Pro-Repair Design

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29th January 2024
 · 
6 min read

Betanews

I think the dryer in our dishwasher is busted.

The dishes come out clean but wet, so I assume that's the issue. I don't really know, I'm not a dishwasher expert.

Talking through possible avenues with my wife, she pointed out there were really only two options:

  1. Fix it ourselves.
  2. Buy a new washing machine.

The third option; have someone come to repair it, isn't even really an option. In my wife's words, "It would cost half the price of the machine to have someone look at it."

I have to admit, again, she's not wrong.

It got me to thinking about how we got here. It wasn't that long ago, certainly in within my lifetime, that if an appliance broke we'd call the appliance repairman. At one point in time he'd be able to fix it with the spares in his van. Later, he'd have to order the part and come back to fit it.

Now we don't get the technician at all, especially if the appliance isn't hardwired.

We just throw it out and buy a new one.

How We Got Here

How it came to be that we no longer consider getting a technician to repair an appliance is a convergence of several factors. This could of course be an essay unto itself, but here's the simplistic version:

Labour Costs In Export Markets

Paying someone a living wage costs money. Technician's time cost money, their inventory overhead costs money, and their van costs money. In markets where your appliance resides, those costs are passed onto the customer. It's expensive to have a technician look at your appliance.

Exploitation of Labour In Producing Markets

This isn't new. In the pursuit of profit, labour has been moved offshore to countries where paying a living wage is highly optional. This has driven down COGS and increased profits, but it has also had the effect of driving down retail prices. Over the last 50 years, consumers have got very comfortable with not paying a lot for appliances.

Integrated Design

In the pursuit of reduced component and assembly costs, appliances (and many other products) are made up of many integrated subassemblies. It's not a bracket and a motor, now the bracket is also the motor. This is a double-edged sword. It reduces assembly labour - and ultimately retail price, but increases repair cost. If a different SKU is needed for every model and the parts are complex, this increases part cost and reduces availability (further increasing part cost).

Anti-Repair Design

It is steadily getting worse.

Apple is the poster-child of how they use their resources to control the hardware, software, and aftermarket. Apple rolled out their pentalobe screw with the iPhone 4 in 2011, and today their software monitors their hardware to lock down functionality if 3rd party parts are detected.

Apple will happily sell and install a genuine part for you though.

Oh, and you will need replacement parts. The glass backs are slippery and fragile. They're designed to break.

When Apple controls the aftermarket parts, they control the price of the aftermarket parts. They can keep cranking up the price of repairs as long as people will pay them. And when they stop paying, an otherwise serviceable product goes into landfill to make way for a new device.

Anti-repair design means more profit for shareholders. Apple only leads by example, many companies are following suit. The active anti-repair designs of many products will further alienate the repair technician.

The repairman, and all his knowledge, will go extinct.

Post-Anti-Repair

The pendulum will swing back the other way.

As many companies (and products) race to the bottom in the pursuit of profit, room will be made at the top for quality products that last.

Further, if the current global economic trend continues, people may start caring more about where and how their money is spent. And what they're getting in return.

Granted, high quality, long-lasting and repairable products will be luxury items not everyone can afford. Yes they will be expensive, yet I think people may start to again see the value in paying for what you get. If it's expensive and serves a user well, the desire to repair and keep using it is also high.

Yet in the same way that Western countries exported their manufacturing know-how only to want it back once "Sovereign Capability" became a thing, so too will the expertise of repairing goods be gone.

The right to repair is one thing, but who's going to repair it?

Pro-Repair Design

These products must be durable and repairable, but also must be designed to repaired by the layperson. Albeit, and a handy one with a quiver of YouTube tutorials, user manuals, and online communities.

There is already some movement in this space. Framework laptops and Fairphone phones are notable in this regard. There is no reason that this philosophy can't extend to all manner of goods, including dishwashers.

While these things are somewhat idealistic, as designers we have a responsibility to design (when we can) for the user's benefit, not just Milburn Pennybags.

Usability On The Inside

Think you're a slick usability designer? Take it inside too. The simplest way is just use more screws to ease disassembly, but it goes much deeper than that. In the same way that a product is designed for ease of a assembly in production, so should it be designed for disassembly and/or repair.

As an example, I've replaced the bushes in the motor in my washing machine several times. I don't even need to disassemble the unit, just lay it on its side to access the motor. Yet one of the bushes is easy to replace, and the other is near-impossible. If the motor had been rotated even 30° on its axis, it would make bushing changes a doddle.

Make ease of use a thing when it comes to repair too.

Decipherable Architecture

Hand in hand with usability should be system architecture that is easy to understand. This goes against the current trend of integrating everything to save money and space, but isn't wholly mutually exclusive.

Once a user has cracked open the case, are they able to diagnose the issue? Can they trace the symptoms to the cause? This is obviously easier or harder to achieve depending on the product. It's easy to identify the motor in a washing machine, but harder to point to the motor controller. At the very least the architecture functions should be identifiable by discrete subassemblies.

System architecture shouldn't obfuscate the product functionality.

Standardised Interfaces

I'm a strong proponent of leveraging industry standards where possible.

These exist to increase interoperability, 3rd party repair, and encourage an aftermarket that can greatly extend the service life of many products. Imagine if the wiper blades on your car were a specific design only to your car.

No Special Tools

There is no valid reason to use a tri-point or pentalobe screw in a consumer device other than as an anti-user measure.

Who's Going to Repair It

Sure, COGS will be higher. And as a company you may miss out on the revenue from replacement parts, repair fees, or replacement units. The opportunity to design for the user to be able repair your products sounds crazy in our current anti-user climate.

Yet, as users cop onto the tactics used by large companies to thwart user and 3rd party repair, they'll start to vote with their wallets. A business case already exists for products built with 3rd party repair in mind.

Designer's will need to think about who's going to repair it.


I post every week on the topics of design, medtech, and my journey in it. If you'd like to follow along, feel free to subscribe to the newsletter, follow on LinkedIn, or subscribe to the RSS feed with this link.

Tagged: business · design · honest design