Usability: the cost of getting it wrong

I would bet a lot more money than is in my pocket right now that 50-75% of electronics returned are not, in fact, defective by damage or second law of thermodynamics.

Rather, I suspect they are defective by design.

Today my wife and I fought with our cordless phone system (tip: if it’s a system, it automatically sucks). It’s been phantom-ringing, not connecting, connecting only if you waited three rings, connecting if it felt like it, connecting if the moon was in the right phase and you had thrown a skunk over your left shoulder the previous night.

In other words, haunted.

Does anything suck more than phone usability? I’m talking about cell phones, about home cordless phones … anything but the old-fashioned rotary brick that never died.

We have three phones hooked up on one network, which we futzed with for about half an hour. In the end, we de-registered all the phones (i.e., told the main base station to forget about their existence) and then re-registered all the phones (i.e., told the main base station that they existed).

And now there is domestic bliss in the Koetsier household again, our fifth-grade daughter can phone her friends with impunity, and my wife’s sister can tie up the phone all night. (I, of course, regard phones as instruments of the devil and never use them unless poked with almost-molten cattle prods. After all, mothers might be calling. Or people who – ugh – might want me to do something. Cell phones, on the other hand, I will relunctantly answer, if no other alternatives exist. But that’s business, and I get usually paid for it, so I have no choice.)

But the point – and yes, there is a point – is that a couple times throughout the whole process we felt like chucking it all in, boxing up all the phones, and returning them. Obviously, they were broken. Obviously, they were not working. Obviously, we should be given a full refund.

I wonder how often that happens. How often does perfectly fine gadgetry (read: functioning with specs as designed) get returned simply because people can’t figure out how to make it work?

I would not be shocked if the answer is more than half.

And that’s got to cost somebody a whole lot of money. In comparison to which designing in usability starts to look cheap.



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