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Does the Smoke Detector Make a Distinctive, but Natural Chirp?
(Marketing Memo, February, 2008)

Did the chirping sounds emanating from the walls come from a cricket, the smoke detector, or a carbon monoxide detector? We can build devices that sound when their batteries die and thermostats set for 5 AM, but many smart devices frustrate customers, says Dr. Don Norman, an expert on innovation and usability from Northwestern University. Often smart devices are neither "predictable" nor "understandable," and this disappoints people, Norman says.*

To ensure that smart devices behave in a predictable and understandable way, designers must seek feedback from customers as they design products and again after they launch the products, advises Norman. All product designers should make "predictable" and "understandable" products.


Becoming "predictable" means designing products that:


--- Perform As Expected--The product has the functionality customers want without having confusing extra functions that prevent the product from performing its main function well. An all-in-one printer sends faxes reliably, and it also prints high resolution documents.
--- Set Realistic Expectations--Sales literature and salespeople have set reasonable expectations about the product, the purchase process, and product warranties and support.
--- Operate As Is--The product works out-of-the-box without requiring extra accessories.
--- Have a Convenient Design--The product is convenient for the target group to use. Products for youthful or elderly customers come with large buttons and switches.
--- Consistently Perform Well--A hybrid car will start easily on extremely cold or dry days, whether on Mount Rainier or in Death Valley.

Becoming "understandable" means designing products with:

--- Clear Directions--Instructions for using the product are almost intuitive. The instructions are easy to master and easy to remember.
--- Natural, but Distinctive Signals--Most smart devices still require human intervention, without indicating when and how to intervene. Dr. Norman says to use "natural sounds and vibrations," e.g., the whistle of a tea kettle, to convey what the machines are doing.


Identify the problem your new product will address, and ask prospects how they now solve this problem. Design to address limitations in the current solution. Watch employees and prospects use your prototype, and solicit feedback on how the prototype works. Then, survey customers after they have used the product for a while. Ask how much operator intervention the product requires. Winett Associates can help your company query customers and prospects to explore their current practices and their responses to new products.

*Tierney, J., "Why Nobody Likes a Smart Machine," - New York Times. Dr. Norman recently published The Design of Future Things (Basic Books, 2007).

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