Gadgets Are Great… If Your Customers Can Figure Them Out

With all the geektastic frenzy of CES going on, one man, Bob Sullivan from the Red Tape Chronicles asks: “But will these things work?”

In a quiet, nearly empty conference room on the other side of the city from the 140,000 enthusiasts cramming the Las Vegas Convention Center, a roomful of wet blankets was discussing a dirty little secret of the high-tech industry, a small sacrilege during this annual celebration of all things geek.

Sure, all these gadgets are cool, but do they work? If past history is any indication, often, they often won’t. Here’s that dirty little secret, unearthed by the group of consultants from Accenture: Product returns cost the tech industry $14 billion each year, a huge chunk for a $200 billion business. The Accenture group will be releasing a study on gadget product returns later this week, but I got an early peek. Their main finding is this: Consumers often can’t figure out how to use many of the gadgets they buy, and a sizable portion of those gadgets end up right back at the store.

“Customers believe that the product doesn’t work or does not perform as expected,” said Allen Delattre, who runs the electronics research group at Accenture. “But almost none of (the products) have a hardware or software defect. The returns are happening because people can’t figure out how to make things work.”

The article goes on to say that returns in some product categories can be as high as 20%, and that its only going to get worse as devices become more and more connected.

Here’s the question. If you cellphone won’t work with your car’s bluetooth system… do you call BMW or Apple? Or AT&T?




Edit Your Comment

  1. pylon83 says:

    Many people are too incompetent/lazy/impatient/anti-manual to figure out how to operate even the most intuitive of gadgets.

  2. chili_dog says:

    I have people return to me the Jitterbug phones because they are too complicated []

  3. phospholipid says:

    Why would it be AT&T’s fault? You could agrue they only provide certain phones, but they run GSM so you could by ANY phone that you KNOW through RESEARCH that will work with your bluetooth headset [i bought my sony phone and researched to make sure the aliph would work with it, and the sony i bought is a EUROPEAN phone that works perfect with AT&T and T-mobile]. Getting them to work with your BMW [i’m not versed in BMW’s bluetooth capabilities ] is another question. Just find out which ones BMW owners are having issues with, and avoid them. And ready, set go!

  4. 92BuickLeSabre says:

    @pylon83: I agree, but there’s also an unfortunate convergence with the fact that many engineers and designers are too incompetent/lazy/impatient/anti-average-moron to design gadgets that can be figured out and operated in the most intuitive way.

  5. lostalaska says:

    I’d say Microsoft’s Xbox 360 added a lot to last years $14 billion worth of product returns in electronics. I sent two back for the Red Ring of Death in the past year.

    I’ve also had a few other electronics that I’ve picked up in the past few years that were faulty and had to be returned and it seems like in the past 5 years or so more and more electronics I’ve received have required a call to customer service to send it back.

    Nothing better than creating instant buyers remorse upon opening up some gadget you’ve been looking forward to.

  6. spinachdip says:

    @pylon83: Isn’t it up to the manufacturers to develop products that are suited to the market?

    Really, one of the biggest problems with consumer electronics is the overemphasis on features and specs, when user experience should be the driving factor. Take the Wii for example – pundits predicted doom and gloom because of its primitive specs and gameplay, but it delivered on what the mass market wanted, a simple, straightforward user experience.

  7. Parting says:

    Some gadgets are just too complicated.

    However, some people are just too lazy/dumb to read instruction.

    A friend of mine works for cellphone company. A customer called screaming and wanted to know how to use wireless radio headset for his TV! And when asked where he bought the headset, he replied Best Buy. The guy was too stupid to read or even call the company that sold him the gadget.

    So it’s probably 50% complicated gadgets/50% idiot customers.

  8. misanthropic777 says:

    That study is going to underestimate the level of dissatisfaction. Some people try for a day and return something, but others of us will try for longer and sell the item on Ebay when we can’t get it working the way we want.

    I’m pretty tech savvy and have given up on gadgets (most recently the Nokia 770) that were going to take longer to learn / configure / customize / optimize than they would have saved in the long run.

  9. stanfrombrooklyn says:

    I actually think the problem is on both customers and manufacturers part. Manufacturers advertise something as being “very simple to learn and use” even though it’s not. Consumers therefore think that “very simple to learn and use” means they can open the box and be using it 5 minutes later. That’s rarely the case. But if a manufacturer was honest and said, “this device is for an intermediate to advanced user and will require 2-3 hours of studying a manual” then nobody will ever buy it.

  10. humphrmi says:

    I’ve had a lot of situations where something should work but doesn’t even after reading the manuals and calling TS, and I returned the product only to find out later that there was a firmware update that fixed/enabled the feature and the TS people didn’t know about it.

    Now I google everything before I call TS, and it’s actually improved my ability to get things working.

    Companies should know that I (and probably many people on this blog) are the exception, and they can’t expect their customers to google for help with their products – their own TS people should be up on all the latest fixed from all sources – open source hacks / fixes, third party fixes, as well as their own.

  11. “Here’s the question. If you cellphone won’t work with your car’s bluetooth system… do you call BMW or Apple? Or AT&T?”

    Does your cell phone work with other cars’ Bluetooth? If yes, stop, call BMW.

    Do other cell phones work with your car’s Bluetooth? If yes, stop, call Apple.

    Does someone else’s SIM chip in your iPhone work with your car’s Bluetooth? If yes, stop, call AT&T.

    What’s left? Your phone is broken -and- your car’s Bluetooth is broken. Good luck.

  12. ralphie99 says:

    I’ve returned a lot of gadgets, not because I couldn’t figure them out, but because I could. Some gadgets are so intuitive, and yet so obviously sucky, that there’s no point in calling anyone. Yes, it works, but it was badly designed. My experience with D-Link’s DSM-520 Media Lounge was a case in point: Had it working in no time, took me about 20 minutes of playing to figure out it was a total crapfest. Not so much that I couldn’t get it to work: it was incapable of working the way any half-intelligent child would have expected it to work. So, back to the seller it goes!

  13. Major-General says:

    @chouchou: Sadly, a lot of customers believe that the store where they bought something is the place to call when they can’t get it to work.

    How your friend with the cell phone company got the complaint call intrigues me.

    My complaint is with companies who design things to recover from critical failure, but bury that information deep in their website. I bought an MP3 player that bricked itself during a firmware update, but then had instructions for recovery.

    I returned it, partly due to the anti-climatic nature of the device, but also because I felt the company designed a product they knew would have issues.

  14. says:

    If you cellphone won’t work with your car’s bluetooth system… do you call BMW or Apple? Or AT&T?

    HAHA! Clearly a trick question.


    You can’t call any of the companies because your cellphone isn’t working with your car’s bluetooth system. ;-)

  15. CumaeanSibyl says:

    I think one problem is that we keep getting gadgets that are designed to do five or six things simultaneously, but end up doing none of them well. Switching back and forth between modes can be frustrating.

    Another thing is that designers want the product to look user-friendly, so they make sure there aren’t too many buttons or labels, and every function therefore requires a button-mashing sequence that’s hard to memorize unless you’re into Konami games (to reach the settings menu, please press up, up, down, down, left, right, left, right, B, A, select, start). This is especially difficult when you have the five-in-one gadget and barely enough buttons for one.

    Here’s one: my car came with an after-market Pioneer CD/radio thinger, and for the longest time I could not figure out how to change the time. Finally, I got around to looking up the information online, and it involved turning the unit off, which itself involves pushing the cd-to-radio switcher button and holding it down (not intuitive) and then hitting the “audio” button a bunch of times until the clock started blinking. There is no way I would’ve figured that out without a manual, and I still have to look it up every time the clocks change. Had the manufacturers included something as simple as a “power” button and a “settings” button, I could’ve managed on my own.

  16. quail says:

    I’m trying to think of the term, something similar to ergonomics in design, but basically there’s lots of crap that comes out that lacks usability. Case in point: I recently got a Panasonic VHS/DVD recorder. All in all it’s fairly simple, but the remote is arcane. There’s no button to jump instantly to the main menu on a DVD and the layout is all around horrible. I could go on and on with this one items forever.

    This is where most of those gadgets fail. They allow techies, people who love messing with gadgets, to design the things and test their usefulness.

  17. spinachdip says:

    @quail: This reminds me of the old saying, “People don’t want half-inch drill bits. They want half-inch holes.” Except what people really want is to put a shelf on the wall (or whatever the fuck).

    Too many manufacturers are trying to make bigger, more advanced drill bits that do a bunch of different things, and don’t really have the end user, who don’t really care about the drill bits themselves, but just want a pleasant experience putting up the shelf.

    Another mistake I see in so many products is confusing design with style (I’m thinking Vista, Razr), so they make it an afterthought. A truly elegant design is one that improves the user experience, because the user interface, not the hardware or the feature set, is how the user interacts with the product. But too many companies don’t get it because you can’t put design on a spec sheet, and you really have to invest in R&D.

  18. Petrol42 says:

    “BY LOSTALASKA AT 01/08/08 05:25 PM I’d say Microsoft’s Xbox 360 added a lot to last years $14 billion worth of product returns in electronics. I sent two back for the Red Ring of Death in the past year.
    I’ve also had a few other electronics that I’ve picked up in the past few years that were faulty and had to be returned and it seems like in the past 5 years or so more and more electronics I’ve received have required a call to customer service to send it back.
    Nothing better than creating instant buyers remorse upon opening up some gadget you’ve been looking forward to.”

    This story wasn’t about gadgets going bad. It’s about gadgets that are too complicated for the regular consumer to figure out like my mom and dad.

    I agree alot of gadgets are too complicated for a non tech savy person to try and figure out. Thats why products like the Apple iPod dominate the mp3 market because of its ease of use. KISS = Keep it simple stupid.

  19. FLConsumer says:

    The biggest cell phone/bluetooth screwup I’ve seen is that Bentley automobiles have European Bluetooth phone modules in them and only supports RSAP. Thus, most phones, especially CDMA phones, will not work properly with these cars. There are currently *NO* Blackberry devices which work with these cars as well, a huge oversight considering the target audience.

  20. PassionateConsumer says:


    Your observations on user experience, function as part of design, etc are spot on. Bravo.

  21. There’s a reason Apple’s products sell, and a lot of it has to do with intuitive design. How to make your iPod work is immediately obvious even to my mom. Even to my grandpa. (Ditto TiVo’s remote … so easy to find the buttons without even looking!) On the other hand, my stupid-ass phone is the most non-intuitive thing in the history of the universe. Sure, I know how all the functions work, but it takes forever to do common things and everything’s 6 times harder than it needs to be. Can’t wait to get rid of the damned thing.

    And for the RTFM crowd, that’s great, but there’s an enormous portion of the market who’s Boomer or older, and things that are intuitive or at least understandable for those of us who grew up pointing-and-clicking are simply NOT intuitive for my grandfather, who came to GUIs and point-and-click in his 70s. He loves his gadgets, but they’d better be pretty intuitive, because he’s not going to dick around with something for hours when it doesn’t work like it’s supposed to.

    Part of the problem is that bad tech design is crossing into SO many other areas of life. My toaster has computer chips in it that make it argumentative. It has all these functions, which makes it hard for me to TOAST things. My mom has this microwave she actually doesn’t USE because the user manual is 200 pages long and none of the buttons make sense (but they all scroll through a dozen options!). The only thing she uses on uber-microwave is the “30 second” button because it’s the only one that makes sense. She had it installed, tried to figure it out, then promptly brought out her old microwave and set it on the counter.

    I had an oven with a digital interface that was a royal pain in the ass, because as a “safety feature” it wouldn’t let you turn the oven on without setting a time limit. Well, for anyone who’s ever USED AN OVEN, you know that there’s a lot of “is it done yet?” That’s fine when I’m making a cake and I can set it for 45 minutes on a 35- minute cake, but when I was cooking a turkey, it wanted to turn off every two hours (safety feature) and there was no way to have it go to 350 and just STAY THERE until I told it to stop. Most useless oven ever.

  22. Jesustron says:

    This is really about understanding. When a manual tells me how to do something, i can understand, because its related to my level of understanding of technology. An older person, perhaps more impatient, has to learn that PLUS all the underlying terminology and technology (such as computers, for a lot of devices) and it becomes an impossible task.

    Also people expect their gadgets to just work like they WANT them to, not like how they’re designed to work. Getting wifi to work at home on gadgets first requires the understanding of how to access a routers settings, most people would rather return a gadget with the belief that its broken in their mind.

  23. synergy says:

    Putting in somewhere what C.E.S. stands for would be a good idea. Not even the link given in this entry states what it is.

  24. goodkitty says:

    This isn’t a technology issue IMO, it’s a “way of business” issue. It’s all about the profits for this year, not the profits for the next 10 years. Thus, we have cheap, rush-design stuff (ala XBox 360’s) that breaks, and the manufacturer spends as much or more on fixing a quick design and goodwill refunds than just taking the time to do something right in the first place.

    Most people I see who can’t figure out a piece of technology (e.g. everyone who ends up asking me to do it for them) would sooner throw the thing away than be bothered with either reading the manual OR taking it back for a refund.

  25. FullFlava says:

    The problem is that these products are designed by engineers and various other tech geeks through all stages of their development, so you wind up with gadgets made by and for “power users” who love to tinker with stuff, but marketed and sold to casual, non-technical people.

    It really is incredible how difficult to use most of this stuff is… I’m one of the biggest geeks I know and my patience is growing seriously goddamn thin with most of this crap.

  26. InsaneFurry says:

    @synergy: C.E.S. = Consumer Electronics Show. (I think)

  27. aaronw1 says:

    The funny thing is that I’ve continued to notice more and more manuals that on the first page in big letters say something along the lines of ‘If you are having trouble with this product, DO NOT return it to the store, instead call us at xxxxx’.

    It’s probably impatience and not knowing exactly how things work and because of that not being able to troubleshoot in a logical manner…

  28. @FullFlava: I used to work for a newspaper where I was on editorial staff and I spoke the most “geek” of the writing people. I ALL THE TIME was sent to conferences with the tech people where my message was, “They don’t friggin care about feature X — they just want to be able to pull documents directly from Word into Quark, ideally with a single command.” “But feature X is so cool!” “But they’re English majors.”

  29. rgillham says:

    It is very clear from the comments thus far that many of the readers of this website are technologically-minded. The point is technology should not be built for users like this, but the vast majority of people who do not enjoy using their leisure time ‘learning’ the latest gadgets and technology.

    The fact that people cannot use technology does not make them “stupid” or “lazy”. As a user-experience consultant it is interesting to note that I see this old-fashioned contempt for end-users less and less, and when I do it is usually within organisations whose products are failing.