Why are babies so rubbish?

Inglesina 3-in-1 stroller without the chassis

Inglesina 3-in-1 stroller without the chassis (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s not like babies are new. They’ve been around for a very long time. It seems to me that whilst other creatures were busy evolving the ability to be born walking or swimming, we hardly evolved at all. Slightly less hairy perhaps with a larger brain cavity, but still utterly unable to communicate or move under our own power at birth.

We’re not even very good at producing them in the first place. If childbirth gets a bit difficult, we reach for a vacuüm as if we’re trying to remove a stubborn bit of fluff from the carpet. Or we reach for a pair of tongs that look like something Herr Flick would use at weekends. Failing that, we slice the unfortunate mother from stem to stern to deliver the baby through the sunroof.

But childbirth looks like the pinnacle of human achievement compared to the progress we’ve made on baby accessories. We don’t have children ourselves, but we spend enough time with young relatives to know our way round a car seat or a pushchair. Why are they so poorly designed?

The wheels on supermarket trolleys are universally derided for being unpredictable at the best of times, so who on earth came up with the idea of basing the front wheels of pushchairs on the same design? Who thought it would be a good idea to have a separate brake for each of the rear wheels? The whole point of having brakes is that you want the thing to stay in one place; not in fact to slowly pivot around the locked wheel.

If the people who made my car can design seats that fold in a zillion different utterly intuitive ways, why do manufacturers come up with such unfathomably enigmatic ways to fold pushchairs? Whoever designs pushchairs should have to test them themselves under simulated real life conditions. First of all, they should have to fold and unfold them in the rain. Then they should have to do it one-handed whilst holding something loud, heavy and wriggling, like a bag of cats maybe. Then they need to repeat the test laden with shopping.

There are many hostile environments in the world, but few can compare to the rigours a baby seat has to go through. Even the nicest design will look disgusting after exposure to a child. You will want to clean it, which means removing the cover. This will prove impossible without putting your fingers into every single nook and cranny. Pray that you put your fingers into something hard and dry. Unfortunately, you are likely to put your fingers into something soft, wet and gooey and pray that it’s undigested.

The ideal baby accessory should be easy to get out, easy to put down and completely jet washable, not unlike the perfect baby.

Who are they?

Clockwise from top left: Marge, Homer, Bart, S...

Clockwise from top left: Marge, Homer, Bart, Santa’s Little Helper (dog), Snowball II (cat), Lisa, and Maggie. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One of my favourite episodes of the Simpsons is where Homer discovers he has a long-lost brother called Herb. Of course Herb is the complete antithesis of Homer. He is successful, slim with a full head of hair. He runs a successful car (or automobile in the native American) manufacturing company called Powell Motors in Detroit. Herb is overjoyed to learn of his brother and they start to spend a lot of time together.

After a while, Herb realises that Homer is the epitomical average American guy and therefore the best person to design a car for ordinary Americans, so he lets Homer loose and gives him free rein to design the next car from Powell Automobiles. Of course, being the Simpsons, it is an unmitigated disaster. The car that Homer designs appeals to absolutely no-one and Powell Automobiles ends up going bust.

 So where did Homer go wrong. Quite simple really – he did not focus on who his customer were or what they might want. He simply kept adding features until he could think of nothing else to add. What this did was inflated the cost (because there were so many features) and reduced the appeal, because who wants something that is average at everything.

Every time we develop a product, we need to ask ourselves some basic questions. Who is going to use this product?  What are their needs?  What are they going to want to do? It’s a really good idea to define these things in an audience statement so that everyone involved in the product is left in no doubt as to the niche you are trying to fill. It’s also a good idea to express the requirements for the product in terms of use cases.

A really simple idea, a use case is almost a story that defines what the user will end up doing with the product. The benefit in doing this is that everyone can visualise exactly what the product will do. The use cases “As a racing driver I want to get around a lap in the quickest time possible” will yield a very different product to “As a commuter I want to complete long journeys comfortably without using too much fuel”.

The benefits don’t end with development of the product either. If we have the use cases, testers can immediately understand the natural paths through the system and can make sure their tests fully cover these paths (as well as looking for where the users might stray off the path. Because use cases are written in plain English, Sales & Marketing can immediately understand what the product is about and gear up their materials accordingly.

So if you want to end up with a Bugatti Veyron (and not a Homer special) – it’s a very good idea to think about who’s going to use your product.