Viewpoint: The Need For All-Inclusive Products

Don't let designers (or marketers) overlook potential customers.

"It's a conspiracy," muttered the fifty-something car buff at the 2000 North America International Auto Show. He had braved the January weather to come to Detroit's Cobo Hall to preview a luxury model and what he saw -- or could not see -- didn't please him. "When I sat behind the wheel I saw a dashboard that wasn't designed for eyes that needed bifocals," he lamented. He complained that the instrument panel of the $52,000 sedan might be easily visible to twenty-somethings, but he doubted that they were part of the demographics. "The designers ought to realize that by the time a person accumulates enough money to buy a $52,000 car, the normal aging process has brought them vision problems -- not only bifocals, but perhaps the beginning stages of cataracts as well." He was obviously disappointed that the designers didn't appreciate how easy it would have been to tailor the instrument panel to the needs of both young and old. Refusing to see any merit in the otherwise attractive dashboard layout, he ground on: "Why is the transmission quadrant so small that mature drivers would have to strain in order to see it? And is there any virtue in using dim, monochrome LCD technology for the radio, air conditioning controls, and clock? If the price of the car isn't a challenge, then operating it will be!" He singled out more clues to the designer's lack of concern for legibility: "Look where they put the dimly lit heater and air conditioning controls. Not only are they inconveniently placed for anybody wearing bifocals, but the buttons and markings are small enough to defy identification, much less any easy adjustments. I think the automaker hired the same designer responsible for the nearly illegible personal digital assistant I got for my 55th birthday." This middle-aged car buyer wasn't any kinder in his analysis of the competing luxury sedan in the adjoining booth. "Look how they used a low-mounted washed-out color touchscreen to control accessories. Not only is it distracting to the driver, but there is nothing intuitive about that user interface." Seemingly on a roll, our complaining friend also noted that the automobile industry has no monopoly on product-design approaches that needlessly exclude potential customers or otherwise fall short on customer convenience and user needs. "In consumer electronics, some of the newly miniaturized products almost require miniaturized users." (His example was the Consumer Electronics Show announcement that one wristwatch maker will incorporate Internet access) He explained the intensity of his irritation by noting that exclusionary designs fail on several fronts. "First if its true that the only raison d'tre for a business is customer creation, then why exclude potential buyers?" He is even more irritated if the offending design involves something that can't be easily avoided -- such as urban infrastructure or the workplace. "Come to my office and I'll show you the trendy lighting system my landlord's architect installed. Bare fluorescent tubes without diffusers may have architectural allure or some other virtue, but they have absolutely no merit from the standpoint of glare, discomfort, and diminished employee productivity." What our friend doesn't realize is that for some products the exclusionary factor can be a marketing decision, not a design attribute. For example, when Thomas Edison patented the phonograph, his patent application listed recordings of books for the blind as having more potential than recording music. Similarly, today's technology for people with disabilities often finds a broader market when the marketing strategy is reconsidered. For example, the optical character recognition technology pioneered by artificial intelligence guru Raymond C. Kurzweil now finds application beyond reading text to the blind. Microsoft predicts that in 10 to 20 years, voice input and output will be commonplace for computers. In fact, if our complaining friend had gone over to the Jaguar booth at the Auto Show, he would have discovered voice activation, the ultimate solution for illegibly marked dashboard controls. Jaguar's voice activation system recognizes naturally spoken English for heating, air conditioning, telephone, radio, CD, and tape. (When last seen, he was extolling the extreme legibility of the Corvette instrument panel.) John Teresko is IndustryWeek's senior technology editor. He is based in Cleveland.

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