Crap Design: Household Appliances

  • Have you ever asked yourself why high-tech household appliances of today never last as long as their simple counterparts of years gone by? There is a reason.
  • The vast majority of consumers have no idea what all of the program icons on a washing machine mean.
  • It seems as though manufacturing companies have lost the simple art of engineering design often leading to a higher risk of failure and a reduced operational life.

As technology improves at an ever-faster rate, one might expect that the products we use in our everyday lives would be continuously improving. It certainly seems like there are plenty of new gadgets and toys available every year, so of course our appliances are getting better, right?

If you know anyone over 50, ask them how long their oven lasted in the seventies. Ask the same question about their fridge, washing machine or dryer. I am willing to bet they will tell you that they lasted decades and they will likely follow up with a long rant about how their latest oven lasted two years before it broke down. How they spent $2000 on a clothes washer that needs a new computer, nobody makes things like they used to and that the world isn’t what it used to be!

household appliances

You might think your old relatives are just cranky but the truth is that household appliances really aren’t what they used to be. When one looks at the design of these products, it quickly becomes clear that crap design is to blame. Components that were once simple are now complicated, issues that were once solved by good design have been recreated and new expensive components have been added that are guaranteed to fail!

So, what’s going on? Has the household appliance industry lost its engineering talent and suffered the unfortunate fate of having to live with crap design despite their best efforts? Or maybe

something else is going on…

Crap Design Elements in Your Oven

First, let’s start with the oven. A simpler appliance can hardly be imagined…a box to hold in heat, a burner, pilot and thermostat assembly to regulate the heat as well as some gas lines to route fuel to the burner.

The GE Hotpoint oven in my kitchen has been running for almost twenty years. Even a non-engineer can easily maintain and troubleshoot it. Need to re-light the pilot? There is a mechanical valve to push and a solenoid to make sure it stays lit. Need to turn the burner pilot up or down? There is a single screw that opens or closes the valve. The oven vent is safely away from any heat sensitive components, ensuring that nothing overheats or burns. The only weak point is the thermocouple, which can easily be replaced and in any case should last for decades.

The oven burner, mechanical pilot and thermocouple in my trusty GE Hotpoint oven.

Now let’s look at a fancy new LG oven. You might be surprised that a company known for cell phones is in the oven business, but other electronics makers including Samsung and Panasonic are in the household appliances industry as well! The biggest selling features on these new models are electronics…digital clocks and timers are standard and most now include programmable computers that control a range of features including sensor arrays and cloud connectivity!

So, what’s the problem with modern day household appliances? Who wouldn’t want to control their oven via cell phone from across the country, right? The problem is that the new gadgetry is precisely the root cause of the short life of newer products. The first thing to notice is the huge number of components. Compared to the simple old Hotpoint oven, the LG has hundreds of electronic sensors and connections tied into a motherboard. Which component would you expect to fail first…a stainless steel valve that opens and closes once per day, or a circuit board with integrated circuits and hundreds of plastic connectors that are always on? I think the answer is obvious.

But surely the manufacturers are just trying to make a better product with updated technology, right? Of course they don’t want the electronics to fail…there’s just no way to increase the life of a computer. Or is there?

Given the heat sensitive nature of circuit boards and electronics, the wise design decision would be to keep the most sensitive electronics well away and insulated from the hottest spots on the oven. Most engineers would figure this out, especially since older designs clearly took this into account.

However, where is the main circuit board (the one that will cost you several hundred dollars to replace) located on almost all new models? Right next to the oven vent, in probably the worst most exposed location available! A great example of crap design. It almost makes you think that a decision was explicitly made to design the appliance for a limited life…or is that a little harsh?

An LG oven control board.

Crap Design in Your Washing Machine

Let’s move on to your washing machine. Many new washers, like ovens, come loaded with lots of high-tech electronic features like programmable cycles and resource monitoring. As we already covered this pretty well in the “ovens” section, most of these new electronic features complicate the design and offer plenty of new failure modes for the machine. This is the case with pretty much all appliances.

However, washing machines often have some unique crap design features of their own. The most common is the front-loading washer. Many newer energy efficient washers load from the front instead of the top, which allows you to stack them to save space. However, the downside is that front-loading washers are prone to mold and mildew, often causing problems with odors that are nearly impossible to fix.

In a traditional top-loading washer, moist air from the wash cycle naturally rises out of the machine, ventilating and drying the inside. In the front-loaders, there is nowhere for the damp air to go. It gets trapped in the washer and becomes a breeding ground for smelly mildew and mold. So much for progress!

Some new front-loaders now require special cleaning products or offer self-cleaning cycles that purge the damp air, adding further complications and extra features just to create a band-aid fix for a crap design.

A final problem that I see with almost all modern washing machines is the problem of confusing buttons. Basic UX design principles indicate that the interface should be designed with the user in mind. In the case of a washing machine one would think that the user should be able to figure out how to use the product without referring to a manual (or online forums), but a button array like the one below is extremely common:

With over 30 different icons, does this seem like a good design for the average user?

Can you tell what each of these buttons represents? And how many of these are really necessary to wash your clothes? It almost seems like this was designed to give the impression of “high-tech”, even though most users will likely not use many of these features. I wonder what these extra features add to the price (and to the estimated life of the product)? It is yet another example of a crap design.

The Future of Household Appliances – Useful Tech or Gimmicky Crap

Can you think of any other household appliances that suffer from crap design? If you’ve fitted out your kitchen in the last ten years, my guess is you can.

But is this the future – gimmicky gadgets designed to fail? Or will the engineers and designers of household appliances return to their roots and make well-designed, long-lasting products that help streamline our daily tasks. Only time will tell…

About: Matt Coughlin

Matt is an engineer and entrepreneur from California. He has worked for several large companies and as a consultant in manufacturing and design engineering.

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