New But Not Improved

I’m no Luddite. I like progress. I enjoy new technologies, and when they’re actually better or completely new and original, I’ll be standing in line to get my hands on one like any other early adopter. But what I can’t stand (or understand) is developing something new which not only doesn’t improve the original, but makes it worse.

cooker01.jpgThis is my favourite coffee cooker, from Bialetti. I’ve had it for about ten years and love it because:

  • It’s compact, i.e. exactly as large as it needs to be.
  • With only four parts (only one of which ever needs to be replaced) it’s simple for a child to use, take it apart and clean.
  • The three parts that can’t be replaced are impossible to break (without trying to).
  • It does exactly what it’s meant to, nothing more, nothing less.
  • It’s a simply beautiful object (although I admit that’s subjective: I’ve got a fetish for shiny angular objects).

cooker021.jpgThis is my second coffee cooker, also from Bialetti. It was a gift (it never would have occurred to me to betray my faithful old friend above). At first I was quite pleased with it since it’s on instantly (no stove warm-up) and turns itself off when it’s done (no waiting, no forgetting it when you don’t wait, no stove burn-up). However, if we compare it to the first:

  • With the base and power cord it takes up about twice the space.
  • After half a year the power button broke, making it difficult to turn on or off, in fact it turned itself mysteriously on and off if left on the base.
  • The electronic parts can’t be bought or replaced, so if it’s broken, it’s junk.
  • It cost three times as much as the original, and lasted not even half as long.
  • The added functionality is a convenience, but also the greatest weakness.
  • The cooker itself is made of cheaper materials, and the power base is simply plastic, so it has no real aesthetic value as an object.

cooker031.jpgSince the second cooker broke, I got the “new and improved model”, another gift and also from Bialetti. I returned it after trying it once. Things just went from badder to worse:

  • The base is inexplicably more than twice the size.
  • Same problem with the electronics, broke = junk.
  • Costs more than twice as much as the second cooker–six times as much as the first.
  • It has a clock and timer built right in! Which means more electronics to go wrong and doesn’t make my coffee any better. And the arguable usefulness is completely negated by…
  • Unbelievably loud beeps accompany every button push (making setting the timer unbearable), and when it’s finished cooking it beeps loud enough to wake the dead until you turn it off, i.e. it needs to be watched as closely as the first model.
  • Even cheaper and uglier materials than the previous model, i.e. aesthetic value zero.

As I said, I can’t understand the design process behind these products. The idea of a coffee cooker which turns itself off when it’s done is a good one. But it doesn’t need to be more complex than that. If they’d minimised the base to the size of the cooker itself and avoided the weak power button (e.g. turn it on the base to the left and it’s on, to the right and it’s off) it would’ve been perfect.

If you were designing a new product, why wouldn’t you ask yourself these questions before starting?

  • Does your product significantly improve on an existing function?
  • Do any additional functions greatly improve the use of your product?
  • Is your product as easy and enjoyable to use as the old unimproved product was?
  • Is the increased cost of your product worth it compared to the value of the improvements?

I know these questions aren’t rocket science. I also know that no company can rest on their laurels and remain profitable forever based on their classic products–innovation is the key to staying competitive. But if your innovation consists of gluing poorly thought out functions onto existing products and thereby destroying their simplicity, usefulness and the enjoyment your consumers had from your older products, well, you’ve just shot yourself in the foot and increased the market for your competitors. Well done.

Hopefully all you industrial designers out there start with questions like these already, but if you answer any of the questions with “no”, it’s time to go back to the drawing board. Innovation just to be doing something new dismantles your business, it doesn’t improve it. Take the time, get it right, enjoy the rewards.

What have you got that’s new, but not improved?


  1. Martin says:

    Very nice example, I use the original Bialetti every morning. I bought a never version with a transparent cap. Nice idea, because I didn’t have to lift it anymore (to watch, if the coffee’s ready), but the handle broke, while I lift the full can! So I bought an old version again.

    It is not a good idea to design a perfect product, it is better to start with a good product and make it better (iPod!). Every thing, that has a chip and software can be improved. Consumer expect redesigns, updates and newer versions, and if your product is perfect, you have a problem.

  2. Mb. says:

    @Martin: I’d even say that it’s not possible to define a new product that is, in it’s first version, perfect. You need to get it out there, see how people use it, get feedback, and improve it.

    But what I meant was, if you’re working on a second, third, fourth, etc. version, make sure you’re actually making the thing better. New’s fine, as long as it really is improved.