When form doesn’t follow function


I’ve written before about frames of reference. That’s the term I use (borrowed from physics) for how we can perceive situations around us differently from others due to differences in context. When building products, our frame of reference when defining priorities is based on previous experience, our objectives and our understanding of  (or lack thereof) the target market or user who will ultimately use the product. Lacking any real understanding of the target audience, we default to our own needs and assume (or hope) they apply to others.

In an episode of the cartoon series The Simpsons, Homer Simpson’s long lost half-brother Herbert  is the owner of a successful car company. He asks Homer to design the company’s next car; a car for the average family, just like the Simpsons. Homer asks for a number of features on the car:

  • A giant sized drink holder for those “super-slurpers at the Kwik-E-Mart”
  • Tail fins, bubble domes and shag carpeting because “they never go out of style!”
  • Multiple horns that all play ‘La Cucaracha’ because “you can never find a horn when you’re mad”
  • A separate soundproof bubble “for the kids with optional restraints and muzzles”
  • With an engine “powerful like a gorilla, yet soft and yielding like a Nerf ball”

thehomer

Think this kind of thing only happens in cartoons? While I haven’t seen anything as truly hideous as this car in real life, I recently came across an example of a car that was built by engineers, and apparently for engineers. It’s called the Aptera, and it is an actual electric and hybrid vehicle that is meant for production, with a list price of about $30,000.

The shape of the Aptera is designed to minimize wind resistance. In fact, if you visit their website, you’ll get a brief lesson in aerodynamics and drag. Do I need to know that as a car buyer?

aptera-car1

Note the doors are gull-wing in design, but the door windows are fixed. You can’t open them. So much for using any drive through service such as a bank machine or fast food restaurant or toll booth!

aptera3

And looking at it from the side, imagine the huge blind spots the driver will have both on the passenger as well as driver side. Note that none of the photos above show external rear-view mirrors on the car, but apparently they have added those to the vehicle. There is also a rear view camera system that is meant to minimize the blind spots, but that seems like a workaround IMHO.  They’ve optimized for aerodynamics and now need to add features to address usability problems they’ve created.

aptera-side

Now, this vehicle isn’t all bad. It is claimed that the hybrid model will get 300 miles per gallon of gas. Amazing achievement if it’s true, though with crude oil currently trading well under $50 per barrel, extreme fuel efficiency isn’t at the top of everyone’s list right now.

Second it has a number of interior features including:

  • 2 cup holders (the car seats two people)
  • smart phone connectivity
  • driver and passenger airbags
  • side impact beams
  • solar assisted climate control

So, it’s not as hideous as the Homer — no horns playing ‘La Cucaracha’ — but it’s an example of what can happen when products are designed with the wrong frame of reference. 300 MPG is great, but you know what, I’d take 150 or even 100 MPG and a lot more usability.

Aptera, if you are listening — change is a process. Your intentions are great, but there are a lot of changes you’re imposing on your users. The path to success is helping address our problems without requiring us to completely change our frame of reference.

Saeed

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5 responses to “When form doesn’t follow function

  1. Saeed,
    You got it wrong.
    The vehicle you show is a prototype. The vehicle they will sell has rear windows, rear view mirrors and a rear view camera. The windows DO roll down for tolls, ATMs etc. You’d like 150 MPG but that’s a tough number to achieve when you’re throwing away half your energy to wind resistance. The vehicle design is about more than wind resistance though. It’s lightweight composite in a reinforced frame. Regardless of the price of oil, efficiency will continue to be king going forward. Change is a process. Stand on a different reference point and you’ll see.

  2. Aptera

    Are you from the company? Thanks for responding so quickly to the post.

    BTW, I totally love the fact that you are using my own phrases in your argument. Really. That put a real smile on my face. Even if I’m completely wrong, I view that as an epic win. 🙂

    You are correct, that the images are from an older version — I believe it is called — Type 1. The newer version does have small rear-side windows but the blind spot is still huge. I did make it a point to mention the camera system in the post.

    I did a little more digging and found this article, with a great quote from Aptera’s new CEO Wilbur Smith, who happens to be an auto industry veteran.

    http://money.cnn.com/galleries/2008/smallbusiness/0811/gallery.Next_Little_Thing_Updates.smb/2.html

    “When I first saw the car, I noticed it had stationary windows,” Wilbur says. “While the original design might have been more aerodynamic, we would have made the entire fast-food industry obsolete if we didn’t put in roll-up, roll-down windows.”

    Smith started in September I believe and that article was from December.

    I guess that was one of the first things he decided needed to be changed.

    The point of my post was that form and function must go hand in hand. A super streamlined and aero dynamic car that doesn’t do the basics is not going to sell well.

    I wrote about this in another post comparing the Honda Insight (best MPG on the market but looked “weird”) with the Prius (more like a “normal” car). Guess which one dominated the market?

    You can read that post here.

    http://onproductmanagement.net/2008/05/14/business-not-technology-part-2/

    Saeed

  3. Saeed,

    Thank you for the blog post. I generally liked the article and agree that change should be implemented as a process. A little off-topic, but what bugged me is that you assume the price of oil should determine whether fuel efficiency is an important feature or not. Isn’t this one of the main reasons the big three are in trouble right now?

  4. Jens,

    What I said was “extreme fuel efficiency isn’t at the top of everyone’s list right now”. Fuel efficiency is important, but not “extreme fuel efficiency” and not as important to a lot of people as when oil was $130 per barrel.

    I’ll take fuel efficiency if I can get it, I drive a Honda Civic Sedan 40Km each way every day. I use the car mainly to drive to work, but on the weekends we also use it for errands such as grocery shopping, taking the kids to sports classes etc. We have a minivan for when the whole family goes out together.

    If I could get reduce fuel consumption by 1/2, but keep my Civic Sedan, I’d be thrilled. Why, because the Civic just works. I don’t have to do much to it and it just works. I’d buy a Civic hybrid, but they’re way too expensive relative to the regular Civic.

    Getting 300 mpg but only having a 2 seater that has other usability issues is not as compelling when gas is a couple of dollars a gallon. Now, if I lived in England I may think differently.

    As for the big three in trouble…the issue is complex. Yes, they didn’t create very fuel efficient cars, but in general, they didn’t create very good cars. Honda and Toyota in particular beat the “big 3” in virtually every category of automobile and even minivans. Additionally Detroit didn’t market their products well, didn’t innovate much and couldn’t compete in North America (at least) on reliability and quality. I’m no auto expert, but someone had a good line to summarize the big 3. They said:

    “When was the last time anyone got really excited about a vehicle coming out of Detroit?”

    Saeed

  5. No, I’m not with the company. However, I did place a deposit more than a year ago.
    Despite what CEO Wilbur Smith says, the founder, Steve Fambro stated back in Jan ’08 that “windows will roll down”.
    These are details of course. Aptera is less important as a competitor to Honda, more important as a way to open our eyes to the fact that we’ve been driving around in updated Conestoga wagons for 90 years. If they get 10,000 of these on the road in three years, the adjustment to our collective “frame of reference” will be an “epic win”.
    Cheers