Optimal Convenience: Is Over-Engineering Our Products Making Us Idle?

Andrew Craig, NPD Manager

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I believe everyone has a dose of the ‘I can’t be bothered’ every now and again, which is fine if you snap out of it rather quickly. However, I think we are becoming an increasingly idle society and there are design ramifications of this which contradict some of our wider goals.

As engineering designers we are tasked with reducing the environmental impact of our products throughout their lifecycle. We consider material extraction, transportation and processing through all phases of manufacture, consumption while in use and end of life. We study these factors in great detail at times to shave every possible atom of carbon from the footprints we leave in our wake. Yet in some applications it is becoming increasingly difficult to balance expanding convenience demands with the constant drive for ‘greener’ products.

Convenience is all around us throughout the developed world. Convenience meals of processed garbage line supermarket shelves ready for the trip home and into the microwave. Every household kitchen has an individual cooker; most have dishwashers and conveniently located in a utility room to the side: an individual washing machine and possible tumble dryer. You may be reading this on a mobile phone or a tablet on your sofa or on a train. How convenient!

Some of these conveniences enable us to live the busy lives that we do. I, for example, would not have the time to grow all of my own vegetables, to prepare every meal from constituent base ingredients and wash the dishes in water drawn by hand from a local stream, warmed over a log fire burning timber from a sustainable source chopped by hand earlier that day. I’d quite enjoy all of that for a while but I would like to think I can be of more use to the world doing other things. Tending to my veg patch and felling trees would certainly get in the way of writing this blog. 

My issue and the gripe behind this entry is the incorporation of unnecessary componentry within design, simply for convenience where it is no longer valuable. Think of convenience as providing a diminishing return, after a point there is no need for any further improvement as the benefit you receive is minimal.

A washing machine manufacturer recently released a unit which boasts excellent efficiency figures, including innovative features to save heat, water and cycle time. It is aesthetically superior to previous models and whisper quiet too. However the key marketable feature (or the one the adverts have focussed upon anyway) was the fact you can turn it on via WiFi!

Having already gone from washing clothes in a sink by hand to communal machinery and into the realm of the individual appliance just for convenience, do we need to start a wash via smartphone from the sofa? All we save at best is thirty seconds of Ant & Dec on ITV. Forgive me for stating the obvious but you have to be present at the machine to fill it, why not push the start button then? Or include a timer (as many have for years) if you don’t want the spin interrupting Ant & Dec. I’m definitely missing the point.

The washing machine does not need a WiFi connection with additional PCB and electrical consumption for the sake of convenience. It’s pretty easy to see this addition as unnecessary.

Once we have reached a level of optimal convenience and are free to carry on with our busy lives, should we then go further? I think you can guess my opinion but I’d be interested to hear yours.

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