NEW YORK – As the holiday season approaches, I find myself sweat with dread over the upcoming big family Christmas party.
Don’t take me wrong. I love a big get-together. I even love my in-laws and stepbrothers, sisters and their families.
However, what I dread is Christmas presents with on and off switch buttons. You’d think I am used to them, being editor of EE Times and all. But, you see, there’s the rub. That’s exactly what all of my in-laws think.
Someone opens a present, looks at it and murmurs, “That’s very nice, but how does this work?” And they look at me, the Technology Queen.
Well, I know just about as much as the next guy, but I can’t explain that to all these admirers. So, I roll up my sleeves, read the manual, tinker for a while. And if I am lucky, I can get it to work at least as long as it takes to make my getaway.
I’m no engineering genius, but I’ve been known to be very stubborn. I don’t give up easily. If it takes me days — and sometimes, to my husband’s chagrin, it has! — I’m gonna make this sucker work.
Plus, I’ve got my EE Times cred to protect! I can’t just announce to the family: “C’mon, gimme a break, people. I majored in sociolinguistics.”
Which brings me to my point: The electronics industry began talking about the importance of the “out-of-the-box experience” almost a decade ago. The fact that we are still talking about it today demonstrates how truly hard it is to get people from the opening of the box to the operation of the gadget.
Why do you think so many kids end up playing with the box instead of the toy?
My most recent aha! moment came from a press release on report issued by Accenture.
According to Accenture, customers returning electronics products will cost “U.S. consumer electronics retailers and manufacturers nearly $17 billion this year, an increase of 21 percent since 2007.” These costs include receiving, assessing, repairing, reboxing, restocking and reselling returned products. Over the past five years, product returns in the consumer electronics industry are growing twice as fast as the industry’s revenues, said the firm.
Of those returned products, the report also revealed, “While 27 percent reflect ‘buyer’s remorse,’ 68 percent of returned products ultimately are characterized as ‘No Trouble Found.’’’
Geez. That’s $11.56 billion — for nothing?
I requested an interview with an Accenture executive to find out what’s really going on here.
My first question to David Douthit was what sort of “consumer products” are included in this research as “returned products.” The study included everything from TV sets, PCs and smartphones to keyboards, mice and software, according to Douthit.
The report described “products returned.” Does this mean that consumers actually opened the boxes and returned them?
Douthit assured me that the study focused on returns of “opened boxes” with seals broken, rather than people returning unopened boxes because they found a better deal on the same product elsewhere.
Alarmingly, according to Accenture, “A majority of returned products have nothing wrong with them.” As Douthit put it, “Most consumer electronics products don’t break easily. Their failure rates are relatively small.”
Well, then, why so many returns? What do we need to figure out about the state of consumer electronics design, marketing and sales?
“Our hypothesis is, ‘the device didn’t meet the customer’s expectations,’ even though the product meets a manufacturer’s specs and tests,” said Douthit. Drill down further and you get the suspicion “consumers were either misinformed or they found it too hard to install [software, etc.]”
More bluntly put, consumers, after opening the box, found that the gadget requires “a lot more than what I had expected to do,” explained Douthit.
Hearing this, I felt like telling Douthit: “Thanks! You’ve hit the nail on the head!”
“Because this is where the nail hits me. At Christmas, I often end up spending WAY more time than I had expected figuring out someone else’s presents — at a time when everyone is getting comfortable, cheery and goofy with eggnog, mulled wine and green-bean casserole.
Putting my personal troubles aside… what, if anything, can CE vendors do in the face of these massive product returns?
Accenture’s Douthil had three suggestions, and the last one is mine:
1) Invest in customer services – whether online or on physical sales floors – and highlight the education of customers.
2) Many best-in-class companies customarily do extensive customer research before they launch a new product; but it’s also a good idea to embed in the process time for a retail survey or customer survey – at least during the first 30 days after product launch. Use that time to sort out the quick fixes from the major headaches. Of course, the quick fixes should actually happen quickly.
3) Make a sincere investment in front-loading your customer services, so you can proactively prevent product returns. Proactive means calling customers (before they call you), asking them if they need help, helping them if they need help as long as they need help (just keep thinking, “$17 billion, $17 billion!”), making clear – up front –what the gadget can do if used properly.
4) And just for good measure, come along with me to the Christmas party.
Even when the gift does something that the recipient wants, the proliferation of functions often makes a perfectly fine product turn into a nightmare. I bought a digital picture frame for my wife. All I wanted was something of moderate resolution to replay her costume jewelry photos endlessly. I did some research read some review, bought a unit. Dropping photos on it was easy. The horror started while trying to program it for start and end times... it has what is possibly the worst gui that the world has ever seen. Terrible, terrible terrible. But there's more: it has an audio function, which likes to come on at 6 AM. I can find no way to disable the audio function but one of these two: cut the speaker wires, or remove all traces of music from the device memory. If I hadn't already programmmed it, and delivered it as a gift, it would surely have gone back.
True, but that's why these devices are so often viewed as "gadgets." They fill a specific function, but they fall short in many other ways.
So, there has to be a way of packaging less "gadgety" devices in a way that the average joe can master. Otherwise, the future will consist of nothing but mediocrity.
Yunko: "The example you gave us above a good one. Unless you are an EE, or really patient, and more importantly, you are really driven to install this fantastic home entertainment system at home, you probably don’t want to waste your time sorting all these things out. Simply put, it’s a nightmarish gift for most people.
"I am not quite sure how CE vendors can help sort out such a conundrum."
The problem with (supposedly) overcomplicated CE equipment interconnections is that these interfaces have been accumulating, bit by bit, over many decades. And worse, some of the systems involved, like satellite and cable, intentionally resist efforts to have their receiver functions built into the TV displays. The excuse they give is that allowing CE vendoirs to build in their functions would make future upgrades more difficult. There might be some truth to that. But I think the main reason they resist is, they prefer to have subscribers give them that monthly revenue to rent out what should be unnecessary outboard boxes.
But there is a way out. Something like USB. Check out the NAD Electronics product line, for example. They offer a phono preamp (i.e. that little amp with RIAA equalization, that is used between an old tech record player cartridge and, usually, any "line level" input to your audio system), but this one has a USB output. Not line level analog.
Now, imagine if ALL your audio and video boxes could be simply connected to USB ports, either individually or daisy chained. No need for the assortment of different cables for each function.
I tend to be more of a straight stick guy, so I usually opt for the technically simplest interfaces. However there's no reason why these interfaces can't be hugely simplified. The vendors have to agree that it's a good idea, and get on with it.
I recently purchase a USB video capture device so that I can turn all of my old family VHS tapes into digital files. As instructed, I installed the software, then plugged it in. Everything seemed to work except that I couldn't get the audio to work. It took a bit of googling, but I found that certain USB audio devices don't work in Windows 7. They're supposed to use the built-in USB audio driver, but it just doesn't see them.
I installed VMware and the XP disk that I had from before the upgrade. The sound worked, but even on my six core 12GB machine, VMware / XP couldn't keep up and dropped too many frames. I ended up building an XP box out of leftover parts and that works fine.
I set up a WiFi printer/scanner/fax not long before that and went through a similar set of exasperating adventures to get the thing running. I've been doing this stuff for decades and have trouble with way too much of it. I have no idea how non-tech savvy folks get much of this to work or work fully.
I'd guess that a lot of the no-problem-found units are like the video capture; working fine, but not compatible with my system or like the printer; poorly laid out controls and very non-intuative setup and operation.
The third case is quite often an obscure problem that the repair technicians can't identify or don't look for. I had a noise problem in and original equipment car stereo once. My guess was that it was a grounding issue with the speakers: noise at low volume that didn't change in volume as the radio got louder. Three trips to the dealer all resulted in no-problem-found diagnoses. A couple of months after the last visit, I received a recall notice from the manufacturer about a grounding problem with the speakers.
Recently a dish tv was added to a television set in my mothers house.Already this TV is connectted to a DVD through AV connction and a cable connection through its RF input.The inputs are full. So i bought a switch unit to switch the av connction between dvd and dish. The switch was not functioning properly. I returned the same and bought another make and the system started working.But the difficulty was in teaching my mother how to switch between remotes and the switch box.This needs lot of patience.And for few more days till she become practiseed with it, i was requied to give support. This is a simple job when compared with the gadgets now avilable. Sure with so many gadget gifts you will have lot of fun and pleasure.
The example you gave us above a good one. Unless you are an EE, or really patient, and more importantly, you are really driven to install this fantastic home entertainment system at home, you probably don’t want to waste your time sorting all these things out. Simply put, it’s a nightmarish gift for most people.
I am not quite sure how CE vendors can help sort out such a conundrum.
Set up that requires simple, intuitive, easy steps. What do we think we need here?
David Patterson, known for his pioneering research that led to RAID, clusters and more, is part of a team at UC Berkeley that recently made its RISC-V processor architecture an open source hardware offering. We talk with Patterson and one of his colleagues behind the effort about the opportunities they see, what new kinds of designs they hope to enable and what it means for today’s commercial processor giants such as Intel, ARM and Imagination Technologies.