Good and bad design: passports, cables and .dots

I’ve been thinking lately about the amount of effort that goes into product and service design, specifically when compared to the amount of usage that product or service is expected to attract.

I present four examples:

The CAT5 Ethernet cable connector is rubbish.  (Geeks can launch their tirade at this juncture if I’ve mis-used the term CAT5 (or indeed the words Ethernet and cable).  In pristine condition, it snaps into place beautifully, but you’re equally likely to pick up a cable with that little plastic bit having come off as you are encountering one that’s still intact.  (In fact, that little plastic thing deserves a name, such is the annoyance when it’s missing.  Always better to be able to curse something by name.)

But as a colleague informed me, they were designed for servers and switches, devices that hardly ever move.  So their ability to survive swathes of careless laptop users shoving the cable into their devices and yanking them out again without a care in the world was never designed into the product.

Now to the Passport Service.  I recently bought my daughter her first passport, and the end-to-end experience was utter pleasure.  I completed the form with the relevant countersignature, had my daughter pose for a photo and called the Passport Service one Thursday to book an appointment.  They offered me Monday, which I couldn’t make, so I opted for Tuesday lunchtime.

I arrived ten minutes early for my 1.20pm appointment and was seen at 1.27pm.  I was out of the building by 1.35pm having visited one counter to submit the appropriate documentation and another to pay.  The passport arrived in the mail three days later.  This is a service that was clearly designed in beautiful detail, every step designed to save hassle and maximise efficiency.  The appointment system was a joy to behold, particularly for someone who had the misfortune of suffering its predecessor, Petty France.

The average recruitment agency CV template is shocking.  It’s used and abused, fonts proliferating, styles leaking into one another and the general formatting leaving a lot to be desired.  (The quality of the text therein is probably the subject of a tirade of its own.)  On the rare occasion when formatting is consistent, its look and feel is usually so dreadfully bad as to put you off the content therein.

But when designed, the agency must have known that the CV would get some serious usage.  They must have been aware that this was the shop front for the agency, the most important template they would ever create.  So I’m afraid there are no excuses for this one.

And finally, the USB cable, like the Ethernet cable, is rubbish.  Its fundamental flaw is that at a glance it looks to be 180° rotationally symmetrical.  But it’s not.  And so 50% of the time, you (or I, at least) fail miserably when trying to shove the cable into my laptop.  But unlike the Ethernet cable before it, there are no excuses here.  The inventors of this one knew that the cable would be used heavily, and that it would be in and out like a proverbial you-know-what.

So of the four examples that have presented themselves to me recently, the government wins hands down.  Are there any other examples out there—good or bad—worthy of a mention?


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