Owen Edwards | Essays

Designers Leap, Users Lag

In my occasional role as a writer about motorcycles, I am currently testing a new Honda CBR250R. This lightweight sport bike has a one-cylinder, 250 cubic centimeter motor, exactly one-fourth the displacement of the two- and four-cylinder motorbikes I use on the racetrack. It might stand to reason, then, that such a bike would be a two-wheel wimp, incapable of giving a veteran rider much in the way of fun. But I’ve been delighted to find that this little moto is so beautifully engineered and designed (the two disciplines tend to merge in motorcycles) that it’s a terrific ride, only slightly slower from point to point on twisty country roads than much bigger machines.

The design advances that give a small motorcycle this kind of performance can be found all the way up the horsepower chain. My Kawasaki ZX-10 track bike has a top speed of around 180 mph (entirely theoretical when I’m aboard) and will do 90 mph in first gear. Street and race bikes made by other manufacturers are similarly fast and furious. I recently test rode two new big bore sport tourers from Kawasaki and Suzuki. They’re both awesome machines, with the kind of head-snapping power that only the priciest sports cars can offer, and quick, precise handling. Very few track day racer wannabes like me can come anywhere close to the full potential of these motorcycles, and even full-time professionals have to work hard to keep up with the latest models.

The point is this: Trying to meet the challenges designers and engineers set for us is pretty much hopeless, though we can have a lot of fun trying. This applies not only to motorcycles and cars, but also to digital cameras and computer software and smart phones and cable television systems and countless other things that seem purpose-built to make us feel inadequate while offering the illusion of omnipotence. The improvement/innovation imperative means that good enough is never good enough, even when making something technically better may make it harder to use. Who among us — except devoted techies — doesn’t feel nervous when being urged to download the latest, newest, coolest, fastest version of an internet browser? It’s axiomatic that there’s no gain without some loss, but more and more often it seems that while we lose things we like, we gain features we didn’t want and can’t figure out how to de-code.

The plight of mere civilians who want to have cool stuff but don’t want to face daily intimidation is gloomy. Even digital natives under the age of 15, pliant of mind, unburdened by memories of a simpler age, technically fearless, can’t keep up. The reason for this is no mystery. Designers and engineers can focus with laser intensity on making things ever more irresistible. That’s their job, after all. In the movie Contagion, a research scientist says about a deadly virus, “It’s figuring us out faster than we can figure it out.” To which a doctor responds that the virus doesn’t have anything else to do. Not that I would think of comparing engineers and designers to viruses, but they can be similarly focused on figuring us out. We consumers, however — drawn to well-designed products and trying to get the most out of them and ourselves — have other things to do. Even if some of our day jobs are design jobs, most consumers of cars and computers and other necessary products, aren’t professional racers or programmers and can ‘t spend hours each day honing their skills on vehicles and devices created by a dedicated class of super refiners.

Here’s an example: A few years ago, I covered the introduction of a new Honda motorcycle at a California racetrack. The company had brought from Japan several of the engineers responsible for the latest improvements in the high performance sport bike. One of the engineers, a young man with the intense look of an apprentice ninja, had spent the better part of his work year reducing the weight of the front brake disks by a handful of ounces. Day after day he shaved the steel disks thinner, then tested them to see if they still had enough strength to stop a bike going 150 mph. Any dieter might consider a year of work for half a pound of weight an abject failure, but with a team of engineers given the task of knocking off a few ounces here and a few there, the re-designed Honda ended up weighing about 20 pounds less than its predecessor, a great leap forward in terms of handling and acceleration.

When the evolution of design and engineering is constant, sometimes linear and sometimes exponential, a consumer may find that the perfect can be the enemy of the quite good enough. Or at least what competitive designers consider perfect. Users of “improved” products can be confronted by once-simple tasks and functions suddenly made mysterious. Some years ago, I compared notes with several fellow automotive journalists, all of us having tested the newest iteration of the 5 Series BMW. None of us, it turned out, had found the secret formula for turning on the air conditioning until toward the end of the week each of us drove the car. The BMW engineers had designed a system that must have made lots of sense to them, but baffled even those accustomed to figuring out the foibles of new cars. In fairness, BMW eventually backed off the “nerds’ revenge” of their control console, but I’ve never figured out how it got to the market in the first place.

Even companies rightly admired for design can over-improve and make mistakes in the process. Apple, for instance, whose CEO Steve Jobs had the visual sense of a great museum curator (well, probably better than most curators), is capable of being swept up in the wave of heedless, needless, new thing-ism. Take, for instance, the latest iteration of the MacBook Pro on which this piece is being written. My old iBook was a perfectly fine little machine, clad in white plastic with pleasingly rounded edges and a comfortable surface for those long, resting pauses between just the right adjective to modify just the right noun. I’ve been an Apple user since buying my first thrilling SE back in the eighties, so when my iBook began slowing with age, I headed to my neighborhood Apple store, hung out with the geniuses for a while, and came home with a gorgeous new MacBook, a thing of impeccable industrial design, a pin-up among products.

It seems, however, that beauty has its price. Now clad in metal, not plastic, the laptop looks more modern and more efficient. And, since Apple designers seem to have fallen in love with sharp edges (look at the original iPhone, if you still have one, and compare it to the new version), the rounded edges of the plastic iBook have been squared off and honed. And there’s the rub, literally: When I rest my hands on the space in front of the keyboard, that crisp-looking sharp edge digs into my wrist in a way that the rounded edge of my old iBook never did. Also, when it’s cold in the morning, the metal cladding is noticeably cold – certainly not a big deal, but somehow not as user friendly as the Macintosh software. The changes to the laptop make it better looking, but was a cosmetic makeover really necessary when the iBook was already handsome enough? And shouldn’t form work for function, rather than as an end in itself? A sharp-edged laptop may be the result of the improvement imperative, but there certainly could have been a better union of technology and aesthetics, normally so characteristic of Apple designs.

It’s said over and over that the pace of change has quickened, and that even the quickening has quickened. A current television ad shows a man happily taking delivery of a flat screen tv, labeled “3D,” then freaking out when a truck passes by carrying “4D” flat screens. And if you have a two-year-old iPhone, you can be considered hopelessly old fashioned (the passé little thing can’t even talk to you). Economists define “durable goods” as anything with a lifespan of three years or so, but it seems that fewer and fewer consumer products fall into that category. Designers and engineers are so determined to stay ahead of the curve that they’re out-speeding most customers and are in the grip of catastrophic brake failure.

So what’s my solution? Can we ask serial improvers to do their jobs less well? Given the general dedication of the profession, and the marketing power of the word “new” — especially when followed by an exclamation point or two — there’d be no point to that. But what we of the consumer class can legitimately ask, I think, is: Just because some new dazzling design can be created, is there a real need for it? Or is it mostly useful for marketing and advertising. For instance, does the iPhone’s Siri make life better, or just further discourage people from talking to an actual person? (Okay, I’m cranky, but I would love to go back to the days when someone walking along talking to no visible companion could safely be considered crazy.) However, given the commercial consequences of falling behind in any market, be it motorcycles or smart phones, plus the Wall Street expectations of quarterly profits, that question is unlikely to be asked.

I’m hopeful, though, with the economy still stalled and the middle class just muddling through, that the idea of truly durable goods will be born again. Maybe, if someone spends a few thousand dollars on a carbon fiber bicycle, he or she will know that there won’t be any need, or urge, to buy a new one next year. Or a new car for seven years. Or a new HD-TV for ten years. Of course, for the innovate-or-die set, changes still will come at chameleon-like speed, and those who want to go on playing catch-up will keep hoofing it on that treadmill. But for those of us who value constancy, Levis will keep producing button fly 501s, the excellent new Mini will still look much the same as it does now for several model years and Jack Daniels won’t taste different in 2020 than today’s Tennessee brew. In a design book I co-wrote back in the early eighties, I lauded things that are not necessarily the best, but can’t be improved upon. Alas, some of those quintessential products — the Checker cab and the Polaroid SX-70 — are gone, but the Mont Blanc Diplomat ink pen, the Frisbee, the Oreo cookie and the classic martini, still prevail. And lots of other stalwarts too. The ideal future would bring an increase in the number of things that stay loyal to our needs (emotional as well as practical), letting us choose well instead of endlessly choosing, while the dazzling cornucopia of good, better, best keeps the chronically unsatisfied plunking down their money.

Here’s looking at Utopia, Kid.

Posted in: Arts + Culture, Business, Technology

Comments [3]

"If a man does not work, let him also not eat"..

It seems to have been subverted to:
"If a man does not consume, let him also not work or eat"

Nice article. You veered into some interesting philosophical arenas that must be addressed; if MAN is to survive. To me, the entire equation of work MUST be redefined. WE are streamlining ourselves into oblivion. The resources are there, the robots are doing most of the work, but the humans are starving to death.

John Henry LOST.

Right on! I'm trying to stay afloat in a sea of too much change.

And I do appreciate continuity. When buying the new generation of digital SLR camera a few years ago, I bought Pentax because my old old lenses (30+ years) fit! Thank you Pentax. I wish more companies were like you.

I've been out of the bike world for a few years now so was surprised that anyone made a "small" bike anymore! I remember when a 500 was considered BIG.

RE the mac book, I hate that sharp edge!
Paul Pickard

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