Product Design: Biggest Losers

“All design is human-centered. If it’s not human-centered, then it’s not design. If it’s not design, it’s something else and we don’t teach that here.” These are among the first words sophomore industrial design studio students hear from their instructor, Mark Baskinger, associate professor in the School of Design at Carnegie Mellon University.

According to Baskinger, consideration for the user experience (UX) has not always been a core tenet behind industrial design. He challenges his students to think about product design in ways that create utility and delight for the person who will end up using it:

“In [the students’] minds they shift their thinking from making things to designing things that help facilitate actions, behaviors and experiences,” Baskinger says. “It’s a fundamental shift to consider an object’s form to be in service of something much greater than its own visual image. This is the core of human-centered design—considering the relationship of people with their products in the context of their activities. It’s also the core of experience design.”

A talented product designer will challenge the design throughout the creative process. What is a product going to be used for? How will it be handled? How will it feel to use it? Does it create ease for the user? Pleasure? Utility? These are all questions that define a user’s experience, and necessarily must be part of the product design process.

You would think this would be obvious. (Imagine a group of executives sitting around a conference table, dreaming up ways to frustrate people with bad design.) And yet, we’ve all used products that make us wonder: Who could have possibly thought this was a good idea?

Product Design: Famous Flops


failed product design

“I admit the reception to our new product has been chilly.”

Kellogg’s Breakfast Mates. An all-in-one bowl of cereal (bowl, cereal, milk and spoon), Kellogg’s Breakfast Mates were intended to let parents sleep late while the kiddies helped themselves to breakfast. But the package was childproof. Oops. Small children were unable to ‘open’ breakfast by themselves. This conundrum is not unlike the individual fruit cups that are still on the market. They inevitably squirt juice on you when you open them. The lids are too hard for kids to open themselves, so teachers often end up with stains on their shirts after lunch.

Corfam fake leather. Developed in the mid-sixties by DuPont, Corfam was a look-alike leather that was intended to be a leather substitute—it was less expensive, did not rely on animal skins and was water repellent. Oh, and really uncomfortable. Corfam did not have the softness and flexibility of leather, and most people were not willing to put up with sore feet for—for what?

Smokeless Cigarettes. While the concept was noble—and a healthy alternative—when RJ Reynolds launched Premier, a smokeless cigarette, they forgot one thing. According to the Reporter Magazine, smoking Premier “produced a smell and a flavor that left users retching.”

‘Nuff said. The question that we consumers ask ourselves time and again is: Did anybody at that company ever USE this thing?

Product Design: Straight from the Consumer

Forward-thinking companies are now deploying ethnographic research to gain an intimate understanding of how a consumer uses a product. Researchers are sent to observe how a painter uses a can of paint, a mother uses a stroller or a scientist uses a beaker. This exercise almost always yields surprises. (Who knew that the average stroller height gives mom a backache?) By shadowing consumers, companies can satisfy and delight customers in previously unexplored ways.

For fun, scroll through some industrial design company websites. There appears to be no end to the innovative ideas that designers are coming up with. Necessities and novelties alike, today’s creative minds are offering us an array of exciting products to choose from, which bodes well for all of us.

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