Fast Company

Many Unhappy Returns

I heard a startling stat on the radio yesterday: Half of the consumer-electronics products returned to stores function properly, according to a recent study, but customers simply can't figure out to operate them. Yes, half.

As part of her doctoral thesis, researcher Elke den Ouden of the Technical University of Eindhoven in the Netherlands also found that consumers in the United States will try to get a gadget working for 20 minutes before giving up.

Then again, maybe those numbers aren't all that surprising, given the feature bloat and poor design so common today. But it speaks volumes about the need for simplicity in product design. Unfortunately, den Ouden (who also works at Philips Electronics) found that companies generally dismiss product complaints and returns as “nuisance calls.” That's a reminder that it isn't just better design that's needed, but better customer service as well.

Have you returned a product you just couldn't figure out? Is 20 minutes too much or too little time to spend setting up a new device?

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9 Comments

  • Ken Roberts

    To whom it may concern:

    Would you happen to have any market data on the following that can be e-mailed to me:

    1) Consumer Electronics Product rerturns

    2) How online purchasing helps to decrease product returns

    Thank you for your kind assistance with my request!

    Ken Roberts
    Cell: (949) 677-7947

  • adam

    Does anyone remember the old Heathkit sets?Their method of testing was to give a dozen customers,chosen at random,instructions to build a thing as simple as a radio to a complete television set.When any person was unable to do so,the instuctions were revised until all understood them.Are today's insructions field tested among the technically challenged or just assume that we'll figure it out somehow?

  • Frank

    A lot of these manuals are poorly translated into English from the native language of the country of origin, then translated into politically correct Spanish for the American Market. So it's no wonder there's a 50 percent return rate!!
    If you're a saavy shopper looking for a computer, many sites like Dell offer these returned and never even booted machines at a discount and you get the full warranty the original owner would have gotten. No wonder they have such a huge inventory. Fifty Percent...and they can't figure out why to try to minimize the hassle??
    At any rate, I'm persistant and don't mind putting in 20 minutes. I look at it as a challenge. I have, however, returned products on a few occaisions for just that reason. Or because the product was actually defective from the get go.

  • Trevor Nagle

    The only surprise was that some people actually spend 20 full minutes trying to figure something out. I tend to believe that the average amount of time spent trying to make a new device work properly is probably closer to 10 minutes. Simplicity in design is indeed a key to success in marketing a product for longevity. In a society and era encapsulated by an ADHD mentality, Americans simply do not want to put up with complexity and the need to have to truly "figure out" how something works. I would certainly agree that Apple's I-Pod fits the bill for simplicity.

  • Jay Jarsh

    One of the problems is that most produts are loaded up with features that manufacturers think will wow the consumer and get them to buy - - but are then never used. For instance who really uses the Contacts or Calendars on an iPod? If the Manufaxcturers would limit the functions to what would really be used, they could make use fo those functions simpler - and manageable by the consumer. (Actually the iPod was a bad example since even those features that are rarely used are still simple to figure out)

  • Andrew

    Maybe if the creators of all our gizmos took some time to more thoroughly test-market the prototypes with dullards like me, we'd end up with more end-user-friendly designs.

    AC

    P.S. - I've just added The Inmates are Running the Asylum to my list of books to be read (someday).

  • Rachael Taggart

    hey, take the iPOD. It took 5 minutes for me to master it. It took about the same time for my 7 year old to master it. Yet we still have "12:00" flashing on the DVD player under the TV!

    Do things need to be simpler? Yes. When my microwave is 'beyond' my mother in law, and the DVD turns out to be too much of a pain to keep resetting the clock, then it means things are badly designed.

    My advice: read 'The Inmates are running the asylum" by Alan Cooper. He is much more eloquent than I and says it all in his book about interface design.

    regards
    rachael

  • Akshay Bajaj

    I think 20 minutes is too long a time for anyone to figure out the working of a device. A maximum of 5 to 10 minutes is what one would like to spend. Usually the elders would just hand over the new gadgets to their children to operate or give up and get the general feeling that they have got something completely useless.
    Simple to read manuals and controls is the need of the hour, which is why most people don't realise the full potential of their product be it a television, ipod, a discman etc etc.

  • Paavani

    Yes, I see lots of people specially coming from rural or not so developed areas get gadget from their US returned children but hardly find ease in operating them. Even if they are passionate to learn soon they lost the temper how to operate and because they are more comfortable with old electronics. For example, why small tiny mobile could not be so easy as compare to telephone. Easy to find numbers, ringtone (hellotune) make sense, call is going etc. are the common issues faced by common people.