Bad design on a UPS


Just had to post this. Would like to hear the reaction of others…

Last year, I got my hands on a pretty good UPS for my home computer network. It’s from APC. The model # is the XS1200. And while it is a slightly different model than the one shown, it looks almost exactly like the image on the right.

It’s a good UPS. It’s can take 8 devices plugged into it. Six are managed, two are surge protected only. I’ve got all my critical devices plugged into it including my desktop computer, monitor, cable modem, router, some kind of phone/cable switching device (I get my home phone service through my cable provider), and a couple of other things.

Now, this is a great device except for one fatal flaw. The round circle on the front is the on/off switch for the UPS. It’s also a very sensitive switch. It doesn’t take more than the soft fingers of a 2 year old child to turn it off. Yes, to turn the whole darn UPS and all 8 devices connected to it off!!!!!

I’m sure you can picture what has happened more than once.

Here’s Dad in his home office working away. And 2 year old mini-me is playing innocently nearby. But then mini-me gets bored playing with his toys and sees this nice round circle just under some neat lights. And so, before I can turn my head from the screen and see what he’s up to, he presses it. And virtually instantly, EVERYTHING on my desk shuts down abruptly.

No chance to save my work, nothing. The device doesn’t wait a few seconds before shutting down. It doesn’t beep to give a warning. It doesn’t require a second push of the button to confirm that the person wants to SHUT DOWN THE UPS. Nope. Nothing.

My laptop, my desktop speakers, even my monitor have power buttons on them that require A LOT MORE PRESSURE to make electrical contact. But for some reason, the folks at APC decided to put a power button on a mission-critical device that can be turned off by the index-finger of a curious 2 year old. [Actually he’s technically 1. He will be two later this summer!]

From their website, APC talks about their mission: [emphasis is mine]

APC is working diligently to achieve its corporate mission of creating delighted customers by improving the manageability, availability and performance of information and communication systems through the rapid delivery of innovative solutions to real customer problems.

Hey boys and girls at APC, here’s a rather undelighted customer and a real customer problem. Curious toddlers can turn off your devices in the blink of an eye! Your home/office solutions team needs to take that into account in their next generation product.

OK, enough with the rant, but I’m just wondering here: Why is there such a prominent on/off button on this device? How often would I want to turn it off/on? I want it ON all the time. Otherwise, what’s the point of it?

I guess the guys at APC need to take a lesson from Intuit and conduct a “Follow me home” project with customers to understand what happens in the home environment.

Saeed

Read the next part of this saga:
How NOT to communicate with  customers

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18 responses to “Bad design on a UPS

  1. @Saeed

    As someone who has accidentally flicked off the power switch on my own powerstrip on several occasions, I can vouch that this is not a design flaw limited to those with inquisitive toddlers.

    While they obviously spent some time designing the physical interface (it’s not just a squat grey box), I would argue that this is a perfect example of when to use a more complex process for a basic function. I have several devices that require an extended press of the button to turn it on or off. That would probably save a lot of heartache for folks like me who don’t always practice the frequent saving of files that I preach to others. Sometimes I think we get so hung up on making things easier, that we forget that some processes should be a little harder to prevent them from accidentally occurring when they are not intended.

    Ivan

  2. Saeed –

    It’s not only APC! I have a Cyber-Power UPS with a nice lighted blue button in the front that my 20 month old daughter just **LOVED** to press. This has taught me a few things:

    1. It is what it is. Deal with it.
    2. Be prepared to lose work. Comes with being a parent.
    3. Even when docked, I keep the battery on my laptop. Sure, drains the battery but ensures you keep your work.

    By the way, I got around this issue by assertively telling my daughter NO. The big concern I had is that I don’t want my daughter playing with anything that is plugged to the wall. 110V is no fun. Neither is 220v 🙂 It took a few times to sink. But it worked like a charm.

    Oh – and I agree. It is harder to do a hard turn off on a computer than it is on the power source to all my devices. Clearly something that needs to be fixed.

    Cheers,
    Marco

  3. Marco,

    Thanks. It’s actually amazing that such a simple concept, like making a switch that is not easily turned off has escaped these manufacturers. I can’t honestly believe it is lack of awareness. A UPS is meant to stay on. It’s really not that complex. Toddlers don’t exist in corporate environments, so the type of on/off switch is not as critical, but at home, well, we know the scenario.

    If a UPS manufacturer had a campaign for a home/office product that targeted this scenario, I’d actually buy their product.

    Saeed

  4. Saeed;

    I raised the question of bad design and possible rectification on future models on APC’s product forum today.

    http://www.apc-forums.com/thread.jspa?threadID=2155

    Let’s see what they come back with.

    Pete

  5. PJ,

    Thanks for posting the message to APC. I noticed you provided them with a general URL for various articles on this blog. The direct URL for this post is:

    https://onproductmanagement.wordpress.com/2008/06/23/bad-design-on-a-ups/

    Let’s see what they say.

    Saeed

  6. Saeed, here’s what came back from APC as relayed by Kevin, who’s a moderator on the APC discussion forums:

    Re: Bad power switch design on XS100 home office UPS
    Posted: Jul 17, 2008 10:43 AM in response to: pjtaylor

    “Pete,

    I had a discussion with a couple of APC Escalation folks yesterday, and in no way shape or form can this be defined as a “fatal design flaw.” If it were, obviously OTHER UPS companies wouldn’t use this design and try something different to give them an upper hand. But since they do – that becomes negated.

    The other side of this is that a 2-year old can also turn off your TV or other electrical equipment that requires a push of a button to turn off. If you have a $2000 LCD HDTV on a surge protector with a DVR and Blu-ray player and the 2-year old turns that off, and blows the HDTV because it doesn’t have the time to cool down, now what’re you more frustrated about? The fact that your PC shut down because your 2-Year old turned it off and you have to do work over again (that raises the question of why autosave wouldn’t be enabled), or that you now have to spend over $500 to fix your HDTV because well, your 2 year old saw a light and wanted to turn it off.

    The other discussion came up of why the UPS is so accessible in a PC setup. Since the discussion in SAEED’s rant was about a button under colorful lights (let’s be honest here, only 1 LED should be on, that’s the On-Line LED. The rest, unless illuminated indicating a fault state anyways, aren’t appealing when dull), can be negated by him stating that the UPS should be on at all times. If that’s the case, and you have a menacing child that tampers with things, then put electrical or duct tape over the button and the child won’t wonder what’s behind the tape.”

    By “The Notorious KMP” via
    http://www.apc-forums.com/thread.jspa?threadID=2155&tstart=0

  7. Peter,

    Thanks. This is awesome. The company is basically saying, it’s my fault that their product can be turned off by a two year old. His use of the term “menacing child that tampers with things” is not only an unnecessary false characterization, but completely out of line. Either this person has never been around a 2 year old, or he’s a lawyer trying to cover APC’s butt.

    To be honest, this is an incredibly ridiculous response from APC. I appreciate the follow up and the repost here of their response. Another blog post on this subject is on the way.

    Saeed

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  9. @Jason

    Molly guard — awesome! I wonder why these UPS companies don’t know that term?

    Saeed

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  11. Andrew Bradner

    OK, we’re guilty as charged! Saeed is right, our UPSs can be turned off by merely depressing a single button. As one of APC’s product managers for the Back-UPS line, I concede.

    However, I can assure you we’ve thought many times before about the frailties that the on/off button of a UPS injects into a computer set up. To combat this problem, on some products we have recessed the button. Although, this method seems like it wouldn’t have worked in the presence of a small child with a penchant for pressing buttons. We’ve also considered requiring users to hold the button in for a few seconds in order to turn it off, but we already use this method on our units with AVR as a means to adjust voltage sensitivity transfer settings. Software changes could also be made, but many people never install it. We even put a removable “kick guard” on one of our surge protectors, but we found out that the vast majority of people didn’t read the instructions and never used it. And to further frame this issue, we try to maintain a consistency of features across a product line, so that customers know what to expect from APC as they purchase different units over time. In other words, in a perfect world, all the on/off buttons of our Back-UPS products would look and operate the same way.

    While there have been a lot of people jumping on the bandwagon of the original post, to be fair, it’s worth looking at this from a UPS manufacturer’s point of view. As a product manager, I can tell you that every feature we include on our UPSs represents a trade off, a compromise between user needs and ease of use, between cost and functionality, complexity vs aesthetics. In order to be as competitive as possible in this marketplace, we strive to please the maximum amount of people with the minimum number of products. This probably holds true for most of the companies people reading this post work for. Additionally, I can also tell you that APC spends considerable resources on focus groups as we try to continually improve our products. And you’d be surprised when seemingly harmless changes deter less tech savvy people, sometimes forcing us to retreat to more “plain vanilla” features in an effort to please the most people with the fewest number of products. Frustratingly, the old adage, “You can’t please all of the people all of the time” comes to mind.

    Now, having said all this, based solely on this blog, there are a few people here talking about some new ideas to better protect the on/off button. Please keep in mind that any changes critical to user interface, like this one, have to be reviewed and pass a series of “hurdles”, any of which having the potential to guide us towards (or away from) keeping this switch just as it is now. (Incidentally, testing new ideas like this is one of the best parts of my job). So while we haven’t found the “perfect on/off button” yet, APC, and a lot of others are still on the hunt.

    Good luck with your 2 yr old. I used to shut the french doors to my office and quarantine my kids in the living room. I can still remember their tiny faces pressed against the glass as they drooled yogurt and saliva onto the rug, wondering what I could possibly be doing on the computer for so long. Oddly, it seems that now-a-days the situation has been completely reversed…

    Andrew

  12. So, according to this blog, I can point out and complain to every manufacturer that all of their devices suffer a “fatal flaw” because they aren’t 100% perfect. Say my 2 year old walks in my room and spills water on my laptop, am I to blame Dell for not making the device waterproof? She also walks in and happens to knock a cup full of water off my desk and the glass shatters on the floor. Am I going to cry and point out that the company has a “fatal flaw” because the cup was made of glass and not steel? My 2 year old decided to chew my computer mouse cable. Am I going to post a blog because Microsoft didn’t make the mouse cable out of steel braided wire?

    Supervision is key. Everyone seems to want their hand held now-a-days. It’s up to you to tell your 2 year old “NO”

  13. Michael,

    Thanks for the comments, but to be honest, you are missing the point here. Spilling water or other accidents are just that — accidents — and thus the manufacturer is not to blame. Dell has no control over what you spill on your laptop, and the intended purpose of a laptop computer is not to serve as a tray for catching spills.

    In the case of the UPS, it’s intended purpose is to keep the devices connected to it on and running. As I said in one of my posts, the most important letter in UPS is the U for UNINTERRUPTIBLE.

    Now a child, or a cat or an adult could accidentally turn off any individual device that has a prominent on/off switch. But the likelihood of accidentally turning off 8 individual devices is 0.

    But once those devices are plugged in the UPS, with the intended purpose of keeping them ON, the prominent and easy to depress power switch on the UPS means that the UPS can be a single point of failure for all those devices. i.e. the opposite of it’s intended purpose.

    The real design question is why is that button there and why does it instantly turn off all power to all devices connected to the UPS?

    What important use case is being addressed by having this prominent and instantaneous power cut off “feature”?

    As Andrew (the PM from APC) commented above, they understand the issue, but haven’t adequately addressed it because of other constraints.

    Another issue here from a product management perspective, is the difference between a home environment and a work environment. Kids or pets are not a problem in an office, but at home, they are a reality of life. That simple change in location impacts the conditions under which the product needs to operate.

    Hope this helps elucidate the issue a bit more.

    Saeed

  14. As an engineer, my first reaction ever to UPS’s power button is… “Why the hell would I need to turn off a BATTERY BACKUP!?” (I also think power switch on basic power surge/strips.. especially the flipping ones are a “fatal design error”)

    It is a “design flaw” because they cannot find a real reason for it to be there other than they don’t want to spend the money and resource to redesign it.

    It’s not we are plugging in nuclear reactors that need an emergency shutdown button.

    My solution is just tape over it and cover it up. End of story.

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