8 January 2009

Recession: time to slow down and think?

For just much longer does the consumer -- do I mean us? I surely do -- have to put up with stuff that just doesn’t work properly? I contend that the Big Slowdown is an opportunity for the whole consumer product machine to rethink its strategy and realise that now is the time to start turning out quality products that work properly.

It’s become a mantra of modern life that electronics will kind of work most of the time but will more often repay several hours spent tweaking and fiddling to get it just so.

How much time do you need to spend getting the TV to display an image in the right aspect ratio? Why do digital radios sound worse than their analogue counterparts and still require extensive tweaking to get them to do what it says on the tin? And how come my mobile phone will output sound from a phone call via the phone speaker, but audio comes from a second speaker on the back of the device when I call using Skype?

This applies four-fold when you’re talking about persuading several items to inter-communicate. Getting stuff to connect is far too difficult.

People spend hours trying to get stuff to work properly and, assuming it’s not broken in some way, then either give up or, if they’re lucky, they contact either a child or a bloke who knows a bit about IT somewhere in their circle of friends and acquaintances who knows exactly which arcane sequence of buttons to press in order for stuff to work properly.

DVD players can now sport up to six different sets of video outputs, TVs have a similar range of sockets round the back -- and which one you use is a mystery to most -- and anecdotal evidence universally produces non-verifiable evidence that most people have no idea how to use much past the most basic features of their whizz-bang super-multi-function mobile phones. Any why do broadband and phone lines go down on a regular basis?

And yet much of the equipment used by our parents in the 1960s or 70s soldiered on for years or even decades. Who changed their TV set more than once every 10 years? Watches were once or twice in a lifetime purchases for most people. And you bought a car, looked after it and kept it till it fell apart.

Which brings me to the automobile which, in contrast to the rest of the stuff most people spend their hard-earned disposable on, has transformed itself. Cars rarely break down any more. They diagnose themselves to let you know when the biennial service is due, and apart from checking the tyres every now and again, that’s the most attention most people give or even need to give their cars. Manufacturers have designed them that way because they know that’s how their products will be treated.

The cost of this has been a serious lag between the level of user-accessible technology in cars and that which most people are used to or which is at least available in the shops. Car makers take a conservative approach to introducing new technology because it has to work, it has to last, and has to inter-operate without user intervention. And this approach works: there’s a lesson to be learnt.

I would argue that technology makers need to rethink and that a global recession is an ideal opportunity to do so. Rather than taking the line that more and more new technology needs to be shoved at people in an increasingly desperate effort to get their attention and cash when they have less and less money to spend -- or are at least much less inclined to spend what they have -- vendors should start working on and promoting stuff that works properly and that makes consumers’ lives easier.

It would be a great USP for the company which decides to opt out of the helter-skelter race of volume before quality. And a great USP is worth its weight in gold right now...

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