What it is: Design flaws are problems with the way products are made that cause unintended consequences.
Apple has had its share of design flaws. In their quest for ever thinner and lighter devices, they ran into a problem that an iPhone could bend in someone’s pocket. Earlier they had the problem of the iPhone losing connection to a carrier network if you held your hand over the antenna a certain way. Both of these flaws were dubbed Bend-gate and Antenna-gate.
The problem with design flaws is that they look good in the laboratory but if the designers neglect to consider everyday use in ways that they never thought about, then a potential flaw could rear its ugly head. In the case of Samsung, they created the Galaxy Note 5 with a stylus that you insert in a slot to store it. Unfortunately if you insert the stylus in the wrong way, it can risk getting jammed and damaging both the stylus and the phone.
Samsung’s official response is that users should read the manual, but a far better idea would be to design products that can’t fail no matter how users abuse them. One problem with the connection with earlier iPhones was that it was too wide and the plug had to be inserted right side up. If you tried to plug the connection in upside down, it wouldn’t work. This was a minor irritation that was solved with the new Lightning connector that can be plugged in upside down or right side up. In other words, by redesigning the Lightning connector, Apple made it impossible to plug it in wrong and they made it far smaller to boot. That’s an example of good design.
Samsung’s stylus design flaw is an example of poor design. Users should be able to insert a stylus anyway they want without risk of damaging the stylus or the phone. To dictate that you could insert the stylus only one way is a problem. To dictate that you could insert the stylus only one way or you would damage your phone and stylus is the pinnacle of poor design.
Users can’t be expected to read the manual and follow directions, so designs need to work regardless of how the user behaves. There’s a reason why doors leading out from buildings all push outward. That’s because if doors could only be opened by pulling them in, people might panic and rush a door during a fire — and be unable to pull the door open inward.
By making it easy to push on a door to open it and exit a building, the design insures that in an emergency, people can easily flee a building by running into the door and pushing it open. That doesn’t require instructions for how to open a door.
In older airplanes, luggage doors used to swing inward. The idea was that if the door lock failed, the frame of the fuselage would still keep the door shut with the air pressure in the luggage hold pushing the door outward. In a newer airplane, engineers made the luggage doors swing outward so there would be more space inside to store luggage. However that design also meant that if the door lock failed, the door would swing open and that’s exactly what happened.
Good designs prevent problems without users even realizing it, but the designers must know that ahead of time. While it’s a critical problem that the stylus can wreck a Galaxy Note 5 by inserting the stylus the wrong way, it’s an even more critical error for Samsung to tell people to just read the user manual and insert the stylus correctly each time. It’s far too easy for the user to insert the stylus in wrong, and wreck the stylus and phone at the same time.
Good design is more than just performing a particular function but in protecting the user from problems as well. That requires thinking ahead and anticipating possible problems, which is why design flaws continue to show upon in products periodically.