When you are faced with the decision, disposability versus durability on your next product design what do you choose? Or put another way, cost versus quality, which way do you lean? It is a decision that no doubt gets debated to some degree at the beginning of every hardware product development program. What you decide will have big ramifications on the product you design. Some products are meant to be used once and thrown away, some only a few times. The rest are meant to last for longer periods of time. But how long should a product really last? The answer I believe has to start with the customer. What do they want and what will they ultimately purchase? We live in a world where quality is very much desired but price often wins out on our buying decisions. So as a society we have become used to products that last far less than we would like them to.
As designers, we have the ability to create desire for a product. That desire makes people want a product. In these instances cost doesn’t matter as much. As consumers, we want what we want and we figure out a way to get it. The ability of the designer to create this type of desire can be a good thing, unless the product does not perform up to the customer’s perceived expectations. A product that promises great things, then under-delivers creates the harshest type of disappointment. It is the contrast of high expectations and poor performance that has customers writing bad reviews on the web.
How To Choose The Right Approach
So what is the right answer in the durability versus disposable battle? You can educate your customers on the value of your product, thus justifying the extra cost of your more durable product. Or you can build a product that meets the cost customers expect to pay which almost always results in a less durable product. At the end of the day, your product needs to make money in order to be viable and this decision needs to be made carefully.
The topic of disposability versus durability has many ramifications beyond just our expectations as consumers. End of life product waste is a reality that we all will have to deal with in the decades to come. Constant shipping of new products around the world to replace broken or old products uses massive amounts of fuel and increases air pollution. The question is, “can a business case be made for more durable products that people actually want to use for longer periods of time? One that is also a profitable business model?”
A Real-life Example
One example of how a more durable product solved a real need is the One World Soccer Ball. Here the inventor, Tim Jahnigen, talks about how he used the concept of durability to build a new type of ball.
“This ball, the One World Futbol, is currently played with by nearly 80 million children in the harshest environments of virtually every refugee camp, disaster area, UN Hot Spots, and at-risk communities in 187 countries. The average lifespan of an inflated ball in Africa, the Middle East, and anywhere there is no perfectly groomed and leveled field of play, is one hour, due to barbed wire, thorns, sharp metal and broken glass. Some places go through 2-3 balls just to play one game.”
Tim defined the problem he wished to solve. Traditional soccer balls don’t last in harsh environments. The use of the PopFoam’s EVA foam addressed the problem, creating a ball that is very durable and will self inflate if it is punctured.
Many times as designers we face environmental circumstances that require more durable materials. We may be redesigning a previous product version that failed too many times. If a product is meant to be repaired we can get around failed parts with replacement parts. Lots of products these days are not designed to be serviced. This means the product is only as good as its weakest material. When that breaks, the product gets thrown away.
Tim spells out the value proposition of the One World ball this way.
“The very first time that ball hits something that would immediately destroy a regular inflated ball, it keeps playing! No one notices that in that moment the ball just reduced, reused, and recycled itself.....and paid for itself, thus also zeroing out its carbon footprint; which it continues to do several times a day for years to come.”
The Decision Is Yours
We live in a time where old materials are being upgraded to better performance and new ones are being produced. As designers the materials we choose for our new product designs matter. We have options! A better material choice can allow us to design a product in a completely different way. We may be able to solve a challenging problem which creates a product our customers want to use for many years. If our material choice also results in greater durability we might see greater customer loyalty and greater sales volumes.
Tim sums it up like this;
“When it comes to understanding not only the function of the product you are developing, consider looking into the point, or points, at which it overcomes the failure of, and outlasts any other competitive product(s) or solutions as a way of calculating its deeper value and positive contribution to the environment we all share so we all, as designers and developers, get the pleasure of under-promising and over-delivering!”
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