long needle in the soft flesh between her fingers. Then (as is typical for doctors) without giving the anaesthetic time to work, he declared that she could feel nothing and pulled it until it came off. The hysterical screaming and thrashing and bleeding suggested to me that she was actually feeling a few things, but, hey! You’re the doctor. So great, Doc, that was something I could have done for free while traumatising her significantly less. And you only charge, what? R350? Thanks, Doc. You saved us.

The petting-zoo-restaurant visit by which we hoped to mitigate the trauma afterwards cost about R100. I lost the rest of the day to depression. She recovered OK, but I don’t know what the therapy is going to cost me when she’s a teenager.

So, yes, if I ever come across the designer of that game token, I think I’ll do more than try to steal his rabbit.

Six Dreadful Product Designs Part 2

23 Mar

See Part 1 <<

A week ago, I started counting down six of the more disastrous products to have blighted my life lately. Here’s #4.

4. Nearly Every Kid’s Bike

We bought a bike for my elder daughter to reward her for some or other good behaviour, and recently my younger also received the slightly shorter variety. Unfortunately for everyone, the designers of these fine machines had become aware of a fashion in the mountain-biking world of building unconventionally shaped cycles such as these:

Chunky frames such as these make sense when the bike is made of aluminium and intended to carry 100 kgs of athlete down a mountain, over rocks and jumps. They make considerably less sense when the rider weighs 20 and still uses training wheels.

Most full-size adult bikes weigh in the region of 10-15 kgs. My daughters’ bikes — the smallest and second-smallest sizes available — weigh 7 kgs and 9 kgs respectively. To make matters worse, the little one has pedal brakes, meaning that if the poor blighters have the strength to get the unnecessarily huge chunk of steel moving forwards, any misplaced backwards pressure brings them grinding to a halt again. All this so that kids’ bikes can look like fancy adult bikes; function be darned.

I managed to find bicycles from the never-more-appropriately-named Peerless Cycles in the traditional shape with thin, lightweight pipes (it weighs two kilograms less than the Avalanche), so I bought one of those. I’m sure I’ll find a buyer for the old bike who wants his daughter to be able to stand fashionably alongside an expensive-looking mountain-bike replica while her friends ride off on bikes that actually work.

Just don't be surprised if this is her riding face.

3. Electrolux ‘Aqualux’

At one stage, we bought a whole string of those cheap mini vacuum cleaners that fill up with dust in about 10 minutes, and then start making a higher and higher pitched whine until at last someone caves in. Usually it’s the vacuumer, who must then empty the bag, but often enough it was the vacuum that couldn’t go the distance. When we had jettisoned our second or third one of these, I decided that enough was enough, and I bought a quality brand with the biggest dust bin that I could find.

Certain of my wife-impressing potential, I brought it home and declared all our problems solved. I imagined that what lay in that box was something like this:

UR house R2-dirty

Unfortunately, it soon became clear that no one who actually had to use the vacuum cleaner was going to be my friend. A design problem that Electrolux seem not to have addressed is how the thing is supposed to move. Here are the immediate concerns:

  • It is a large, heavy bucket with a handle on top, and should therefore be classed as ‘unweildly’.
  • It has wheels that suggests it is made to roll along the ground.
  • It has no means of pulling it along the ground but for the vacuum pipe, which we discovered has a habit of popping out of its socket and breaking in pieces.
  • It has tiny, tiny wheels and its motor is on the top. So is the pipe. So pulling it along often amounts to pulling it over. Even regular vacuuming can tug it to the ground. That’s not good for said motor.

So basically it’s exactly like R2D2 in that it is an impressive machine so long as no one requires it to go anywhere, and no one kicks it in the midriff.

It was frankly never a well-built machine; it blew air out of places that other vacuums don’t even have places (which sort of contravenes the whole ‘vacuum’ principle) and it didn’t take very long to develop a catalogue of breakages:

This sort of thing is obviously why there has been no repeat of the ‘Nothing Sucks Like Electrolux’ slogan.

So now we have one of those cheap things that fills up with dust in 10 minutes. Let’s hope it has more of a will to live than its ancestors.

Part three later; I’m sleepy.

Interlude: Microsoft Instructions

20 Mar

While hunting for help on working with MS Excel add-ins, I learned that I needed to both install the add-in and load it in Excel. But is there an add-ins button somewhere? Do you have to load it from one of the menus? I foolishly went to Microsoft for instructions. I regret that every time. Why is it that one always has to go to bloggers or techie sites to find out how to use Microsoft products?

I suppose I should know better than to expect sense out of a company that released the ruinous Windows Vista and Office 2007 to the paying public in the same year.

Six Dreadful Product Designs Part 1

16 Mar

The following list of design disasters comes from one’s man’s unwitting mission to purchase the utter garbage. At least that’s the conclusion I’m slowly coming to. This is not a list derived from extensive market research. These are my actual, sad, purchases.

And before you point out my undeniable cheapness, it’s not like everything I’ve bought is entry level junk. For example:

6. Koss PortaPro Headphones

As a music lover, and with the prospect of a 2 hour daily commute ahead of me, I began researching headphones to determine which would be the best for my buck. I settled on these, because their main con according to reviewers was the 80s look (they’ve been making them since 1984), but otherwise they scored top of their class on sound quality. That is certainly true on both counts. They’re a bit ugly, but the sound is wonderful. Their recommended retail is $50, but for some reason, they’re about R700 or more here. (While the link lasts, you can check out how the phones look when they’re not broken too).

They also come with a lifetime warranty, which I interpreted to mean that they’re built well. In fact it means the opposite. Koss seem to realise that they’re going to break really quickly, and so they make sure that people can get their set patched up whenever they need. If said people are American. I’m not and so:

My Repairs Include:

The little plastic sleeves that allow one to adjust the size of the sprung-steel head pieces are criminally flimsy. I (predictably?) have a big head, so I needed them stretched out to their fullest extent, and after a short while they snapped off. After a bit of glue and tape they were sturdy again, but it was the end of their adjustability and so the handy carry bag was now rendered useless.
Next, Koss try to counteract the skull-crushing effect of a sprung-steel alice band by including a ‘Comfort Zone’: two little sliders that tuck the earpieces firmly in, or open them so they’re a little looser on the earhole. Those sliders, being delightfully plasticky, only partially worked and inexplicably returned themselves to the ‘firm’ position at every opportunity. The onset of a headache would alert me that the brain clamps were back on.

Or that I'd had enough Mars Volta for one day

The next issue involved the way that the phones themselves clipped into the head scaffolding (that’s the proper terminology, honest). A little triangular plastic ball joint is supposed to clip into an equally plasticky socket. If the plastic gets at all worn, the earpiece falls out, rendering the headphones unusable. That happened after a month or two.

My solution was to get the hammer drill out, and very carefully tunnel through the triangle without drilling into any the inner gubbins (also the technical term). Once a hole was made, I could sew the earpiece onto its scaffolding again. I was proud of my kludge work, but I didn’t appreciate having to take powertools to a month-old piece of audio equipment.

Have I pointed out yet that all of these design problems are just related to the thing that keeps the phones in the region of your ears. In 25 years they haven’t found a sturdier way to stick them on your head?

Eventually, a year or so on, the wiring in one side (could be the drill side, now that I think of it) gave up, and the person I paid to solder it back for me could do nothing to save them. I’ll miss you, little buddies. Crappily built, skull squashing little buddies.

5. Look-alike Dustpan

If you look closely, you'll notice it's not exactly in showroom condition

OK, so who cares about a retarded dustpan design, seriously? I won’t dwell on it for long. But it deserves a mention, because it’s one of those products that was made by someone who had clearly seen a working one in action, had the desire to copy the arcane device for his own profit, but was darned if he understood the principle upon which it operates.

It reminds me of a time in the hardware store when I witnessed a customer complaint. The customer said, ‘I bought this axe here and the first time I hit a piece of wood with it, and the axe head shattered in pieces.’ The manager honestly said something like, ‘Ah, yes, but this is one of the really cheap ones, so…’. He completely implied that if you wanted an axe for axing stuff, then you should really have bought the more expensive variety. That one is cheap because it’s one of those looking-at axes.

Apart from the fact that the handle of our dustpan is clearly broken off in the picture, because it’s cobbled together out of used yoghurt containers, the main problem is not actually with the build quality. The main problem is the very clever dirt ramp that guards the lip of the dustpan:

It is quite hard to convey in a photo just how steep that lump really is. It exists to keep the dust from falling out of the pan once it’s in, which frankly, for people without neurological disorders, is not usually a serious problem. What this lump successfully does is either staunchly defends the pan from any dust entry, or vaults the mess clean over the back.

I wouldn’t have thought it possible that someone could see such an uncomplicated object in wide circulation, try to copy it, and not manage to do so, but here it is.

Honourable mention: Genius Drawing Tablet

It’s not really fair to include this device, because it is really good for the R600 that it costs new. It is worryingly flimsy in parts, but it works more than OK. The trouble is the instruction booklet, and the unfortunate results of combining bad instructions with an excited me.

I got it by mail order to replace a Wacom tablet that used a serial connector and so couldn’t fit into my laptop. Wacom pens work by magnetic field and so don’t use batteries, but the Genius pen needs one. The instruction leaflet for installing the pen battery looks like this:

I was extremely excited that it had come, so I pulled it out the box and set to work getting everything installed. The instructions are almost entirely diagrammatic, so I noted that I had to pull the pen-halves in opposite directions until it popped apart. When I did this, I noted that it was a little stiff, and when I finally got it apart all sorts of wires came out, and bits fell on the floor. When I looked a little more closely at the diagram, I saw where I had gone wrong:

Why, that's not cylindrical hatching!

What looks like a design on the pen body has a tiny (really, really tiny) arrowhead drawn on it, and is meant to illustrate twisting. The unnecessary large black arrow above ‘Step 1’ that seems to be saying ‘pull’ is not actually an instruction at all, but a comforting reminder that unscrewing the pen will result in the one end moving away from the other.

The text clearly states that twisting is required, but on a product made for drawing, one should not rely on your user being much of a reader. You should also probably have mastered the art of drawn instructions.

After an hour or so of sobbing and feverishly trying to put wires and bits back, I managed to get it to work, albeit with a crack in the shaft and the left- and right-click buttons forever removed.

[Part II here]

The cost of looking poor

13 Mar

I don’t care much for fashion. In the live-action version of 101 Dalmatians, Glenn Close’s Cruella de’Vil, a famous fashion mogul, ridicules Jeff Daniels, a videogame designer, for being in a useless profession. The film seems not to see any irony in that, and certainly Jeff does not echo the obvious response that I always make, sometimes out loud: ‘Look who’s talking’. (My kids watch it often, so I have plenty of opportunity).

I recently came across these pics in a UK edition of Marie Claire that my wife was reading, and quickly (and badly — sorry) photographed two of the pages out of sheer disbelief:

 

The fashion model has clambered into various ill-fitting pieces of sackcloth and a child’s jacket from a thrift store. She hold a stale scone in front of her eye as if to say, ‘This is the only food I’ll eat today’.

As if to mock the homeless, the one caption reads, ‘Contrast a shrunken tee with wide bottoms to balance the look’. Because the homeless choose their clothes with balance in mind. So if you could only find an eight-year-old’s shirt to wear, the best thing to do is make sure that you draw attention away from it by seeking out obese-clown slacks.

What is so utterly criminal is that while the homeless dig ugly clothes out of the garbage bags of the deceased, you as a privileged Marie Claire reader can have the above look for the low-low price of:

  • £330 for the thrift-store jacket (that’s R4000; get it while the pound is still weak!)
  • £99 for the kids’ tee
  • £105 for the sack trousers

For the whole ensemble, then, expect to pay R6400, or with the earrings and bangle included make it R11,000. (Model not included).

On the next page, there was this one:

 

To have ‘Chloe’ (again, I’m pretty sure that’s the name of the sack, not the model), a ‘wardrobe essential’, you merely have to pay £1,250 (R15,000). That is not inclusive of the handbag, jewellery, or even the belt. And unless you’re shaped like one of the clothes horses above, you’re going to look like an utter bag-lady in it.