How poor product design lets you – and your customers – down



The Maze, Design icons

I recently bought a mobile phone. When I needed to access the SIM card, I couldn’t work out how to remove the back cover. Frustrating.

The cover didn’t have any of the usual product design features to indicate how to open it – no ridge, no gap. There was nothing intuitive to help the user.

So I checked the instructions . . . but they made no mention of how to get the back off. ‘Just slide it’, they said. But it wasn’t that simple.

I searched YouTube for ‘Nokia 100 open back cover’. I found several video blogs showing how to get the back off the phone.

One video had more than 25,000 views each (and lots of grateful comments below it)!

Getting the back off is actually very easy once you know how.  So, it’s arguably a clever product design.

However, it shouldn’t require customers’ research and effort to work it out. And it wasn’t just me – the videos indicate just how many others have experienced the same frustration.


1 paper bag out of 5

1 paper bag out of 5


Designing for the user

I calculated that if each consumer spent, say, five minutes trying to work out how to remove the back, then — just taking the 25,000 people who accessed the YouTube clips — more than 10 weeks of 24/7 human energy was wasted on this single task.

Two of the key things you should be thinking about when you design consumer goods are:

  • good consumer information, and
  • the value of online instructions

Says design guru Dieter Rams:

“A product is bought to be used. It has to satisfy certain criteria, not only functional, but also psychological and aesthetic. Good design emphasises the usefulness of a product whilst disregarding anything that could possibly detract from it.”

Dieter Rams, Ten Principles for Good Design [1]

1. Good consumer information

Good user information is a vital part of product development. Without it, users waste valuable time and get frustrated, both of which are avoidable.

The instructions for the Nokia 100 mobile should have been written by the phone’s designer. Plus, the company should have ensured the instructions were supplied with the phone.

From the influential book, Industrial Design, Reflection of a Century:

The role of an industrial designer is to create and execute design solutions for problems of form, usability, physical ergonomics, marketing, brand development, and sales.”

Jocelyn de Noblet, Industrial Design, 1993, as cited on Wikipedia – Industrial Design [2]

When designing products, make user instructions part of your usability and physical ergonomics thinking.

Conduct tests on the product’s usability and instructions.

Test whether people understand how to use it, and keep revising the design and user information until they do.

2. The value of online instructions . . .

You can help your customers even more by making user instructions available online.

As a start, the instructions that you provide at point of sale should be posted on your website. Most companies are doing this now.

With the internet, you also have the opportunity to fix a problem if it becomes apparent after a product has gone to market.

Don’t just leave it to consumer forums. Get on top of issues early. Once a problem with your product is being talked about in social media, you can post answers on your website. This shows you’re listening to your customers.

. . . and a third thing – online video demonstrations

Companies that produce consumer goods can take the initiative with video demonstrations.

You can put your own videos online to help users understand your products. You can also make videos that show users how to deal with any problems discovered after products have been sold.

An example of good, pro-active video instructions appeared on a YouTube search for ‘product instructions’: SKLZ Sport Brella insert.

In this clip, a company representative goes through the way to use the product, and the ways to avoid misuse.

SKLZ has a number of such videos for its products.  They are simple and appear inexpensive to produce, yet would be very helpful to their customers.


5 out of 5

5 /5





It’s good marketing to help customers know how to safely and effectively use your products. And it can be done for little cost. Taking the lead from consumer YouTube posts, you need only create simple, low-cost videos.

Managing the risks

More and more, people are seeking answers to any problem online.

Maybe other phone users didn’t even spend five minutes as I did before they hit the keypad. People in the online community recognise that if they have a problem, then so might others. And other people post solutions to these problems.

This is really helpful — provided they get it right.

Why risk customer dissatisfaction by leaving the solution to chance, or to the goodwill of others?

And if the wrong advice gets posted by someone, what further problems might it cause for you, the supplier? What if that advice leads to product damage, or unsafe use or personal injuries?

Where liability rests in the social media age may be up for grabs. It’s much better to plan ahead and take the lead, so your products are used properly and safely as intended.

So, product design should always have the user in mind:

  • plan your user information
  • test the product and the instructions
  • provide information online, and
  • respond to any post-market problems with prompt online fixes

Customers will appreciate you having these basic principles as part of your business.



[1] Dieter Rams, Ten Principles for Good Design,

[2] Jocelyn de Noblet, Industrial Design, 1993, Wikipedia – Industrial Design.