The cost of design (good and bad)
A couple years ago I was speaking with a friend about a new family van I bought for my wife. We’d only had it for a week and the experience of choosing the right features was fresh in my mind. As an employee of a major car manufacturer, and having headed the design of a van line, my friend took an interest in why we chose that particular van.
I told him about the features we liked and how we had compared several different makes before settling on that brand and specific model. I knew he would ask so I offered up my thoughts on the van he had helped design. I noted that the seats were comfortable but how the van itself wasn’t as wide as the one we chose. I told him how nice it was inside, how the entertainment features were on par with everyone else.
“There was just one thing that was the deciding factor…” I said. “All of the other vans, once you’re inside, have a button to close the sliding door.”
Upon hearing this he immediately started laughing so hard he had to put a hand on my shoulder to brace himself. Once he composed himself he said, “This must be Karma coming back to bite me.” He explained how the van used to have that button but while looking for ways to save money by cutting features the engineers suggested removing it. “They convinced me that people wouldn’t mind reaching back to pull the handle on the door,” he recalled. “I was the sole decision maker on that project, I’m the one person responsible for the removal of that button.”
“So put it back!”, I told him.
We talked about that statement for a while, comparing how designing a car is not like designing for the web. He said, “when you figure out something isn’t working well on a website, you just go in and change it, sometimes in a matter of minutes. If you want to change something on a car it can cost millions.”
I’d never really thought of that before. Take a second and think of what’s involved. To change something on a car, first you have to update the designs and manufacturing specifications. Then you must secure the needed parts from other manufacturers, hoping they give you a fair price. After that you just need to retool machines, reprogram robots and train employees to install the new feature, during which time the factory workers aren’t building cars, and the company keeps losing money.
To put back a “simple button” would mean costing the company millions of dollars, money they don’t want to spend.
So it got me thinking about how much time and research we put into our product development when the risk is low. If the risk and cost of the same changes were amplified to the scale of the auto industry would we do things differently? If we have added a feature that is so widely used that it’s done without thinking, what would happen if one day we just took it away? What if the missing feature cost the company millions of dollars?
Or the opposite, what if by changing a single button we could increase revenue to the tune of $300 Million dollars?
As designers on the web we like to talk about the successful designs we create but we don’t often take the responsibility for the design failures because we work in such a fast paced environment that the failures of today will be replaced with a new design tomorrow. We constantly iterate and improve, at least that’s our goal.
I would suggest that we take a step back and consider that our designs may be around for years to come. That someone might one day look back on our designs and ask, “what were they thinking?”