1999 VW Passat Beverage Holders

August 9, 2009

1999 VW Passat Beverage Holders
The beverage holders in my 1999 VW Passat are a very poor design, in both front and rear passenger compartments. Technically, they are very nice. They collapse neatly – nearly invisibly – into a thin recess in the center console. The one in the rear compartment failed almost immediately after I bought the car new. Something broke on it and it would no longer stay retracted. No matter; I never sit back there anyway; Nor do I often carry passengers, so I just pulled it out and threw it in the glove box, where it resides to this day. But the one in front is much worse. It presents a unique triple-whammy of failures, suffering not only from poor design, per se, but also from the poor implementation of a poor design.

The design is poor because it fails to take into account the very purpose for which it is intended: To hold beverages. Because it is designed to retract into a very thin space, its design employs various thin, hinged and telescopic moving parts that ride tongue-in-groove fashion upon one another. And herein lies the problem. It is inevitable, especially in a moving car, that the beverage being held will slosh about and some will spill. Indeed, the thin design behaves much like a diving board, amplifying the resonant frequencies of the vehicle’s suspension system at every bump, inducing spillage. It’s almost as if the thing was designed to spill! And If that beverage happens to be a sweetened coffee, soda or juice, it will invariably evaporate, leaving behind a concentrate of extremely sticky residue (sugar). As a result, these tightly-fitting, telescoping parts easily become glued together by the sticky resin. This even affects the push-to-release mechanism, making it impossible to coax the holder from its retracted position without prying it open with a screwdriver. But there is yet another problem: The location of the beverage holder in relation to the car’s radio. Once deployed, the holder places the rim of a soda can or coffee mug in extremely close proximity to the radio control buttons. Again, the inevitable sloshing of a drink in a moving car causes the drink to spill onto the radio buttons. And again, when it evaporates, it becomes a sticky, concentrated adhesive inside the buttons, making them “stick” when depressed. Another horrible and unintended consequence.

Lessons Learned/Solution:
A recurring theme here at PoorDesign is this: Keep your eyes on the prize. Don’t forget to consider the use environment and conditions under which your design will be utilized. The engineers at VW designed a very clever mechanism. It works wonderfully under ideal conditions, and retracts beautifully flush with the console. But once a mere drop of soda or coffee makes its way onto any of the sliding surfaces, it quickly becomes glued shut. And these tight spaces cannot even be accessed to clean them. It is a one-way trip to dysfunction junction. The moving parts should have been designed to be immune to the affects of inevitable spillage. It would certainly have helped if the engineers had at least provided some form of vibration damping to isolate the holder from the natural jostling that occurs while driving on anything other than a glass-smooth road.

Workaround: Don’t drink anything other than pure water when driving your VW Passat!

Screen Door Handle Razor Sharp!

August 1, 2009

Screen Door Handle Razor Sharp!
As promised a few weeks back, here is the first in a series of posts regarding things with dangerous handles recklessly designed to inflict injury.
The screen door that leads to my patio is a prime example. Take a look at the photos above. This handle is made from a plastic extrusion. The extruded profile is then punched to the tapered shape you see. The punching process is the problem here. Punching is actually a shearing process, and as such always produces tell-tale burrs and sharp edges. These are usually much more evident, and dangerous, on metal than on plastic. But the manufacturers of my patio door somehow managed to produce some seriously sharp burrs and sharp edges for this plastic handle. Irresponsible? You bet! I haven’t found a manufacturer’s name on this screen door yet, but if I do, you can be sure I will add it to this post.

Lessons Learned/Solution:
As is the case so many times here at PoorDesign, do I really have to spell it out? It would seem so obvious, yet time and again I see handles and knobs which invite our hands to use a product while, like some kind of malevolent chameleon, they contain dangerously sharp edges and burrs that lie in wait for the hapless user who has the audacity to simply attempt to use them as intended. Sharp edges and burrs are bad enough when left exposed anywhere on a product, but when they are present on a handle, the very thing which requires us to grab it in order to use the product, they are beyond inconvenient; They represent reckless and willful intent to maim the customer. I would ask “what were they thinking?!?!?” but that would give the designers credit for actually thinking at all. The answer, then, as is so often the case: Deburr, deburr, deburr! I know it adds labor, and therefore cost. I suppose some clever accountant somewhere has performed a careful analysis of the “tipping point” between the costs of deburring and the lost profits from alienating repeat customers. The presence of sharp edges on a handle tells us where we, the customers, come out in that calculation. :( There is another alternative to deburring, though: Use a different cutting technology to shape the handle. Laser and abrasive-jet cutters produce little to no burrs. Or, as another alternative, an inexpensive tumbling process can be employed to remove, or at least soften, such dangerously sharp edges left behind by the fabrication process.

McNEIL-PPC, Inc., K-Y Sensual Silk™ Personal Lubricant

July 16, 2009

McNEIL-PPC K-Y "Sensual Silk" has a cap <em>guaranteed</em> to leak! Unstable bottle shape tips easily and makes a mess every time.
K-Y Sensual Silk™ Personal Lubricant
As a tireless consumer activist I leave no stone unturned. No product or service is safe from, or immune to, my expert scrutiny. Today I focus my long-overdue attention on another chronic offender, K-Y “Sensual Silk™” Personal Lubricant. It’s not the lubricant itself that I have a problem with. It is a fine product. Rather, it is the manufacturer’s extremely poorly designed packaging for the product. Specifically, the bottle it comes in has two shortcomings. I’ll start with the less-serious of the two:

(1) The bottle’s base. Simply stated, it is too small. The bottle is intended to stand up, yet the size of the base is far too small to provide stability. Trying to get the bottle to stand up is almost like trying to balance an egg. It is highly unstable, and tips over easily at the slightest disturbance. This wouldn’t be such a problem if it weren’t for the next, more serious design problem:

(2) The cap. For the cap on this bottle, K-Y chose one of those tilt-open type caps like you see on shampoo bottles. A good choice for a number of reasons; It stays attached so you can’t lose it, and you can open and close it one-handed in the heat of battle, so to speak – a very nice feature. Unfortunately, the cap does not seal properly. Ever. I have burned through countless bottles of this product (yes, I’m just that dedicated in my consumer testing) and every one has been a leaker. This is not a fluke, or a “bad batch.” It is a chronic design problem, and K-Y obviously has no intention of correcting it.
“What’s the big deal?” you ask? I’ll tell you. The first time I discovered the leaking problem, I had left the bottle lying on its side (remember, it doesn’t like to stand up). Over the course of a day, the slimy liquid had slowly but steadily seeped out all over my nightstand. Much like “The Blob,” A slippery pool had spread to engulf my TV remote, the base of a lamp, and had soaked the corner of an expensive book.

My next leak had just as disastrous consequences. Packing for a trip to visit a lady friend, I placed a bottle of Sensual Silk into my $150 Coach leather shaving bag. Assuming the prior leak had surely been a defective cap, I foolishly placed my trust in K-Y’s bottle cap. Shame on me! I let them fool me again! Sure enough, upon arriving at my destination, I opened the toiletry bag and found a gooey, slippery mess. The entire bottom of my nice leather bag was covered in a layer of slime, and everything in the bag had been covered in slippery goo. I spent an angry 15 minutes cleaning up the mess. At least it’s water soluble! (And no, I hadn’t been on an airplane, where pressure changes could be blamed. This was a short land trip by car). OK, lesson learned: Don’t trust the cap! But what an expensive, frustrating and maddening lesson! Way to alienate your customers, K-Y!

Lessons Learned/Solution:
If you’re going to provide a cap for a bottle containing a liquid, is it too much to ask that the cap actually seals the liquid inside without leaking? Apparently for the folks at McNEIL-PPC, the makers of K-Y, it is. Their chronically-leaky cap is made worse by their choice of appearance over functionality. Here I refer to the too-small base of the bottle. The bottle’s overall shape was clearly designed to provide a sensual appeal to consumers. Its androgenous shape is at once feminine and phallic, to appeal to women without offending men – brilliant! However, the resulting base is way too small to provide stability. As described above, stability is critical to a bottle with a poorly-design cap that always leaks! Suggested work-around: Try another brand of lube! AstroGlide™, here I come…

Postscript: Adding insult to injury
Like more than one company I have knocked heads with, McNEIL-PPC, Inc., parent company of K-Y brand, offers a “contact us” option on their web site. And, like most such sites, theirs is a web form, requiring various pieces of information be submitted along with your comments. The K-Y site was, hands-down, the worst such form I have ever seen. To begin with, it required the “Lot Number” and “Expiration Date” codes from the bottle. The expiration date format on their web form was completely backwards from the format shown on the bottle. Worse, the date had to be chosen from a drop-down list, which only went up to the year 2008. My product expires in 2011. But wait – there’s more!
Let’s touch on web form functionality. Next came the “country” and “state” entries, which also required selection from drop-down lists. When clicking in the field boxes, or on the down-arrows, the drop downs would appear, but scrolling via a mouse’s scroll wheel didn’t work. OK, so in order to enter my home state of “Wisconsin” (way towards the bottom of the list, mind you) I typed “W”. On every other drop-down form I have ever seen, this would take me to “Washington,” then two quick presses of the down-arrow would produce “Wisconsin.” No such luck. Typing “W” did nothing. So I was forced to physically click on the scroll-bar and drag it down to make all my selections.
Does all this sound petty? I don’t think so. When providing a form for customers to submit complaints, is it wise to design the form to produce even more angst in an already frustrated customer? Is there any excuse, in this age, to have such a poorly (dys)functioning web form for customer feedback? How do you even make a drop down that doesn’t respond to alpha characters and scroll wheels?!?!?

Dangerous Designs! These products can’t handle the truth

July 14, 2009

Coming soon to the PoorDesign Blog near you!

In a word: Handles. Handles are another prime example of “where the rubber meets the road.” They form the very heart of the user interface for so many of the products we use and encounter every day. And yet, these very things designed to invite our hands to open, close, lift, grip, pull, hold and operate so many things, so often themselves present dangerously sharp edges and burrs that inflict painful, sometimes horrific injuries.
Without even leaving my home, I found a handful of offensive designs that invite, nay, almost insist on causing injuries to the unwary person who has the audacity to simply try to use them as intended. Seriously, what is wrong with designers these days???
So stay tuned to this bat-blog! These fine examples of poor and dangerous designs will soon be exposed here:

    Screen Door Handle slices, dices, even juliennes fries!
    Mansfield Flush Lever designed to maim (You probably have this same one in your home!)
    Kohler Bath Valve Handle. Anyone for a bloodbath?
    Kohler Bathtub Spout. Is nowhere in the home safe?

Amana ARR6202 SelfClean Oven

July 14, 2009

Amana's "ImpossiClean Oven." Poor material and texture choices make its console <strong>impossible to clean.</strong> Even worse was my experience using their web site and toll-free hotline. <strong>Incompetence is ubiquitous at Amana.</strong>
Amana’s “ImpossiClean” Oven. Poor material and texture choices make its console impossible to clean. Even worse was my experience using their web site and toll-free hotline. Incompetence is ubiquitous at Amana.

Amana ARR6202 SelfClean Oven
THE AMANA EXPERIENCE: Poor Design compounded by poor Customer Service.

I began this posting to simply report the horrible choice of material texture on the console of my Amana model ARR6202 “SelfClean Oven” (Range, actually). It is ironic that it is called a “self clean” oven, as it would be far more appropriately named the “ImpossiClean” oven. The console (the part where the controls are located) is made of either plastic or metal, with a texture equivalent to a medium grade sandpaper. I surmise that the purpose of this matte finish is to help conceal grease spatters and other cooking stains. However, the net affect is that when you try to wipe the console with either a cotton cloth, or, worse, a paper towel, the rough texture sloughs off prodigious quantities of material from the towel, leaving a trail of little white dingleberries all across the (black) console. Even now, my range console is smeared with layer upon layer of white “pills,” themselves stained with the remnants of whatever spatters I was trying to clean up. I repeat, this texture was a horrible choice, Amana! Have your designers never actually cleaned a range console? Apparently not. They are welcome to come over and try to clean mine.

Lessons Learned/Solution:
Take into account considerations like cleaning the products you design. I think Amana did consider cleaning this oven. However, their concern for concealing stains apparently won out over the ability to actually clean them. A smooth surface, or at least a non-abrasive one, would have been infinitely better for this application. Refrigerator doors quite commonly employ textured surfaces to help conceal stains and fingerprints. And they accomplish this quite successfully while maintaining a glossy, easy-to-clean texture. I am also troubled by the label on the front: “Self Clean Oven.” It sounds like pidgin English. Shouldn’t it be “Self CleanING Oven?” This may seem as though I am nitpicking, but to me, little things mean a lot. They reflect on possible problems with bigger things. Like, say, inappropriate textures on a surface that requires frequent cleaning? If they got the little details wrong, how good a job did they do on the big ones?

But wait… It gets worse!
In order to write about the poor choice of materials on my Amana Self-Cleaning Oven, I wanted a picture. So I went to Amana.com to find one. I wasn’t able to determine the exact model number, but fortunately, Amana’s web site offered a toll-free number to dial for “help determining your model number.” After navigating the lengthy, voice-operated menu, I reached a dead-end. As it turned out, the very number I had dialed promising to help me find my model number required me to “enter my model number” in order to continue! The computerized voice informed me that the Model Number could be found on the Left Side of the frame after opening the oven door. I opened the door, and was delighted to find a series of labels on both sides of the frame. But my delight was short-lived. NONE of the labels contained a model number. Back on the voice menu, I eventually was allowed to say “I don’t know it” (the model number), after which I was finally transferred to an actual Customer Service Representative.

With relief now in sight, I explained that I simply wanted to determine the model number of my oven. The CSR asked me “Is it a range or an oven?” Having never before pondered the difference between these terms, I told her that it is labeled right on the console as a “Self Clean Oven.” She then asked if it had a “cook top.” I replied “Yes, it has four burners.” She then tersely informed me “Sir, that’s a RANGE.” Of course, quick thinker that I am, I had already deduced the difference between a Range and an Oven (the addition of burners makes an Oven into a Range). Compelled to at least gain the CSR’s sympathy for my confusion, I politely told her “But it clearly says right on front that it’s an OVEN.” She again stated “It’s a RANGE, sir.” OK, so I silently conceded the point. Next, I asked her to help me determine the model number. I told her that the voice menu had me looking at the left side of the door frame with the oven door open, but that there was no model number anywhere. She immediately asked “Is there a drawer on the bottom?” “Yes.” Again, I immediately surmised where she was headed. I opened the drawer (not DOOR), and sure enough, along the right side (not LEFT side) of the frame, there it was at last! I thanked the CSR, ending our conversation grateful to her, and sat down to contemplate the entire experience. With it all fresh in my mind, I sat down and typed this post.

SUMMARY: Adding insult to injury
So, beyond the incredibly poor choice of material texture for the range’s Console, simply determining the model number of the range forced me to navigate a labyrinth of confusing, mis-directing, and just plain wrong information inflicted by Amana’s web site and their customer service voice menu. To her credit, the CSR was at least well-informed, albeit snippy.

1) Amana.com offered a toll-free hotline to “help me determine my model number.”
2) In order to determine the Model Number, the hotline required me to ENTER THE MODEL NUMBER.
3) The hotline informed me that the Model Number would be located on the LEFT SIDE of the DOOR frame. I later learned it was on the RIGHT SIDE of the DRAWER frame.
4) After finally speaking with a CSR, I first learned that in spite of being LABELED AN “OVEN,” I actually owned a “RANGE.” (Note: Even the owner’s manual conflicts with the product! The product is clearly labeled an “OVEN,” while the manual refers to it as a “RANGE.”)

RANGE vs. OVEN. LEFT vs. RIGHT. DOOR vs. DRAWER. Words mean things. That’s why we have them. Get it straight, Amana! In addition to the horribly rough texture on your “ImpossiClean”™ Oven, this entire experience really alienated me as a potential future customer.
There, I think my blood pressure is finally returning to normal. Thanks for letting me vent. Now I think I’ll microwave some dinner and calm down.

Black & Decker WorkMate

July 7, 2009

Black & Decker WorkMate
This is the very piece of dreck that inspired me to create this blog! It is simply unbelievable what they “designed,” or, more accurately, completely failed to design at all, for the critical thrust bearings that provide the clamping force of the vise jaws. Basically no bearing at all! Just a roll pin inserted cross-wise through the vise screw (see images). When tightening the vise, this roll pin thrusts directly against the thin sheet metal frame. Not even a flat washer was provided, nor was there room allowed for one to be inserted. When it was new, it seemed to work alright – for a while. But over time, the (hardened) roll pin began to gall the soft, thin sheet metal. This galled surface rendered lubrication ineffective, and produced a horrible grinding sound similar to fingernails on a chalkboard. Not to mention, the high friction of this critical bearing surface reduced the clamping force of the vise to the point where it was nearly useless. Eventually, with an action similar to a fly-cutter, the roll pin cut a perfectly circular “washer” out of the frame, and popped it out just as neat as you please. Perhaps as a matter of chance, the roll pin had even been inserted into the shaft so that the sharp burrs of its axial seam faced directly towards the bearing surface against which it scraped, further accelerating the eventual failure. Indeed, the engineers at Black and Decker had designed an extremely poor thrust bearing, but a very effective fly-cutter!

What makes this incredibly poor design so inexcusable is that the clamping vise action constitutes the entire purpose of the WorkMate. It is the central feature. It is the whole point. The vise function is where the rubber meets the road. It’s like designing a car and forgetting to include an engine – Oops!

I once had a dear colleague who had a saying: “It only takes one oops to undo a whole lot of attaboys.” That is so true. And Black and Decker has perpetrated one Jim Dandy of an oops with the WorkMate. The worst fallout comes in the form of my now universal skepticism of all their products. Can I trust their other tools? What hidden but severe flaws do they contain? In my mind, B&D has irrevocably damaged it’s own reputation – much like the WorkMate itself – self-destructed beyond repair.

Lessons Learned/Solution:
The lesson learned here is so fundamental it is an insult to my readers. But for the benefit of the engineer(s) from B&D I’ll spell it out: DUH! Keep your eyes on the prize. Don’t forget what you are designing. Learn, study, and apply the concepts of friction, thrust bearings and lubrication. These totally non-existent Thrust Bearings utterly failed where the rubber meets the road. Indeed, they did far worse than fail: They actually self-destruct by the very act of using them for their intended purpose! To call this a “poor design” is really an oxymoron, because there is no way you can credit such a horendous bungle as having been “designed” at all. More accurately, the WorkMate was perpetrated, not designed. Just shameful, Black & Decker! :(

TOSHIBA Model 36AF53 TV and Monster A/V Cables

July 6, 2009

TOSHIBA Model 36AF53 TV and Monster A/V Cables
I purchased a $1,000 Toshiba TV set in 2003. That was back when large flat-screens were still prohibitively expensive, and HD was still in its infancy, so I made my final investment in large, flat, heavy, glass picture tube technology. Excitedly, I unpacked it and placed it in its proud new home, front and center in my theater-like living room. I made all the necessary connections to my A/V system and began enjoying my then-huge 36″ screen. Within the week, I decided I needed a new A/V Receiver. That was when the trouble began. As I began swapping and rearranging the various connections on the back of the Toshiba TV, I was dismayed to learn that the Monster RCA cables had, in each case, torn the outer shell of the RCA connectors from the back of my brand new television! Upon examination, I saw that the connector’s outer shells were press-fit into the plastic connector body with some really cheesy barbed tabs. No amount of careful twisting or gentle pulling would allow them to unplug without taking the outer ground shell of the connectors with them! And this was not just a fluke, mind you, this had happened to every one of them!

Granted, I know that Monster cables have an extraordinarily high insertion/removal force. Frankly, they deserve a “Poor Design” posting all to themselves. But I had to place the blame on Toshiba for their selection of these obviously inferior, incredibly cheap, poor quality RCA connectors. Unbelievable! Here again, much like the Black and Decker WorkMate, a company had taken the most critical aspect of their product (in this case, the A/V Inputs and Outputs) and skimped on quality! I mean, you can have the finest tuner, clearest picture and highest contrast, but what good is all of that if you skimp on the actual interface connections??? And what does this cheap connector say about the signal integrity? Why bother using expensive cables with gold-plated plugs, just to connect to a crummy connector? This is like designing the best Indy car ever made, and then equipping it with stone tires like Fred Flinstone’s car. Or like a mountain climber using the strongest, most expensive rope available, but then attaching himself to it using a piece of kite string. This is where the rubber meets the road! This is the “weakest link” syndrome.

Here we have a $1,000 television set rendered completely useless because its designers chose a 19-cent el-cheapo-tronics RCA connector instead of a $1 high-quality one. Bad dog, Toshiba! Very bad dog!

Lessons Learned/Solution:
Don’t cheap out on critical components! Especially where the cost is so negligible. There is really no excuse for Toshiba’s choice of incredibly cheap connectors. As I said, Monster is also partly to blame, but that doesn’t let Toshiba off the hook. I have used those high-force Monster cables on all sorts of equipment, and still that Toshiba TV is the only time they have ever actually destroyed an RCA connector. The solution was for me to (1) have the store deliver, at their expense, a new TV, citing the first one as “defective,” and (2) DO NOT use Monster cables to connect the new one. This experience left me with a very poor impression of two companies of whom I had previously held high opinions.
But there is another lesson learned here for Monster. Seems so obvious, do I really have to spell it out? Do not design a product that destroys the very things it is meant to work with. Their plug design is like using a flame-thrower to light a candle. They possess an insertion/removal force that is completely out of whack with their intended application. They do, however, certainly live up to their name, if you think of a monster as something that callously destroys all it comes into contact with.
The Merriam-Webster dictionary provides this definition of “monster:”
1. “An animal or plant of abnormal form or structure; One who deviates from normal or acceptable behavior or character”
2: “A threatening force”
Recent research has revealed that Monster now has a new design for its plugs. Rather than the old axially-split barrel, they have adopted a helically-split barrel design called “QuickLock” or “Turbine.” Theoretically, a twisting action should reduce the amount of force required to plug and unplug the new connector. It signals that Monster was at least aware of the threat posed by their old design. But with such a sour taste still in my mouth, I don’t think I’ll be trying this new design any time soon. Sometimes you don’t get a second chance to make a first impression.

Post Script:
This experience inspired me to design my own LIF (Low Insertion Force) RCA plug. I performed a patent search and found several people had already addressed the problem, but my design is sufficiently novel that it does not infringe. Besides, mine is a superior design anyway. And don’t even think about stealing my design. Can you say “prior art?” The third image above is a rendering of my twist-n-lock LIF-RCA plug design, which is available for licensing – contact me and take over the RCA-Plug market with this giant-killer!


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