Don’t Be Weird

4th December 2023
5 min read

Designer's all have egos.

Usually it peaks somewhere around mid-career, and then experience finally gets the better of them. Mostly.

One of the symptoms of a designer's ego is to do things a bit different to the status quo. They believe there is room for improvement, and being excellent designers they want to change things up. Not just change something for the better, but make sure people know it was them to move things forward.

Usually they're not wrong, but the picture is always bigger than they imagine. And this is the part they come to learn.

Let me introduce you to the DT Swiss Squorx Pro spoke nipple.

For the uninitiated, a spoke nipple is what pulls tension on your bicycle's wheel spokes. They attach the rim to the hub, and keep it round. They have a pretty important job for a gram or two of brass (or aluminium).

Generally, spoke nipples are spoke nipples and have been for a century.

Spoke nipples usually have a slot in one end to fit a screwdriver and a set of flats along the shank to fit a spoke wrench. The screwdriver is usually only used for initial assembly, and the lion's share of tensioning is done with the spoke wrench.

Stay with me here.

I say usually because DT Swiss saw room for improvement by adding an inverse torx to the end of the nipple instead of a slot. Gone is the screwdriver, and it its place is a new Squorx tool.

There are several advantages to this:

  • Almost all the wheel assembly can be done by driving the end of the spoke, making assembly faster.
  • The driver better holds the nipple so you don't drop it.
  • The torx-esque drive feature can handle high levels of torque without deforming.
  • Creates market differentiation. Especially in a market where there is little to differentiate.

On a technical level the Squorx Pro nipple is an objectively better nipple. However:

  • They're expensive.
  • Availability is a problem. Usually when you need one in a hurry.
  • You need a special driver for them, which adds cost and is also not available everywhere.
  • If you need to replace one with a standard nipple, because of the above, you now need both sets of tools anyway.

The Squorx Pro Nipple is weird.

And don't think this issue is only isolated to obscure corners of the niche markets.

It happens everywhere. In addition to being an unmitigated disaster, the Tesla Semi has a centre-mounted drivers seat. Like a Maclaren F11. Good (and cool) in theory, until you need to interact through the window. Or lean out for better visibility while reversing. Or have to get half the truck into the next lane before you can see if it's safe to overtake.

As A Designer

Just because something could be better, doesn't mean you should change it.

If you're making something weird, you need to have a very good reason why.

I wrote some time ago about why you may make a medical device something other than white, and the same principal applies here. There may be good technical reasons to change a design relative to convention, but you need to think much bigger. Think beyond the immediate and obvious impacts, and consider the ripple effect of your change. This is second order thinking.

While it's often possible to visualise these ripple effects, humans are nothing if not irrational. People will always find new ways to surprise you with behaviours outside of your expectations. The best way to combat this is through user testing.

This is not user testing, this is pretending to do user testing because it's too hard. Don't do this.

Instead, do real user testing with real users.

Build prototypes, and get them in the hands of users. Depending on the fidelity of your prototype, more or less information can be gathered from them. Generally the higher fidelity the prototype, the more value you can get out of it2.

Integrating their feedback into your design will almost certainly increase the success of your product. And the longer the term you can test it, the longer-term behaviours you begin to capture. Not just what is immediate and obvious, but once the shine has worn off how (and if) they are still using your device.

I'm not by any means saying the Squorx Pro spoke nipple is a failure, but if DT Swiss had followed the usage of their prototypes over the long term, they may have seen the entropy in wheels built with Squorx nipples. I've seen it, because I've done it.

Don't replace one set of problems, with another set of problems.

As A Client

While it may be exciting and attractive to break new ground and differentiate yourself from the competition, it must be done in a measured approach. Changes to convention must have strong justification, without creating new problems.

In areas were there is little established convention, then there is much more room for weirdness. Though don't forget that universal, cultural, and societal conventions exist. Humans will always want to do things in certain ways.

Test everything.

Spending more to prototype and re-prototype may actually save you money in other ways down the line. Development costs go near-exponential the closer the device gets to market, and exponential once on the market. An extra few $ spent on development time and prototyping will pay off.

If you're paying a designer to develop new designs in an established space with specific conventions, it's worth your effort to challenge their ideas early and often.

Keep your designer honest. Challenge their assumptions. Frustrate them. Hurt their ego.

If the ideas are strong ideas, they will withstand the scrutiny.

Make changes that solve genuine needs without breaking anything else.

That's not being weird, that's innovation.

[1]  Where do you think Maclaren puts the steering wheel in their cars now?

[2]  For instance:

  • Proof of concept - Proving the fundamental idea works, but little else.
  • Works-like prototypes - Works like the real thing, but doesn't look like it. May even be a completely different layout. A more advanced POC, and sometimes can be used for clinical testing.
  • Looks-like prototypes - Shows what the device may look like, but doesn't work. Probably uses the wrong materials, dressed up as production materials.
  • Production prototypes - Look and work like the real thing. Can possibly even be tested under real-world conditions.
  • Pre-production units - Is the real thing, from prototype or production tooling, but still open for changes. Great for clinical testing.

I'm doing my best to get a post out every week on the topics of design, medtech, and my journey in it. If you'd like to follow along, feel free to either subscribe to the newsletter or give me a follow on LinkedIn. Even better; subscribe to the RSS feed with this link.

ⓒ Lincoln Black 2024

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