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Do aftermarket products show design flaws?

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The role of a designer is usually that of a problem solver. Once you start thinking this way, you soon start discovering all kinds of problems that need solutions. Recognizing the need for a missing product or experience can be easy when you start thinking “why isn’t there a __________ for this?” You then turn your frustration with the short-sightedness of a given product into product ideas. Lately I’ve been focusing on vehicles and their lack of utility.

I recently purchased a set of hangers for my car. These clip onto the headrest mounts and provide a place to hang items on the back of the seat. Simple, inexpensive and effective, they have become an integral part of how I carry things around the empty space behind my seat. The more I used them, the more I wondered how and why these products came into being.

Perhaps this was done through ethnographic research? May be. Did the inventor notice a lack of suspension hooks in the vehicles? Most likely. Then I wondered what else I could do to improve the storage and utility of my vehicle.

I usually carry a small cooler in my trunk, just big enough for a few items. Ice cream, milk, fresh fish…things I don’t want to spoil while shopping or on longer trips. Is it unreasonable for most vehicles to have an insulated well in the trunk that is waterproof and drainable? It is neither complicated nor expensive. I know some cars already have them between the seats or even in the glove box. What I mean is that there are widespread needs and not enough solutions.

Speaking of the glove compartment, the typical design of this compartment is a disaster. A disorganized bucket requiring you to remove everything inside when trying to find anything. Why isn’t this useful space compartmentalized with bins, dividers, flat files or flap pockets? Let’s put the record in a slip pocket right on the inside door, where you want it when you need it. Locking wheel nuts and touch-up paint can be stored elsewhere in the trunk. The thick manual? It could be under the driver’s seat or the trunk, never to be seen unless necessary. The driver can’t even reach the gloves if they were in there, he needs a new name to match his new functionality.

Most car keys have evolved into a bulky key fob, which no longer needs to stick in the steering column. How about a dedicated place for that key fob, like a hook on the dash or a perfectly sized pocket? This quiet need might not be the highest on the boring list, but it’s also not expensive to solve. Looking at user behaviors would shed light on many little frustrations like this. Every time I get in my car, I look for a place to put my keys.

Imagine if the dashboard was customizable, with areas for notes with hanging clips, magnets with cups to hold small things like pens and sunscreen, storage for sunglasses, a slot for an opener – garage door, a toll card holder which should be mounted where it can be easily read through the windshield. How difficult are these ideas to understand? I didn’t even mention the need for phone support to listen to music, follow directions, and order food at 75 mph. I always plug my phone in, so I had the trouble of mounting a magnet to my dashboard.

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Has anyone really observed the behavior of the rear passengers? What changes would you make to this experience?

Reclining the rear seatbacks is a start. What else are you supposed to do in the back seats other than relax or sleep? Why is this request, this need, this obvious oversight being ignored, leaving the rear seats always in their upright, rigid and uncomfortable position? Let’s also take advantage of the backrest of the front seats, with hooks, clips, a storage bin, a few real-use pockets. Heck, that spot is easier for the driver to reach than the glove box. Personally, this is where I store a small roll of paper towels, for messy emergencies.

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But forget all those ideas – the glaring problem I have with my car are the black holes between the center console and the front seats. Anything that falls into this general area immediately disappears into a hellish space under the seat. I can’t fit my hand through the thin slit over there, or squeeze my mitts underneath from the front seat. I have to stop the car, get out, open the back door, get on my knees and reach my whole arm under the seat and hope I can get the object out of its tangled lair. It’s ridiculous and it happens more often than expected.

There are solutions, and the names are hilarious –
Drop Stop Seat Gap Filler Package – it’s basically a foam noodle that prevents this nightmare. It’s patented, it works and it’s not expensive.

In my work, we have an open channel for consumer feedback regarding product complaints. This data is recorded, discussed and taken into account as part of the product development process. We listen and adapt to this feedback, based on the belief that complaints are easy targets for improving our products. There is no easy or direct way to provide feedback or suggestions to car designers. It makes me feel like they don’t care about their customers’ needs, when they should. A simple way to send ideas to the design team would give people the belief that the company is listening, and that simple belief might be enough.