Sunday, October 17, 2010

Design Fail: The Paper Towel Dispenser

When I Sarah first met my classmate Jon at Georgia Tech, he apologized to her on my behalf. Apparently, by signing on to study Industrial Design, I was forever dooming her to a lifetime of product critiques and complaints. We would never again, he said, be able to walk through a department store in happy oblivion. Something there, probably multiple somethings, would always catch my eye and bother me so much that I would feel compelled to share my outrage with her. Being the wife of a designer, apparently, requires great patience.

His words proved pretty much as prophetic as you might have guessed, given that I'm now writing a blog entry about them. In an effort to spare my wife the effort of further eye-rolling, I am today sharing my burden with you instead (or rather, "in addition." She's already heard all this). After all, this is just the sort of topic "Contemporarily Insane" was first intended for.

Today's offender:

You'll notice that the top is disc shaped. It's a big button. The product description has this to say about it: "the spring-loaded knob makes it easy to tear off just one sheet." I actually stopped in the store to test this, because I didn't understand what it did to make tearing easier. Turns out it holds the roll in place and keeps it from turning. Now if it clicked into place, this would be an excellent feature, enabling one handed use. That's an issue in the kitchen fairly often: spill something from a pot that you can't put down just yet and you just need a quick paper towel to mop it up before it dries in place or before the spill runs over the edge of the counter, or maybe while trying to hold back pets and/or children with the other hand, or maybe even because you are actually one-handed. I'm sure those of you with kitchens can think of several other examples. A dispenser that facilitates one-handed use would be great.

This is not that dispenser. That spring loaded knob bounces right back up as soon as you let go. You need two hands to use it, one for the knob and one for the towels. So someone please explain to me how putting your hand on the knob is better than putting your hand directly on the paper towel roll. It seems worse to me. Besides adding the extra pressure to overcome the spring part, you also lose the tactile feedback that will tell you just how well you're holding the paper towels.

Nor does this seem like a case of designing for disabilities. There is nothing this knob adds to the act of tearing off a paper towel that makes life any easier for someone with arthritis, poor sensation, or even missing digits or limbs. There is no point in the tearing-off-a-paper-towel process where pushing down on a knob would be less painful or easier than making the exact same gesture directly to the towel roll. Remember, the addition of the spring means MORE strength is required for the same action.

So what does it do? The only thing I came up with is that it could prevent someone with messy hands from unnecessarily dirtying additional towels still on the roll. None of the marketing mentions that, however, and the knob isn't wide enough to keep dripping liquids from falling onto the roll anyway.

Either I'm missing something crucial (and I spent some time going over this thing to find it, much to my wife's chagrin), or this is a case of really bad design. If it is what I think it is then I'm offended on a number of levels. It wastes materials and effort. It attempts to convince consumers to spend more for a feature they do not need and,if I'm interpreting correctly, actually makes the act more difficult. Then it compounds its sins by requiring additional design and complexity to mitigate its own negative impact (the reviews and the marketing all praise the quick release button system that makes it easy to remove the knob and replace the roll - a whole set of "easy" actions that would have been entirely unnecessary if the knob were never added in the first place).

I generally like Simple Human products and the rest of the design of this piece seems well thought out (the heavy base that keeps the whole from tipping when tearing a sheet, the little ridges that keep the roll from unraveling), so I'm having a hard time convincing myself I really understand what's going on here. The kind of design it appears to be only emerges through negligence or as a deliberate attempt to mislead consumers into buying unnecessary gadgetry. One is disappointing and the other unforgiveable. Both are unacceptable.

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