Making complex products simple to use

A big challenge for product designers is to make complex products that are easy to set up, simple to use, and that keep on working. That’s often more difficult than creating the product itself. When a product is hard to set up it requires expensive customer support and experiences high rates of return. My own rule as a consumer is if I can’t get a product working in under an hour, back it goes.

Today there are many products that are hard to use and keep running. They often have complex user interfaces, such as products that use combinations of long and short button presses or blinking LEDs to communicate. I recently bought a Sony soundbar that had many sound modes, all set by a variety of buttons on a remote. But there was no way to tell which mode you were in other than to decipher the array of lights that lit for several seconds. Back it went. The Sonos that I then bought uses an app to provide clear communications.

That’s why I especially admire products that delight rather than confuse and provide easy set up and use. A good example are the Apple Airpods I use with my iPhone and MacBook. Setting up just requires bringing it near your device and they magically connect. Open the lid of the AirPod case and the battery condition is displayed on your phone. Remove an earbud from an ear and the music pauses.

Another simple but near perfect product is the HiRise3 Wireless charging stand from Twelve South. It’s a beautifully designed stand where you can place your iPhone, Apple watch, and Airpods to charge simultaneously using a single cord. It replaces three sets of chargers, cords and connectors, reducing lots of clutter.

Twelve South Chargng Stand

One of the worst category of tech products to set up and use were the wireless routers from companies such as Linksys, Netgear and Asus. They all worked much the same: terribly! They required you to go to a particular Internet address in your browser to choose from a list of settings that made little sense to most of us. Reports at the time said returns were close to 50%.

Then a new class of routers were invented that changed everything. My first experience with the Eero mesh router system was transformative. Eero, one of the pioneers of consumer-friendly routers, revolutionized both performance and usability. An Eero system consists of multiple units to improve reception throughout the home. A base unit connects to your cable and broadcasts signals to a few additional units throughout your home to reduce dead zones. But even more importantly was how easy the product was to set up just using a phone app.

I was reminded of that hassle this past week when I decided it was time to replace my 5-yr old Eero Pro system with a newer version, the Eero Plus, because the older version was limited to speeds of less than 1/2 GB/sec, and I had upgraded to a new 1GB/sec optical fiber service from Ting. I’m always leery of changing anything that’s working well and didn’t want to have to enter new passwords in all my devices. Over the past five years I rarely needed to do anything to keep the Eero running.

I needn’t have worried. I ordered the routers at 9pm on a Thursday evening and they were on my doorstep at 8am, thanks to Amazon (who now owns Eero). They even offered me $80 for my old router as part of their extensive trade-in program.

Twenty minutes later the new system was installed and working, thanks to the app and Eero’s customer service. When the units arrived I called Eero to ask about the most efficient way to change from one system to another and the agent offered to take me through the process rather than send me to a webpage. And because the network name and password remained the same, everything in my home connected within a few seconds.

Today our networks are supporting more than just a computer. In my case it’s supporting 19 devces: 3 TVs, a doorbell, security cameras, phones, tablets, speakers, and even an espresso machine. And they all continued to work with a short interruption for a reboot after a software upgrade.

I never thought upgrading a router system would be far easier than booking a flight – last week’s project covered here!

Tip of the Week: A New App to prevent your data from being sold

Consumers Report has released a free app that automates requests to companies to stop selling your data. Permission Slip can be download it for iOS now; a version for Android is promised shortly.

by Phil Baker

One thought on “Making complex products simple to use

  1. David King says:

    Thanks for the tip on keeping the SSID and the password the same on the new router. Had never thought of that!

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