The Unintended Consequences of a Single Design Decision

on January 9, 2017

Being involved in the design and development of consumer products, I’ve seen how a single design decision can have huge unintended consequences and change an entire industry — for the better or the worse.

As a positive example, when Apple decided to design notebooks using aluminum housings and abandon the industry’s use of plastic with ugly vents and screws, they created a huge industry of automated machining of solid aluminum blocks. That industry has now made it possible for other notebooks to use the same processes to create their own products.

Another example is when Apple decided that thinness was a major goal for its mobile products. The unintended consequences have had a huge impact, likely beyond the original intention, but one that’s impacted performance, features, user satisfaction, and the entire industry.

Some of those consequences are:

Shorter battery life – Making phones and notebooks as thin as possible and then making them even thinner in each subsequent generation resulted in less volume for batteries. But because the one dimension that reduces a battery’s capacity most is its thickness, battery life of iPhones and MacBooks have suffered. Battery life of iPhones and the latest line of MacBook Pros are well below expectations and are one of the major user complaints. So much so, the battery indicator no longer displays time left. And, since a battery’s life is based on the number of charging cycles, smaller batteries need more recharging cycles, resulting in a shorter life.

Fragility – The thinness of iPhones has resulted with the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus actually bending in normal use and the need for protective cases. Samsung has shown, with their Galaxy S7 Active, that a phone can be made with a rugged, waterproof enclosure that’s only a few millimeters thicker. Speaking of Samsung, there’s even speculation that their problem with the Note 7 phone catching on fire was a result of trying to beat Apple in the thinness competition.

Reduced number of ports – With thinness comes the need to remove many of the legacy ports designed for thicker products. While leaving them out makes it possible to reduce thickness, it requires carrying more dongles to connect to our other devices.

Loss of features – iPhones still don’t have NFC and wireless charging, likely a result of insufficient space. Magsafe, one of the most innovative features ever created for notebook computers, has been eliminated to make the new MacBook notebooks thinner. With its removal is the loss of the battery charging indicator.

Typing errors – Thinness has led to notebook keyboards with reduced performance compared to the iconic keyboards used in products like the ThinkPad. Key travel has gone from 3 mm to under 1 mm, causing more errors.

What’s ironic is these consequences might have just resulted from an Apple executive saying. “I want our products to be as thin as they can be”, walking away, and then everyone taking the person literally. How likely is it that, when that request was made, anyone was thinking of any adverse outcomes? Well, perhaps a few engineers that were told not to be negative and be a team player.

The lesson is that an arbitrary goal for a product’s requirement can have far-reaching effects on the company’s products, as well as an entire industry, and few may be aware of that when it all began.