Complexity causes 50% of product returns

AMSTERDAM (Reuters) – Half of all malfunctioning products returned to stores by consumers are in full working order, but customers can’t figure out how to operate the devices, a scientist said on Monday.

Product complaints and returns are often caused by poor design, but companies frequently dismiss them as “nuisance calls,” Elke den Ouden found in her thesis at the Technical University of Eindhoven in the south of the Netherlands.

A wave of versatile electronics gadgets has flooded the market in recent years, ranging from MP3 players and home cinema sets to media centers and wireless audio systems, but consumers still find it hard to install and use them, she found.

The average consumer in the United States will struggle for 20 minutes to get a device working, before giving up, the study found.

Product developers, brought in to witness the struggles of average consumers, were astounded by the havoc they created.

She also gave new products to a group of managers from consumer electronics company Philips, asking them to use them over the weekend. The managers returned frustrated because they could not get the devices to work properly.

Most of the flaws found their origin in the first phase of the design process: product definition, Den Ouden found.

  1. Carmi says:

    Product designers seem to have forgotten the KISS rule. They’re too busy wowing us with their design brilliance.

    BMW iDrive, anyone?

  2. You listening Microsoft? Took my sister two minutes to figure out the iPod with a little coaching, and she was off:)

    I would add that this is not only in the engineering field, it’s very telling of my print and web industry as well. It’s why we started standards, and remind users to avoid splashpages, popups, and all around flash sites that care for design for design sake, and not design for user sake. Design doesn’t package the product, it is the product.

  3. Dan Collins says:

    Meanwhile I have a audio solutions mp3 player from Walgreens that I received for Christmas.I first bought some reading glasses so I could see the display.Now that I can see the display I am still trying to discover how to download tunes and audio.This is a little beauty to hold but not a good design for the display or software.I wish they would have spent 50 more bucks and got me an Ipod shuffle.

  4. AB CD says:

    Did they account for people just saying it doesn’t work because they don’t want to say they just wanted something else?

  5. Ben Franske says:

    People interested in the proper design of products should read some of Don Norman’s stuff on affordances. If you want some really bad examples of design check out

  6. Stu Mulne says:

    I’ve got a cute little Sony MP3-capable CD player. All the buttons are about a mm higher than the surrounding surfaces, and are tactilely similar. Try to work that in the dark….

    Not to mention it insisting on playing an MP3-loaded CD in some self-chosen order. Checking the manual tells me that I can select “Playlist” (which is on the CD!) but there’s no such option after I wander through a half-dozen menu item choices to get where the manual says it should be.

    Guess the point is that designers who go with appearance don’t always get it right, and letting engineers design user interfaces is probably not a very good idea. My old CD player had “Start”, “Stop”, and “Skip +” and “Skip -“…. No joystick, no multi-line LCD, and no longer works…. (It actually works fine if I take the case off, but I use this thing in the bedroom, in the dark. Not a great choice.)

    Oddly, I had a great Mini-DV that was almost as intuitive as an ipod.

    (Must be something odd there – my kid can’t figure out how to “feed” her ipod. She’s not a techie….)


  7. rus62 says:

    Don’t forget about those people who couldn’t program their VCRs! Seems that no one listened to them.

    Apple does have an advantage because they have the final say for both hardware and software, Microsoft doesn’t.

    Wait a second, could these problems be due to outsourcing?

  8. gquaglia says:

    I going to say a little of both with the dumb consumer coming out slightly ahead. In a society where its cool to be stupid and a flashing 12:00 on your VCR is a great joke to tell at parties. Consumer stupidity is half the reason why there is so many viruses and spam. “You have been selected to win $1,000,000, just click here to claim” of the famous Nigeria scheme where you are promised money for your help. These must work some of the time, otherwise they wouldn’t be so popular.

  9. joshua says:

    do we want to ask why you need to work it in the bathroom, in the dark Stu…….lol

  10. ECA says:

    SMALLEr ISNT better.

    If I cant read the display, then it DONT work.
    colored plastic, even with letters of the SAME color, SUCK…
    3″ video display??? DUH…7″ is ALOT better and I can REAd the text.

    small cellphone? drops out of pocket, is EASY to loose, or Stolen.

    HD, TV…funny how they can STRETCH out 1024 pixels??? I can do better on my monitor…
    COMMON SENCE, STUPID.. If you have trouble using it or seeing it, THEN WHY WONT WE??? Aim at those under 25 with 20/20 vision, and you dont have MUCH of a market.

  11. BOB G says:

    Gquaglia have you ever had a business? customers aka consumers pay the bills

  12. ECA says:

    And lets NOT get into city design.
    Taking from the old days, a LARGE metro area, generally combines ALOT of little sections of towns.
    5 way stops, 6 way stops,
    Zip zag intersections.
    Lights without sencors to TELL them theres NO BODY COMING, so CHANGE ALREADY.
    circle jerks, which only 1/2 the people cant figure out. And if you are NEW to it, YOU WONT.
    Freeways up a hill that are 6-8 lanes, that REDUCE to 4 lanes at the top??? Because SOMEone dont want you to change an 80 year old bridge, thats a LANDMARK?? Can you say BOTTLE NECK.

    computing in parralell process, and mutitasking…NOT multi threading that was created and USED 40 years ago, STILL isnt part of windows??? that could make computers 2-10 times FASTER..
    audio and video SMART cards that HOLD the drivers/DLL’s on the card, so the processor DONT have to do the work, which could make comps 10+ times faster?
    audio and video SYNC, useing Sympte(audio video STANDARD) so your DVD syncs up…

    OR why does windows NEED a 1700 MHZ to run a DVD when my DVD player only has a 400 mhz processor???

  13. jasontheodd says:

    I am easily the worlds biggest Linux proponent (or Microsoft opponent???) but most Linux distros suffer badly from an assumption that we can read the designer’s minds. Apple does seem to be pretty good at getting the newbie up and running.

  14. himey says:

    Just think of how stupid your average person is and then realize that half of all people are stupider than that.

  15. david says:

    The average person (1) did not grow up with this high level of technology, (2) are not interested in reading product manuals, and/or (3) have low reading compehension skills (technical writers could also be at fault).

    My kid who just turned four knows how to navigate in Windows (he knows how to double-click and use the Paint program, can load DVD’s and press play, stop and rewind, knows how to use the remote control to change channels and can even steer my car in my lap (in a vacant parking lot). Human beings are innately intelligent. We need to nurture and develop it. Unfortunately, as a society we suppress it. But, anyhow, the new generation is immersed in this new technology. It will be second nature to them.

  16. ioiosotwig says:

    I like to call it the “toaster rule”. If it’s not as simple as a toaster, they’re gonna return it or call you about it!

    Insert bread here, push down lever! THE END

  17. Dave Drews says:

    And yet, how many houses have been burned down and how many people electrocuted because of improper usage of a toaster? Don’t forget how easily toasters can be weaponised.

  18. MikeR says:

    I want to meet the engineer who thought it was a good idea to have a red LED come on to tell me the TV (stereo, DVD player, etc.) is OFF. I can practically read a book by the amount of light thrown off by my stereo setup when everthing is turned off.

  19. ECA says:

    I WILL say, that education, and (paranoid) PARENTS, Have isolated and DUMBEd down the kids. Let them be raised on a FARM for the first 10 years, and see what LIFE is like…LET the teachers(the smart ones) TEACH, dont restrict them.
    Its been shown, that there is a way to teach math, that is linear and is easy to learn, all the way to physics.
    DID you know that the US, is as Puritan as the Middle east, and is getting WORSE? europe, China, Japan, and others have LESS laws against natural behavior then WE DO.

  20. ECA says:

    Can we go into OVER priced, ONLY in the USA..??
    CAR, NOT made in USA…Ford and the rest, have 90% of the car PARTS, fenders, and soforth MADE outside the US, for 1/10th the cost, SHIPPED here, and put together. And then ADD $10,000+ profit margin PER vehicle..
    And we are willing to PAY for it.
    Farmers get

  21. GregAllen says:

    ioiosotwig >> I like to call it the “toaster rule”. Insert bread here, push down lever! THE END

    I like that! However, every toaster I’ve owned was not consistent enough for me… either over or under-browned.

    As I ate my burnt toast, I’ve contemplated that there are more than few variables in toasting. but especially type of bread and starting temperature. Still, it seems like a fixable problem.

  22. ioiosotwig says:

    OK, let’s get the engineers involved with the toaster! Of course we need an intelligent interface, remote control, and of course, a red LED that acts as a night light when it’s off, or better than red, one of those super bright blue LED’s Oops, I almost forgot, it needs to be wireless and have it’s own IP address!

  23. rk says:

    How come, I cant return VISTA? Why does MSFT get away with a no returns policy in spite of selling an eminently unusable product?


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