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A fast rate of return

With half of today's gadgets brought back to stores in perfect working order, manufacturers are aiming to simplify.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 15, 2006



Trudy Schuett's top-of-the-line car stereo is so complicated that she hasn't figured out how to change the radio station. She only learned how to work the CD player when her minister, riding in the passenger seat, started pushing buttons and stumbled on the right combination. And forget setting the car clock - she has more important things to do than pull out the owner's manual and hunt for the instructions. She also has an MP3 player she doesn't use, and a digital camera that sits mostly idle because she has to relearn how it works each time she wants to use it.

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"I am not an idiot or a technophobe," insists Mrs. Schuett, a resident of Yuma, Ariz., who says some of the useless gadgets belong to her husband or were given to her as gifts. "I have had a computer since the mid-'80s and have been online since 1995. I maintain and repair my own computer system."

More and more, Americans are being caught in a dilemma: They love electronic gadgets with lots of bells and whistles. But they're also frustrated when they get their new toys home and find out they aren't easy to install or operate. Half the products returned to stores are in good working order, but customers can't figure out how they work, says a recent study conducted at the Technical University of Eindhoven in the Netherlands. On average, American consumers will try for just 20 minutes to get a new gadget to work before giving up, the study adds.

As a result, the world continues to be filled with poorly designed products, doomed to either gather dust in a bottom drawer or be returned to the store.

The problem only will worsen as technological change accelerates, some observers say. (Finally figured out your VCR? Here comes TiVo and Slingbox.) But manufacturers are beginning to see the importance of simplifying their products. In fact, nearly everyone gives lip service to simplicity: Praise is regularly heaped upon Apple's iPod, a model of clean design and ease of use, as well as the design of Google's home page (www.google.com), with its simple search box surrounded by just a few words.

In 2004, Philips Electronics introduced its "Sense and Simplicity" program to make its products more customer friendly. Philips found many devices had functions that consumers had difficulty installing or did not use. And some didn't communicate with each other, says Andre Manning, a spokesman for Philips Electronics North America in New York. One wireless music center,which controls audio speakers all over a house from a single location, was so hard to set up that even the company's own employees found it a challenge.

Today, Philips has released or is developing a number of products that reflect its new approach.

"Products that are technologically advanced should also be simple to use," Mr. Manning says. A new seven-inch-diagonal digital photo display, for example, stores 50 to 80 photos and shows them in a simple slideshow format. It downloads photos directly from any digital camera or any brand of memory card or stick, or from any computer, making it easy to use. The picture quality is better than a typical video screen, the company says, rivaling that of a photo print.

On the Philips drawing boards is an even simpler design. "Momento," a glass ball, fits in the palm of the hand and "wakes up" to play its store of video clips when picked up. The user simply shakes the ball to see the next video. "Momento" has no buttons or dials and no wires to connect, receiving its images wirelessly from any Bluetooth-enabled device.

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