On the level

Patent image of Tilt sensor
A tilt-detector from this 1984 US patent, with intended application on a packing box.

The liquid detection stickers in mobile phones, which allow manufacturers and retailers to ascertain if a phone has got wet, and thus reject warranty claims (whether judiciously/appropriately or not), seem to be concerning a lot of people worldwide. Around a quarter of this site’s visitors are searching for information on this subject, and the comments on last October’s post on the subject contain a wealth of useful experience and advice.

This current thread on uk.legal.moderated goes into more depth on the issue, and how the burden of proof works in this case (at least in the UK). While informed opinion seems to be that the stickers will only change colour when actual liquid is present within the phone, rather than mere moisture or damp, this may well include condensation forming within the casing, as well as the more obvious dropping-of-phone-into-puddle and so on. The main point of contention seems to be that the sticker may change colour (perhaps gradually) and the phone continue working perfectly, but when an unrelated problem occurs and the phone is taken in for repairs under warranty, the presence of the ‘voided’ sticker may be used as a universal warranty get-out even if the actual problem is something different.

Tilt detection
Along these lines, one of the posts tells of a similarly interesting design tactic – tilt-detectors on larger hardware:

30 years in the IT industry and associated customer service tells me they are trying it on and most people buy it. In the olden days, hardware used to come with a similar red dot system indicating the kit had been tilted more than 45 degrees and the manufacturers claimed the kit could not be installed and had to be written off.

Of course, 99.9% of the time the kit was fine, but they had a get-out from a warranty claim or so they thought. When the buyers tried to claim on their insurance or against the transport companies insurers the loss adjusters got involved and invariably the kit was installed and worked fine for years rather than the insurers paying out.

In some cases, of course, tilt-detectors were (are still?) necessary in this role. A piece of equipment with multiple vertically cantilevered PCBs laden with heavy components – relays, for example – might well be damaged if the PCBs were tilted away from the vertical. Certainly some devices with small moving coil components would seem as though they may be damaged by being turned upside down, for example. (Do the ultra-fine damper wires on an aperture-grille CRT monitor such as a Trinitron need to be kept in a particular orientation when handling the monitor?)

This patent, published in 1984, from which the above images were extracted, describes an especially clever ‘interlock’ system using two liquid-based detectors arranged so that if the device/package is tilted and then tilted back again, the second detector will then be triggered:

…it is desirable that the tilt detectors not be resettable. In particular, it must be possible to combine a package with at least a pair of the tilt detectors such that attempting to reset one would cause the other to be tilted beyond its pre-determined maximum angle so that the total combination would always afford an indication that the tilt beyond that allowed had been effected.

This is something of a poka-yoke – but as with the phone liquid-detection stickers, it’s being used to detect undesirable customer/handler behaviour rather than actually to prevent it happening. Other than making a package too heavy to tilt, I am not sure exactly how we might design something which actually prevents the tilting problem, aside from rectifying the design problem which makes tilting a problem in the first place (even filling the airspace in the case with non-conductive, low-density foam might help here).

But there’s certainly a way the tilt-detector could be improved to help and inform the handler rather than simply ‘condemn’ the device. For example, it could let out an audible alarm if the package or device is tilted, say, 20 degrees, to allow the handler to rectify his or her mistake before reaching the damaging 45 degrees, whilst still permanently changing colour if 45 degrees is reached. In the long run, it would probably help educated users about how to handle the device rather than just ‘punishing’ them for an infraction. I’m sure that mercury-switch (or whatever the current non-toxic equivalent is) alarms have been used in this way (e.g. on a vending machine), but how often are they used to help the user rather than alert security?

The patent description goes on to mention using tamper-evident methods of attaching the detectors to the device or packaging – this is another interesting area, which I am sure we will cover at some point on the blog.

Unscheduled intermission

Dan at Tangerine, LondonI know, I know a third of all blog posts indexed by Technorati are “apologies for the lack of posts recently,” and this is no exception.

I haven’t posted on the blog in the last week, mainly due to being very busy with work – I’ve unexpectedly been back at Tangerine in London (left) helping out with research into future product segmentation in the mobile phone market, alongside work for an important long-standing client, while also being in the midst of moving to a new flat and sorting out everything that goes with that. Oh, and the PhD starts sometime in the next few weeks.

But I’ve had some great e-mails, comments and suggestions from readers (for which many thanks), so I hope within the next few days to get back to blogging and replying.

Please bear with me.

Detailing and retailing

HMS Furious
The dazzle painting of HMS Furious, c. 1918. Image from A Gallery of Dazzle-Painted Ships

A couple of weeks ago we looked at casino carpet design – a field where busy, garish graphic design is deliberately employed to repel viewers, and direct their attention somewhere else. Ben Hyde commented that deliberately unattractive “background music, lighting, seating, and color schemes in large malls” may be used to drive shoppers into the quieter surroundings of the actual stores, which certainly rings true in some cases I can think of.

On another level, though, A comment by Kenshi drew my attention to the dazzle camouflage used in the First World War, which is quite startling, in a brilliantly bold way. Roy R Behrens‘ book, False Colors: Art, Design and Modern Camouflage, from the website of which I’ve borrowed these images, looks extremely interesting, and I will certainly be ordering a copy when I have the budget.

Developed in Britain by Norman Wilkinson and in the US by Everett Warner and Frederic Waugh, the dazzle techniques were intended to make “a single thing appear to be a hodgepodge of unrelated components,” as Behrens puts it in this fascinating article. The aim was that such visual disruption would cause confusion and make it difficult for the enemy to identify what kind of ship – and what size – it was from a distance, with the use of ‘reversed perspective’ in the patterning a part of this. The ship’s course – and angle to the viewer – would also be problematic to identify, with colouring including bright whites, blues and sea-green alongside black, darker blue and grey selectively helping parts of the ship to blend into the seascape, and other parts very much stand out.

Breaking the enemy’s ability to distinguish elements of the ship properly, and generally to cause distraction and make it difficult to concentrate on observation for protracted periods, were all part of this plan; painting ships with different dazzle patterning on each side made identification even harder.

Despite being likened to Cubism disdainfully by some contemporary journalists, the processes used for designing the camouflage were developed both analytically and empirically, and extensively tested before being applied to the real vessels. Nevertheless, there are certainly elements in common between dazzle techniques and parts of Picasso’s and others’ work; Behrens has written further on the interactions between Cubism, Gestalt theory and camouflage (both in nature and man-made).

From A Gallery of Dazzle-Painted ShipsFrom A Gallery of Dazzle-Painted Ships
Left: The Mauritania in dazzle paint camouflage. Right: Those blue and white stripes are familiar to UK shoppers today. Images from A Gallery of Dazzle-Painted Ships

Intriguingly, the right-hand image above, with the bold blue and white stripes, has something in common with an everyday livery familiar to tens of millions of British shoppers: the iconic Tesco Value branding (below), at least in its original form. I’m not suggesting an actual link, but as we will see, there is something in common in the intentions behind these disparate methods of influencing viewer behaviour.

Image from Plap man
Tesco Value Beans. Image from Plap man on Flickr.

The same Tim Harford article quoted in my recent post about defaults suggests that the “infamously ugly” Tesco Value packaging is intended as a tool to facilitate price discrimination:

The difficulty is that if some of your products are cheap, you may lose money from customers who would willingly have paid more. So, businesses try to discourage their more lavish customers from trading down by making their cheap products look or sound unattractive, or, in the case of Starbucks, making the cheap product invisible. The British supermarket Tesco has a “value” line of products with infamously ugly packaging, not because good designers are unavailable but because the supermarket wants to scare away customers [from the Value products] who would willingly spend more [on other brands, or Tesco’s ‘normal’ private label products].

Whereas the dazzle camouflage was intended to confuse and disconcert the viewer, the thinking behind the Tesco Value graphics (I would love to know who designed the original style) thus appears to be to disconcert or repel certain viewers (customers) so that they pick a higher-priced alternative (usually on the shelf just above the Value items – Tesco’s planograms have thinking behind them), while allowing immediate segmentation – those customers looking for the cheapest products possible find the Value products easily.

There can’t be many retail situations where pretty much the same products can be sold successfully at two different prices on the same shelving unit just because of differing packaging graphics, but it seems to work for Tesco, in the process creating a significant meme.

Image from B3ta threadImage from Boakes
Left: a ‘Tesco Value’ tattoo, from this B3ta thread There have been many others. Right: Rich Boakes’ ‘Tesco Value’ greetings cards have been widely imitated, and could even have inspired this effort from Asda.

Updates to the Tesco Value branding in recent years have reduced the intensity of the blue stripes and brought the style closer to other supermarkets’ ‘value’ brands, which all tend to be similarly sparse (e.g. Sainsbury’s Basics, below), but the Tesco style is still the most distinctive.

Adequate biscuits

Freelancing Part 3: The Ben Wilson Interview

In Parts 1 and 2 of this series I looked at some aspects of what it’s like being a freelance designer / engineer / maker, and some of the things I’ve learned along the way. Lots of freelancers have blogs, and sites such as Freelance Switch and Sologig News draw together some very interesting (and diverse) people and advice. I did an interview for Sologig News a few months ago.

One of the things that I’m often asked, mainly by design students intrigued by the idea of working for themselves once they graduate, is just how to go about doing it: how to raise your profile, and find the right projects to take on. Having really only been marginally successful in this area, I decided to interview Ben Wilson, with whom I’ve worked on a couple of projects, and who’s achieved a great deal working for himself in this field. Ben’s blog, along with his brothers, is a great photostream-style travelogue of interesting products, vehicles, graphic design, places and influences.

Tilting Trike by Ben WilsonDownlow Lowrider by Ben Wilson
Left: The Tilting Trike in arm-propelled mode. Right: The Downlow Lowrider
Continue reading

In default, defiance

‘Choice of default’ is a theme which has come up a few times on the blog: in general, many people accept the options/settings presented to them, and do not question or attempt to alter them. The possibilities for controlling or shaping users’ behaviour in this way are, clearly, enormous; two interesting examples have recently been brought to my attention (thanks to Chris Weightman and Patrick Kalaher):

Send to FedEx Kinko's button in Adobe Reader

Recent versions of Adobe’s PDF creation and viewing software, Acrobat Professional and Adobe Reader (screenshot above) have ‘featured’ a button on the toolbar (and a link in the File menu) entitled “Send to FedEx Kinko’s” which upload the document to FedEx Kinko’s online printing service. As Gavin Clarke reports in The Register, this choice of default (the result of a tie-in between Adobe and FedEx) has irritated other printing companies and trade bodies sufficiently for Adobe to agree to remove the element from the software:

Adobe Systems has scrapped the “send to FedEx Kinkos” print button in iAdobe Reader and Acrobat Professional, in the face of overwhelming opposition from America’s printing companies.

Adobe said today it would release an update to its software in 10 weeks that will remove the ability to send PDFs to FedEx Kinkos for printing at the touch of a button.

No doubt the idea of linking to a service that’s often the only choice presented to consumers in the track towns of Silicon Valley made eminent sense to Adobe, itself based in San Jose, California. But the company quickly incurred the wrath of printers outside the Valley for including a button to their biggest competitor, in software used widely by the design and print industry.

I wonder how many users of Acrobat/Reader actually used the service? Did its inclusion change any users’ printing habits (i.e. they stopped using their current printer and used Kinko’s instead)? And was this due to pure convenience/laziness? Presumably Kinko’s could identify which of their customers originated from clicking the button – were they charged exactly the same as any other customer, or was this an opportunity for price discrimination?

As some of the comments – both on the Register story and on Adobe’s John Loiacono’s bloghave noted, the idea of a built-in facility to send documents to an external printing service is not bad in itself, but allowing the user to configure this, or allowing printing companies to offer their own one-click buttons to users, would be much more desirable from a user’s point of view.

In a sense, ‘choice of default’ could be the other side of process friction as a design strategy. By making some options deliberately easier – much easier – than the alternatives (which might actually be more beneficial to the user), the other options appear harder in comparison, which is effectively the same as making some options or methods harder in the first place. The new-PCs-pre-installed-with-Windows example is probably the most obvious modern instance of choice of default having a major effect on consumer behaviour, as an anonymous commenter noted here last year:

Ultimately, though, you can sum up the free-software tug-of-war political control this way: it’s easiest to get a Windows computer and use it as such. Next easiest to get a MacOS one and use it as such. Commercial interests and anti-free software political agenda. Next easiest is a Linux computer, where the large barrier of having to install and configure an operating system yourself must be leapt. Also, it’s likely you don’t actually save any money upfront, because you probably end up buying a Windows box and wiping it to install Linux. Microsoft exacts their tax even if you won’t use the copy of Windows you’re supposedly paying them for.

Starbucks Mug; photo by Veryfotos
Photo by veryfotos.

Sometimes ‘choice of default’ can mean actually hiding the options which it’s undesirable for customers to choose:

Here’s a little secret that Starbucks doesn’t want you to know: They will serve you a better, stronger cappuccino if you want one, and they will charge you less for it. Ask for it in any Starbucks and the barista will comply without batting an eye. The puzzle is to work out why. The drink in question is the elusive “short cappuccino”—at 8 ounces, a third smaller than the smallest size on the official menu, the “tall,” and dwarfed by what Starbucks calls the “customer-preferred” size, the “Venti,” which weighs in at 20 ounces and more than 200 calories before you add the sugar.

The short cappuccino has the same amount of espresso as the 12-ounce tall, meaning a bolder coffee taste, and also a better one. The World Barista Championship rules, for example, define a traditional cappuccino as a “five- to six-ounce beverage.” This is also the size of cappuccino served by many continental cafés. Within reason, the shorter the cappuccino, the better.

This secret cappuccino is cheaper, too—at my local Starbucks, $2.35 instead of $2.65. But why does this cheaper, better drink—along with its sisters, the short latte and the short coffee—languish unadvertised? The official line from Starbucks is that there is no room on the menu board, although this doesn’t explain why the short cappuccino is also unmentioned on the comprehensive Starbucks Web site, nor why the baristas will serve you in a whisper rather than the usual practice of singing your order to the heavens.

The rest of this Slate article* from 2006, by Tim Harford, advances the idea that this kind of tactic is designed specifically to allow price discrimination:

This is the Starbucks way of sidestepping a painful dilemma over how high to set prices. Price too low and the margins disappear; too high and the customers do. Any business that is able to charge one price to price-sensitive customers and a higher price to the rest will avoid some of that awkward trade-off… Offer the cheaper product but make sure that it is available only to those customers who face the uncertainty and embarrassment of having to request it specifically.

Initially, one might think it a bit odd that the lower-priced item has survived at all as an option, given that it can only be a very small percentage of customers who are ‘in the know’ about it. But unlike a shop or company carrying a ‘secret product line’, which requires storage and so on, the short cappuccino can be made without needing any different ingredients, so it presumably makes sense to contnue offering it.

Thinking about other similarly hidden options (especially ‘delete’ options when buying equipment) reveals how common this sort of practice has become. I’m forever unticking (extra-cost) options for insurance or faster delivery when ordering products online; even when in-store, the practice of staff presenting extended warranties and insurance as if they’re the default choice on new products is extremely widespread.

Perhaps a post would be in order rounding up ways to save money (or get a better product) by requesting hidden options, or requesting the deletion of unnecessary options – please feel free to leave any tips or examples in the comments. Remember, all progress depends on the unreasonable man (or woman).

*There is another tactic raised in the article, pertinent to our recent look at casino carpets, which I will get around to examining further in due course.