Why Are Products Imperfect?

Products typically are not imperfect – they’re perfectly designed to fit a particular need as defined by the team responsible for building the product.  And yet everyday the targeted users of those products very often find themselves saying, “I wish they would make [some change] to this product, then it would be PERFECT!” 

Perfection is in the eye of the beholder, or in this case, the eye of the customer.

Every product or service that is released to the market is a result of multiple compromises based on decisions made by the brand manager, the R&D product manager, the marketing manager, and everyone else who has skin in the game as they prepare the offering to meet the needs of their target customer.  How these decisions are made is the focus of this site and I will work to shed light on the keys to success using examples across many industries.

The title of this site was inspired by an article I came across a few years ago in USA Today (not the newspaper but instead a magazine published by the Society for  the Advancement of Education) describing the work of Henry Petroski, a professor of Civil Engineering at Duke University.  The text of this article is quoted below since the actual article is not available online. 

I take a slightly different stance on imperfect design leading to imperfect products.  I have a firm conviction that the real reason for product or service imperfection (or the product not quite matching the intended user’s needs) is due to imperfect insight where the brand or product manager has failed to truly grasp the reasons why you or I or my mother would want to use a product like theirs.  Or at a more fundamental level, the product manager failed to grasp the complete conceptual picture of the problem we are trying to solve in using this product.  Hence, “Picture Imperfect.”*

We’ll explore this in future posts.

Imperfect Designs, Perfect Products – INNOVATION

What do paper cups, toothbrushes, grocery bags, kitchen faucets, doorknobs, and automobile cup holders have in common? They all are the imperfect products of designers seeking to come up with something better for consumers. Henry Petroski, Aleksandar S. Vesic Professor of Civil Engineering at the Pratt School of Engineering, Duke University, Durham, N.C., looks at the design of things we take for granted and concludes there can never be an end to the guest for the perfect design.

In Small Things Considered, Petroski notes that all plans involve choice, usually to satisfy competing constraints, whether they be cost, size, efficiency, or the myriad other factors that make the difference between a design that works and one that doesn’t. “. . . The design of made things, as opposed to design in nature and the artistic interpretation of it, necessarily proceed within the confines of the laws of science and economics. An . . . inventor or designer of practical things must accept the realities of gravity and budgets, keeping his feet on the ground and his eye on the price.”

Petroski examines a variety of common objects and how their designs evolved. Take the paper cup, for example, which was spawned early last century when people began to realize that the communal tin cup from which everyone-healthy and sick alike-drank at the public water barrel, well, pump, or spigot often was the source of germs and disease.

Inventor and entrepreneur Lawrence W. Luellen eventually came up with a design that had a flange around the top edge of a cup to stiffen it and make it easier to dispense one at a time from a stack of nested cups in a machine. Luellen and his partners later named the product the Dixie cup.

While most people now drink water from their own plastic bottles, the Dixie cup remains widely in use. Not so for the paper grocery bag, which was developed in the mid 1800s. The plastic bag was introduced into American supermarkets in the mid 1970s and its sturdy handles, which enable shoppers to carry many more bags at a time, are among its most competitive features. “The plastic bag has clearly become the container of choice, we shoppers adjusting to its limitations the way we adjust to those of all designs. The once near-perfect up-standing paper grocery bag has mostly been displaced by something that is at the same time superior and yet inferior. That is the way it often is with designed objects.”

*Note: the title of this weblog also has something to do with the fact that I am a bit of a shutterbug and still struggle at perfect image composition since I have way more power in the camera than I am able to handle.  So it is not unusual to hear me muttering about the shot that got away due to improper focus or depth of field or any of a number of other failures.  Thank goodness for digital photography where I can see the results immediately and recompose on the fly.  That is my saving grace!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *