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Considerate Design


You know how it is; you've had a device that's been good for years, and suddenly it goes wrong, and then when you try to repair it... snags! Although the machine was well-designed in some ways or it wouldn't have worked so well for so long, there's a problem in that it is not made in ways sympathetic to repair! This is a problem!

If the designers had been more considerate to the future, they'd have designed the machine so it could be repaired, and that would have been more friendly to engineers and ingenuitors in general. The machine could have been repaired and also adapted and reused in ways beyond what had originally been envisaged.

In the early days, makers shared an empathy with repairers, as they had in common a sense of engineering finesse. So, a car engine would be made to fit with plenty of access space around it, so when you lifted the lid on it you could get at everything easily. Such quality design was sadly lacking in some of the later models, especially during the Rustbucket era, when if you wanted to replace the oil filter, you had to take a wheel off, and some minor repairs required the removal of the entire engine, thus making it very difficult for folks working on their vehicle at home. See, it goes a lot further than Bring Back the Starting Handle! Shame be upon some manufacturers of cars, who are notorious for failing to give/allow good documentation, and/or using dirty tricks in an attempt to force customers to buy extortionately priced parts. Customers may soon bite back, and it's worth asking a car salesman when you are buying a new car: "Can you get a Haynes Manual for this?". Note that car manufacturers who have the philosophy of Considerate Design will welcome Haynes & Co to create a manual, and even if the car is less than 3 months since launch, it should be possible to get a "Haynes Manual being written" certification.

Surely it makes sense to build machines well, not simply to function, but to be accessible, repairable, and adaptable. It makes sense if the documentation is available as a book or a free downloadable, and everything is made understandable for anyone with a bit of technical knowhow.

Yet, sadly, there have been some cases noted where the design has been found to be inconsiderate. In fact, in some cases the design might be considered hostile to repairers, in the sort of way a security safe is made to be hostile to safe-breakers. This is understandable for a safe, because it is built to withstand intruders and criminals who are the enemy. However, with most devices, engineers opening-up the machine to repair it are not the enemy. By the design being contrived to be hostile, engineers have been turned against other engineers. Besides being bad for the fellowship of engineers and intelligent folk generally, it's also got some other ramifications, which I'll explain later.

Screws were OK to start with, but then there was something which Philips is credited with doing, the Philips Screw. Well I don't want to knock Philips, because they make clever gadgets which are well-made, but was there any need to invent a new type of screw, so you needed a special tool to open it? Later, other people invented other types of odd non-standard tops for bolts, requiring an even bigger toolbox of screwdriver-equivalent items to get them off.

The Russell Hobbs kettle was a famous design, as an electric kettle which could switch itself off. It had an element and a switch and a basic bi-metallic thermostat, and it really did switch off when the water boiled. Later, though, Russell Hobbs brought out the sequel, which was the "Russell Hobbs Kettle That You Can't Get the Lid Off". Besides being plastic, and not so good as the original, it also had the downside that there was no clearly visible method for repairing it. In effect, the design had to be "hacked", and an article produced entitled "Russell Hobbs Kettle That You Can't Get the Lid Off; How to get the lid off". However, Russell Hobbs will be remembered for the "classic" shiny metal electric kettle which would switch itself off and could be repaired.

Sat-Navs may seem very snazzy, but it has been observed by users of sat-navs that there are problems in some of the makes, that the design is less than considerate. Some cases have been observed where it's actually "bad design". It's obviously stupid making a sat-nav so it's a proprietary Microsoft Windows add-on. At the very least, the USB interface should work with Linux, and could even be designed to be able to download/upload map data from any Internet connection. Even if the owner of the sat-nav doesn't download new maps, the old maps should still be usable and should not be disabling upon the device! More about the problems of sat-navs at the page: Sat-Nav

The Nascom 2 was an early computer which was from a time when a Z80A was considered a fast processor. The design was far from perfect, but it did have a notable advantage over later computers. As the machine was designed to be built as a kit, with a soldering iron, every chip was socketed. This was great, as it meant that even if something went wrong, it could be fixed, if you knew what you were doing. Complete circuit diagrams were included in the computer manual, and this helped greatly in tracking down faults in the TTL gates, and replacing things that needed to be replaced. This ability to swap components was something reminiscent of the Valve (vacuum tube) era, and was a good idea regardless of the time in history. That's considerate design.

On 2008/12/17, the 21 inch CRT monitor on the "helm of the ship" operator's console failed. It had lasted for years, and had a manufacturer's label dated 1999/11/25, so no-one's grumbling that it failed. Also, there had been signs it was going to fail, so a spare monitor was at the ready to swap into place. Also, it was a good make, a Hewlett Packard, so I would have expected good design and fair play to engineers be found. Plus, it's not as if I was going to try to mend it, as monitors were no longer a "tv repair shop" type of thing. However, I felt the need to disassemble the monitor to salvage any useful bits and to recycle the rest of the remains properly. Unfortunately, upon taking the screws off the back, the monitor did not come undone. To the shame of Hewlett Packard, the monitor had been designed with hidden one-way-trip clips inside, so it would not come apart, making it difficult to mend, and difficult to recycle. Although in the end it was recycled and some useful bits salvaged, this was not done without application of a special tool known as A Hammer. This, I felt, was unnecessary, and if the monitor had been designed more sympathetically in the first place, it would have been more easily recyclable if not repairable!

Flat screen TVs in 2012 seem to be manufactured on a cheap disposable method which is deplorable. There is no need for this, and the screens could be made much better for only a small additional cost. They don't save much by using cheap electrolytic capacitors instead of the quality stuff, and there's very little saved by the nasty trick of putting everything including the power supply on one board which can't be repaired. I suggest customers ask the right questions before buying, and if the salesfolk can't show within reasonable means that the machine is considerately designed and long-term repairable, then the item needs to be considered to be in the bargain basement clearance section and priced accordingly.

A long time ago, British Telecom started making electronic devices which they refused to release the designs for. I had a fax machine with the B.T. brand name on, and when it had an accident and the internal power supply was destroyed, I asked BT for the pin-out of the power connector, and they refused. This I found baffling, as there was no good reason for keeping the information secret. Someone at the time said they were keeping it secret because it prevented the machine being repaired and so they sold more machines. However, I could see the opposite situation, namely that if the machine was less repairable, the brand was less preferable to buyers in the future. Would you buy a machine that would later be unrepairable? As it turned out, a few years later, a rep from BT phoned me and asked me if I'd like to buy some telecommunications equipment for my business. I responded politely that as earlier BT equipment was found to be unrepairable because of the secrecy, I'd be going elsewhere for my telecoms equipment. In later years, I believe BT mended their ways, and they've certainly been forgiven enough to have BT Shop on this site!

The amusement machine company Barcrest gets a "Well Done!" on here, because the gambling machines in question had circuit diagrams available just for the asking. This, I consider, put Barcrest ahead of their competitors. Their machines were a better bet for someone to buy, knowing they would have technical support, than an equivalent machine that was without data availability.

Microsoft is a disaster in terms of considerate design. The design of the software is generally hostile to any forms of flexible working. In contrast, need I say it?, Linux! The recent bad habit of Microsoft providing no disc with a new PC is especially very poor form. Some people have put it in stronger terms than that, and have said that Microsoft is guilty of operating a scam.

You can see decisions being made in the choice of digital cameras where I explain things about the Canon EOS 350D. Alas, poor Sony missed out, because their non-standard connectors, memory, batteries, etc made the design seen to be inconsiderate. Functionally, it might have been as good, but the deliberate incompatibility put it at a disadvantage.

Even some basic machines such as electric shavers can suffer from "inconsiderate design". A friend of mine ended up with half his beard off and the other half still on, as his rechargeable electric shaver had run out of charge during the shave. The battery was built-in rather than of the swappable type, and the charger was oddly unable to power the device. Now surely the manufacturers could have considered having a swappable battery pack (customers might buy an extra spare), or at least making the power supply powerful enough to power the motor in an electric shaver!

Inconsiderate design is not just bad design, but design which is unsympathetic to the ingenious reworking of the device.

The thing is, inconsiderate design has a commercial impact against companies that perpetrate it. We, the customers, are not dimwits about technical engineering design. We can see if the manufacturer has made something to be awkward, and we know to avoid it. However, good design is rewarded, as it gets the thumbs-up from customers, engineers, and the longer-term future history. So, if you're going to design something, make it considerate design!

Customers have a big influence on companies. If it weren't for customers buying products, manufacturing companies would be out of business. Therefore, if you are a customer and you would like to see more considerate design, here's how to get companies to design things better. The magic is in the questions you ask. Once the companies realise they make/lose sales (money) because of their design considerations, they'll improve the way they behave!