All in the Details

jetblueIs there a name for this phenomenon? A firm sinks vast resources into an immensely complicated engineering project and gets most of it right, but gets one detail so glaringly wrong that it seems like they might just as well not have bothered. Lexus and Jet Blue come to mind.

Last year, I almost bought a Lexus RX450 SUV. There were a lot of great features to this car, including a USB port for plugging in your iPod so you can control it directly from the dashboard. I know, I know, there are probably a lot of other cars offering this feature now, but I’d never seen it before and I loved it. At least, that is, until I tried it. Because it turns out that if you want to play a particular song through this interface—say the 1100th song in alphabetical order on your iPod—the only way to do it is to page through about 110 screens, each displaying 10 song titles. Moreover, each time you hit the button to move to the next screen, the top song on that screen starts to play. So before you can listen to, say, Fred Small’s If I Were a Moose, you’ve got to sit through about 110 snippets of non-moose-related material. (There is no way to reorganize in any order other than alphabetical.) For this reason—and this reason alone—I didn’t buy the car.

But what’s really on my mind is the new $800 million Jet Blue Terminal at John F. Kennedy airport, unveiled a bit over a year ago with much fanfare regarding its fine dining, high-class retail outlets, comfortable lounges, and terminals that allow you to order food brought directly to your boarding gate. All of which is true, and all of which is thoroughly overshadowed by the seemingly random flashing lights and screeching sirens that blare for several minutes at a time until you’d happily pour boiling oil in your nostrils if it were the price of escape. During one two-hour layover last week, this happened at least four times; during another it happened only once—but the retailers I talked to, who are there every day, told me that the first experience was pretty typical. (Plus, once is more than enough—especially if your traveling companion, like mine, happens to be susceptible to day-long migraines that are triggered by flashing lights and screeching sirens.)

Mind you, these sirens and lights serve absolutely no purpose. Everyone in the terminal ignores them (except for covering their eyes and ears). And even if you wanted to respond to them, you couldn’t, because there are no posted instructions about what you’re supposed to do when an alarm goes off. Their only effect is to make the terminal so very unpleasant that I will never connect through it again as long as there is any viable alternative.

So—huge project, done 99% right, but the 1% that’s wrong drives your customers away. Do you have a name for this phenomenon and/or other examples to share?

PS—I know, from email and from comments on other posts, that a lot of you want to hear about my religion debate with Dinesh D’Souza. I’m thinking that rather than summarize it from memory, I should first review the video (since I might be a shade less brilliant on the video than in memory). Give me a couple of days!


24 Responses to “All in the Details”

  1. 1 1 Lawrence Kesteloot

    My wife and I nearly bought a Honda CR-V, until I noticed that you must manually turn off the headlights when you stop the motor. After 12 years of driving a Subaru and Volvo, where you can just keep the headlights on all the time because they’re off when the motor’s off, I wasn’t going back to manually flipping them every day. It’s the main reason I didn’t buy the CR-V. And I’m not going to try another Honda anytime soon, since they clearly don’t understand user experience.

    I don’t know what to call the effect. What’s the most famous case? It’s not quite like Hubble, which was a design blunder. This is more like someone just didn’t care enough to get this detail right, and it turned out to be an important detail.

  2. 2 2 dave

    how about the pledge of allegiance? that tiny ‘under god’ part seems to miff the folks that believe in the seperation of church and state as well as those that dont believe in god.

    as far as naming the phenomena, ill give a stab: perverse engineering.

    or what about government in general? seems like a great idea..until the small bit about paying for it comes up.

  3. 3 3 Dave

    Steve – what about posting the video? Would love to see it – plus will save you all that messy typing time.

  4. 4 4 Coupon Clipper

    I’ve got one: XBox Live. It’s the most amazing thing to be able to be randomly matched and play video games with people across the Atlantic. And the games are amazing too.

    But the XBox Live interface is terrible. The programmers could improve it with only a couple hours of coding, but MSFT shows no interest in doing so.

    Ok, I gotta go. I have to go spend several minutes re-entering all my credentials on my friends XBox 360 so that I can enjoy the privilege of playing on his machine. And then when I’m done I have to go home and repeat the whole procedure so I can play at home again.

  5. 5 5 Josh

    If the sirens serve no purpose, I wonder why they are there. I assume they don’t stem from the lounge/upscale area itself. If they truly serve no real purpose, then I guess someone must have thought hearing these noises would be fun.

  6. 6 6 Al V.

    I’ve seen/heard things like this at other airports as well. At Charlotte-Douglas, there are motion detectors that go off whenever someone attempts to bypass security and enter via the terminal exit. Unfortunately, they seem to go off randomly, when nobody is near the exit. And when they sound (BONG, BONG, BONG) I’ve never seen anyone even look up, must less do anything. I think the TSA staff have become inured to the sound of the false alarms, but it makes me wonder if someone could sneak through.

  7. 7 7 Cayley

    I think you’re missing the fact that all things cannot be perfect for all customers. Looking at the Lexus, some people may really enjoy being able to flip through endless screens because it gives them an opportunity to review their music collection. Obviously it’s harder to say that some people enjoy screeching sirens. But I have been in that terminal, and can definitively say that I was not more affected by the sirens and lights then I am in any other airport terminal (I also did not find the slew of amenities useful, so if you ask me, it was a far cry from getting most of it right and a single detail horribly wrong). I think that it’s much more likely that people really like to find flaws than it is that companies overlook them.  

  8. 8 8 orbitz

    I’m currently at a technology conference which is great. They have awesome free breakfast, vegetarian lunch, good sound system. Except….the WiFi sucks. At peak times you cannot get on. It’s so close to being great only to fail on probably the most obvious thing attendees would be interested in.

  9. 9 9 Glen Raphael

    I don’t know about airports or cars but in software development getting the last 10% or 5% or 1% right takes more time and effort than the entire first 90%. The more features a product has, the more time you need to spend testing and fine-tuning those features to get them to all work well together. Worse, the higher your overall standards are, the more areas there are where a single glaring flaw could really stand out and ruin the experience, and *different flaws matter to different people* so you have to be very clever about figuring out where to aim your effort for the best balance.

    When Apple decided not to include copy/paste functionality in the first iPhone they were making exactly that sort of trade-off – deciding it’s better to leave a feature out entirely than to include it in a 90%- or 95%-finished state. Or witness the flack Apple is getting now because people who (a) are left-handed, (b) have sweaty palms, (c) grip their phone firmly in a particular way, (d) in an area with low signal strength… can see their signal level drop. Most people will never notice this problem and wouldn’t know about it but for the blogs, but for the people it affects, it’s a 1% issue. For those people it’s the difference between a perfect phone and an otherwise-good phone with a glaring flaw.

  10. 10 10 Mike

    Dr. Landsburg, I’ve read all your books, I’ve read most of you articles here and on Slate. I think you’re brilliant and I’ve told you as much via multiple media. However I can’t get over the fact that you were ready to drop that kind of coin ($45k) on a car just because it has an ipod dock.

    Buy the car you want. Go to any car audio store (Best Buy even). Spend $200-$500 on the stereo with an ipod dock that best fits your needs (perhaps one that most easily scrolls through your moose related music). Pay them a couple hundred bucks to install it and you’re good to go.

    I don’t know if you’ll end up buying a more expensive or less expensive car because of this, but I know it will have more value to you because you’ll get the stereo that you were ready to spend $40k on for under a grand and a car that makes you happy.

  11. 11 11 Alan Wexelblat

    We do have a name for it – it’s called ‘bad usability’ or ‘bad design’ or ‘bad ergonomics’. Preventing it is what I do for a living and I could probably go on about it roughly as long as you could go on about economics :)

    To try and keep it comment-concise, I would say that Glen above has it precisely backward. What happens in these cases (the Lecus one particularly) is that the use cases were not well developed. The feature “plug your iPod in here” was added with no sense for how real people would actually use it. That’s an up-front problem that happens in the design stages of product development, not a “last 1%” problem. Leaving usability to the last 1% is all too common and results in legions of unusable things, or thing that are, as you point out, almost usable but not quite.

    If you’re looking for things to read on this topic I can give you some fun pointers. Don Norman’s books are quite good places to begin, for example.

  12. 12 12 Ken B

    Examples like the sirens abound: disclaimers and warnings at the start of movies that you cannot skip; voice-overs warning of spontaneous human combustion on drug ads; signs at Macdonalds saying hot coffee is hot; floods of waivers for kids in school to cross the street on a class trip. It’s all part of what Philip Howard calls the litigation tax.

  13. 13 13 Steve Landsburg

    Ken B: I do not think the movie warnings and McDonalds signs are analogous to the sirens, because it’s clear what the movie warnings and McDonalds signs are warning you against. The sirens really do appear to be nothing but random noise.

  14. 14 14 Brian Moore

    The “Death Star” effect? :)

  15. 15 15 Glen

    No good examples to offer, but there is indeed a name for this phenomenon: “Achilles’ Heel.”

  16. 16 16 Al V.

    In the end, isn’t this where the after-market for products comes from? iPhone cases, iPod docks, cell phone holsters, etc. The product is 99% perfect, but that last 1% is different for different users, so the manufacturer lets the after-market provide the additional capabilities.

    One example used to be Volvo cup holders. Before Ford bought Volvo Cars in 1999, Volvo engineers refused to install cup holders in the cars they manufactured, because of perceived safety issues. Thus, other companies began marketing cup holders that installed in Volvos. At some point Volvo management recognized the size of the market that had arisen for cup holders, and insisted that Volvos be designed with cup holders.

    Apparently, for several years Volvos were known for the poor quality of cup holders, but today the XC90 has 18 cup and bottle holders in a vehicle that seats 7.

    P.S. I’ve never counted all of the cup and bottle holders in my wife’s Toyota Sienna, but there are 5 just for the two front seat passengers.

  17. 17 17 nobody.really

    One of the Hitchhiker’s Guide books featured a long-haul truckdriver that suffers mild depression because, inexplicably, wherever he goes it seemed to be raining. The driver fails to realize that this pattern what not random and inexplicable. Rather, the driver is an unwitting rain god; he is causing the phenomena he is trying to explain.

    Similarly, Landsburg keeps encountering flashing lights and sirens at airports, and no one will offer him an explanation. The explanation is perfectly obvious to anyone who has seen Borne Identity: Landsburg is a terrorist/assassin with amnesia. I mean, duh.

    The iPod docking station issue, on the other hand – that’s a real stumper.

  18. 18 18 Todd Kuipers

    Like Mike I’m quite the fanboy – and I guess only a fanboy would call themself that – but I think the two examples presented are quite different in their “problem” origin.

    Disagreeing with Alex above, the Lexus iPod problem is very likely because the ability to get to a specific song easily is what the iPod’s relatively complex and intuitive UI is for – Lexus would have to begin to duplicate core parts of the iPod interface to do such things. If you need to get to a very specific song, you would no worse off (or any less safe while driving) interacting with the iPod itself than a hyper-clunky steering/dashboard interface. If they could add in a voice activated song search interface the iPod didn’t have, you might be better off while driving. This safety and UI duplication are the reasons that most iPod/Car interfaces are limited to skip/replay and volume controls – set a general playlist and just get past the songs you don’t want to hear, at least until you hit the next longish traffic light.

    As for the meaningless sirens it sounds more like sheer stupidity and active ignorance rather than a core design flaw – I’d suspect that even the staff don’t ask what the alarm’s for and assume that if it’s not needed someone will alter the alarm protocol. This kind of problem exists often in large bureaucratic organizations (like an airport) – and hence tends to be a systemic organizational flaw than a engineering-type design flaw.

    I do have a similar story to the Lexus one though. We were in the market for a new vehicle and the utter incompetence of the Toyota Highlander nav system UI – something I wouldn’t use much at all given the iPad and iPhone alternatives – knocked it off the list for me since at the trim level I wanted, I couldn’t not get the GPS. The car, in general, was excellent, but my experience fiddling with the GPS UI ruined the larger experience for me. Given the general complexity of the system, cribbing some of the UI clues from smart-phone Google maps functionality – which I ended up using instead, on my iPhone on my day long test drive – would have been beneficial.

  19. 19 19 nobody.really

    Oh, and Steve, while you’ve still got amnesia, what do you think of extending unemployment benefits?

  20. 20 20 Bob

    Props to Brian and Glen for their suggestions. My proposal: Clippy.

    Ken B: I recently bought a DVD of music videos by Mylene Farmer. My forecast typical use case was to put the DVD in my computer DVD drive and then, over several days, take the occasional break and watch a video. It most certainly was not to put it into my DVD player and watch it start to finish, nor to go to the trouble of seating myself in front of my TV for the purpose of watching a solitary video (in the process swapping DVDs in and out). Guess what? The DVD comes with a “protection” system that deliberately prevents it from playing on computer DVD drives.
    Keep in mind further that:
    1. Those videos are easily available on the internet.
    2. The protection can be circumvented by moderately savvy users.
    3. This in no way prevents counterfeit DVDs.
    I love Mylene Farmer and her videos. She has another three such DVDs out. Guess how many of them I’ll be buying?

  21. 21 21 Harold

    I like nobody.realy’s idea that airports would have a “landsburg alarm” which sets off frequent sirens and flashing lights when Landsburg is in the terminal. Unfortunately, they do seem to go off when he is not there as well, so that cannot be the right answer.

  22. 22 22 Seth

    I’m often perturbed at myself when I stand in a convenience store stocked with every kind of bottled, fountain and brewed beverage available and I want to buy something, but I don’t want any the plethora of choices in front of me.

    And many times, there are drinks I want, but there seems to be plenty of reasons to keep me from buying.

    “Can’t drink that while I’m working or driving.”
    “Too many empty calories.”
    “That will stain my teeth.”
    “I’ve already had too many coffee-based drinks today.”
    “That’ll drive my insulin levels insane.”
    “That’s more than I want.”

    On rare occasions, the stars align and I buy a beverage.

  23. 23 23 Bob


    Hey, that sounds like me at a singles bar!

    Thank you, I’ll be here all week.

  24. 24 24 Dave

    Great speech. The introduction on human progress was fascinating.

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