Crappy By Design

Great design and carefully planned strategies are all around us.  The iPhone changed everything for phone manufacturers. masterfully trickled out invites to waiting music lovers and created huge demand during the wait.

But what about companies, products and organizations that make what seem like boneheaded decisions.  Are they just not trying hard enough?  After all, even the dumbest companies can copy success and find some success for themselves.  But what about smart companies that do crazy things?  Maybe they are not as foolish as we might initially think.  

Take Netflix for example.  They revolutionized movie rentals, shifting revenue away from punitive late fees and unlocking a gold mine of subscription fees.  They made corporate incumbents look like jokers and put the major brick and mortar chains out of business.  But then they made an incredibly unpopular move and jacked up their prices- alienating a huge percentage of their member base.  And, if that is not bad enough, they went a step further by spinning off their core business- DVD delivery by mail- into a new business with the insane name (or is it, or or get the point.  It’s impossible to remember let alone spell).  

Was that a colossal fuck up by a company that is famous for making smart choices?  Or, is it crappy by design?  When Netflix raised prices a month before spinning out their DVD business the strategy was clear.  They wanted people to stop using the DVD service in favor of the higher margin streaming service.  It is a sensible goal but since the selection of movies available on streaming is anything but comprehensive, users needed a little bit of motivation to make the move.  The price increase was that push.  What’s more, there were no savings offered to users who chose to keep a bundled service with both streaming and DVD.  The message was clear.  

There was an outcry by users and it looked like a PR nightmare but Netflix stuck to their guns and a month later, introduced where users would be billed separately, have to maintain a separate log in and manage a separate wish list of movies.  

They added friction.  This is the definition of crappy by design.  They know that the domain name sucks.  They know it is a hassle to have two different movie queues.  They know that you will look at your credit card bill and see two different charges.  And that is the plan.  It drives users away from the lower margin business.  

What about crappy by design in the real world?  The California Academy of Science is a beacon of green building practices.  They reclaim water, use solar power and insulate with a living roof- the largest of its kind in the world.  Not only is it built with environmental conservation in mind, the entire space is dedicated to educating visitors about living in harmony with nature.  This state of the art building has a two story parking garage underneath it for visitors who travel long distances to visit.  
As thoughtful and functional as the building upstairs is, the garage is a disaster.  It is hard to get into and out of.  Passing a slow parker is impossible.  There is no turn out or temporary parking for people who enter accidentally, loose their ticket or forget to pay before exiting.  That can back up traffic in both directions.  In order to enter or exit you have to drive through the entire garage.  Crossing from the north side to the south side is often prohibited with cones or other barriers.  It is not uncommon for it to take ten or more minutes to park after entering and that is time you pay for.  

So what is going on here?  How could the architects have spent so much time thinking about how foot traffic will flow through the museum and not consider how auto traffic would flow through the garage?  Is this a case of not going that last mile to achieve greatness or could it be intended to drive you crazy?

If they can make it unpleasant enough to drive, maybe people will take public transit, walk or ride their bikes.  That would push the environmental agenda forward.  So maybe the bad parking experience is not an accident.  Maybe it is crappy by design.  

Health insurance is another product that is crappy by design.  It is too confusing and convoluted for most people to figure out.  Even when an employer is paying for it, plans are intentionally obscure and difficult to manage.  Picking a plan is a shot in the dark.  All you can do is hope that it covers whatever comes your way over the next year.  The insurance company spends a lot of time, money and energy complicating what should be a simple offering- ‘you get sick or hurt and we will take care of it’.  It is designed to be a bad experience but you have no alternative.  
Still, crappy by design can not explain everything.  Some things are just bad.  AT&T service on the iPhone is terrible.  There is no upside.  Rush hour traffic around Southern California is never good.  Arbitrary TSA security protocols at US airports would be funny if they were not so inconvenient.  

No, crappy by design is intentionally inefficient with a specific goal in mind.  Netflix wants to change user behavior by raising prices and adding difficulty for users of the core service.  The California Academy of Science makes parking frustrating in order to get people to leave their cars at home.  Insurance companies complicate plan selection and claims processes to confuse customers and reduce the liklihood of paying for medical services.  

Of course there is risk involved with annoying customers.  Netflix stock is tanking and hoards of users are leaving (including me).  People still drive to the Academy of Science, they just arrive at the front door agitated.  Insurance customers have no choice so they pick a plan and hope for the best.  Until there is a simple inexpensive alternative (and some dramatic changes to the way people get coverage; but that is another post) there is little risk for insurance companies.  

So that leaves two questions.  First, can your business benefit from crappy design?  If so, can you live with the fact that you are intentionally delivering a bad experience?


October 4th, 2011

A couple others companies using 'Crappy by Design' came to mind so I thought I would mention them also. is where millions of people go to make their student loan payments.   The average person takes 30 years to pay off their loans making monthly payments.  That means that they might have to log in to 360 times.  The only reason people log in to that site is to make a payment on their loan.  There are no tools to barrow more money.  There is no way to shift your education debt to someone else.  All you can do is pay.  Why then does log in require a username and password...then a cofirmation of your birthday...and your social security number...then a security question (What was your pet's name)....then another security questions (What was the name of your elementary school)...then a form to update your mailing address...and phone number?  If you forget your password the reset protocol is standard except that you can not use a password that you have used in the past so each time you forget and reset your password becomes more and more obscure and hard to remember.  Making log in secure is one thing.  Making it the most secure log in possible, seems like it might be intended to keep people from logging in.  The only reason for doing this would be to lead to missed payments, fees and penalties- most notably a significant upward udjustment of rates.  This gets them out from under federally mandated rate caps.  Crappy.  By design.  

The other one worth noting is from CitiBank.  Their online banking site is clunky and not especially user friendly but it's no worse than other banking websites; until you are late on a credit card payment.  The day after your credit card bill is due you no longer have the ability to pay online.  They engineered the system to prevent payments from being made after the due date.  This one is less obviously by design because the have already assessed the penaly and there is no additional fee until you miss the next payment date.  There is additional interest charged for every day you carry a balance but then why not make paying online more difficult at all times.  So this one may not be crappy by design but it's sure not good.  Of course the solution is to pay your credit card on time.  

If you have your own excamples of crappy by design leave them in the comments.