When products are designed to fall apart…?


A couple of days back, the home button of my iPhone stopped responding… this is the second iPhone I have owned that has ended up in this state in the last 3 years… and it got me to think…

As I started to reflect on it, I started to become more and more convinced that this is by design – a clear strategy to deliberately restrict the lifespan of a product… clearly to drive the replacement cycle.

But what intrigued me the most is that this is not a new radical approach conceived by Apple, but has been successfully deployed by product manufacturers and producers for decades.

I came across an interesting story from the 1920’s where it is said that Henry Ford started to buy back scrapped Ford cars and asked his engineering team to disassemble them. Almost everyone believed that the goal was to find the parts that had failed and identify ways of making them better. On the contrary, Henry Ford asked the team to identify the parts that were still working and explore ways of re-designing these parts to cut down their life and have them fail at the same time as the others – a smart business intent to cut down the cost of design and manufacturing and avoid over-designing!

Its an out-of-the-box way of looking at things… and seems to make perfect strategy. Introducing the product lifespan as product parameter adds flexibility to the product development cycle by opening up options for exploring other constraints – not just time, cost or quality, but also technology selection, material properties, user experience, performance, processes, regulations etc.

I got so fascinated with the idea that I continued to look further and found a term planned obsolescence, that has indeed been used in the context of product design and economics… it talks of the approach that attempts to design a product with an artificially limited useful life such that it becomes obsolete or no longer functional after a certain period of time, where the driver is primarily to reduce the repeat purchase time interval i.e. shorten the replacement cycle. It appears that the light bulb was an early target for planned obsolescence when the companies standardised the life of a light bulb to 1000 hours and even went to the extent of fining producers if the light bulbs lasted longer! The strategy has found support from governments in the past and it has been used to stimulate consumption and fuel economy… but over the years it has resulted in divided camps, and in recent times there have been movements against this strategy with some countries now requiring manufacturers to declare the intended product lifespans.

As I thought about it further, it dawned on me that I was practically guilty of following the same strategy… and hence had lost the moral right to be judgemental … I realised that it can easily be argued that we (software providers) are no different and have enforced users to upgrade to new products by stopping support for older technologies, using incompatible interfaces, restricting hardware or OS support and building vendor lock-in… the intellectual production has fallen prey to the same pattern (as industrial and consumer production) of generating constant (renewed) demand for their products… creating a society that lives under the illusion of perpetually new.

In this state of mixed emotions, my view got biased by my own experience and actions… while many people argue that this belief that products are designed to fall apart is a fallacy, I have (albeit reluctantly) to disagree.

My experience of product design and development has taught me that every product design cycle involves a complex interplay between many business, technology and operational factors – from time-to-market, price points and product positioning to technology readiness, user experience, performance or resources, processes etc… and it is a reality that I have designed products with a clear view of a restricted life-span – simply using them as first generation products for early adoption and then replacing them (over time) with new product releases… which is an example in itself of designing products to fall apart (after a time)… or maybe it begins to sound more reasonable when we rephrase it and say that products are designed to work successfully for the defined lifespan and specified business goals…

Of-course, the answer is not what I wanted to hear as it means that I have to start looking for a new phone – even when I did not have the need for any new functionality… but then maybe I do not know what I am missing and may be pleasantly surprised by the ‘new’ product…

Arti is the co-founder of humanLearning (www.humanlearning.com) – a fast growing UK-based technology startup – setup with an earnest desire to make the life of busy professionals simpler and more effective. hL is disrupting business workflows thru WinSight – a mobile-video based platform – that is changing the way businesses drive innovation and quality in sales and service. Arti can be reached at arti@humanlearning.com.

[This article was first published on @LinkedIn on April 16, 2016]