Skip to main content
CNN Europe CNN Asia
On CNN TV Transcripts Headline News CNN International About Preferences
powered by Yahoo!

Why don't they make stuff that won't break?

By David Kirkpatrick

   Story Tools

• Fast Forward archive external link
• Personal Technology: Peter Lewis' Weblog external link
• Stewart Alsop on Infotech external link
• David Lidsky's Tech Skeptic external link
• FORTUNE Technology Coverage external link

(FORTUNE.COM) -- I like to try out new tech tools and toys as much as anybody. Sometimes companies loan me stuff, but more often, as my wife will ruefully attest, I buy. Either way, I all too often end up deeply frustrated. Too many machines and software products either don't work very well or don't work at all.

The technology industry doesn't deserve more than a C-minus grade for usability. It happens that a fair number of people in the industry read this column. If you're one, I've got a message for you-Wake up! You can't keep on treating users like this. For many, the thrill of consumer technology has already been contaminated with a built-in expectation of frustration. I worry that customers might get fed up and stop buying, jaded by false claims, hard-to-use interfaces and software, and products that break right out of the box.

Just the other day I got all excited when I found a retractable headset for my Nokia cellphone, made by a company called Jabra. I don't take chances with cellphone radiation, so I don't hold a phone next to my head. But those headset wires are maddening--they get all tangled up in my pocket. Finally, I thought, a solution. So I shelled out $30. At first I was a bit disappointed by the audio quality-significantly inferior to what a typical tangle--prone headset delivers. But the tidiness seemed worth it, until I found my conversations getting suddenly and inexplicably cut off, and I realized that the disconnect button on the device was so sensitive that even the merest contact with another surface would end my call. Nonetheless I kept using it-"I can juggle it carefully," I thought to myself. But within a month of my purchase the thing started introducing so much static into the conversation that it became unusable. A total waste. I'm back to tangled wires. Hey Nokia-design a cellphone with a sturdy built-in retractable headset! Dream on.

I don't have much confidence in Nokia's consumer--friendliness. Yes, they design convenient and nice looking, even elegant phones. Just don't expect them to help you much when they break. The screen on my phone died last year after only a couple of months. The phone still worked but there was no display. I brought it in for repairs. Several weeks later the phone came back-the screen still broken, but with all the numbers I'd programmed into the phone now erased. And while sending the phone back for a week or so finally resulted in a repaired phone, Nokia took no responsibility for having erased my numbers.

Then there's my TiVo-a machine that, in general, I love. But for months recently it simply wouldn't access certain channels, despite my repeated attempts to follow company instructions to correct the problem. Only when I switched cable suppliers (In my densely populated Manhattan neighborhood we have a choice) and reset the system for the new channels did the software glitch resolve itself.

Even Apple Computer, known for its user-friendliness, too often makes products that drive me crazy. I still prefer Mac to Windows and in general think Steve Jobs is a genius. But when I got my expensive new iPod, I was flummoxed to discover that the control pad on the headset cord didn't seem to work. Finally I visited an Apple store to have a technician somewhat disdainfully explain to me that I had to twist in the cord, not just push it in, even though it appears then to be fully inserted. Bad design in an otherwise fabulous product.

Apple also has some work to do with its manuals and help systems. When I bought an AirPort wireless home network transmitter, I methodically and carefully followed all the steps in the manual attempting to install it, but somehow things just weren't gelling. Finally I called my cable company (which supplies a broadband connection) and reached a sympathetic technician. He said he wasn't supposed to help me with this kind of problem, but did anyway. Step one in the installation process? Disregard most of the steps the manual said were necessary.

In general, installing or modifying computers and their peripheral devices is so predictably frustrating that I have something close to a panic attack when I have to do it. It often results in a wasted day and feeling like an idiot. And frequently I give up, like when two different Hewlett-Packard printers just stopped working and could never be revived (this admittedly was several years ago-the new models seem less mystifying). And forget about trying to get most of these companies on the phone for help.

My hapless life as a tech customer goes on and on. Please don't ask me about our company e-mail, for instance. And the Hertz Neverlost auto navigation system has never worked for me. It takes longer to use than it does to walk to your destination.

For all the wonders tech is bringing to our lives, it's also bringing way too much annoyance and frustration.

Granted, there are few tasks harder than designing a perfect gadget or a really simple but effective software user interface. But most consumer technology companies should be trying a lot harder than they do today.

Story Tools

Top Stories
Burgers, lattes and CD burners
Top Stories
CNN/Money: Security alert issued for 40 million credit cards
© 2004 Cable News Network LP, LLLP.
A Time Warner Company. All Rights Reserved.
Terms under which this service is provided to you.
Read our privacy guidelines. Contact us.
external link
All external sites will open in a new browser. does not endorse external sites.