Mon 28 Apr
Generally, I think it’s great when companies adopt a bit of the customer-friendly approach to designing and packaging products that most of us have come to associate with Apple. I’m talking about the premise that, even after the consumer has handed over her money for a physical product, the process of opening up its packaging and using it for the first time should be as seductive and reassuring as was the experience of having been sold on it in the first place — if not more enjoyable, even.
Take, for example, this external hard drive that I bought recently from Seagate: an inexpensive model called the FreeAgent. I’ve never thought of Seagate, a well-respected hard drive manufacturer but not a particularly friendly brand, as being very consumer-focused, but I have to admit they surprised me. Mostly.
Have a look at the first thing that greeted me when I the box opened: a very nicely designed, pithily written ‘getting started’ brochure that employs simple, friendly graphics to reassure new owners of this device’s exceedingly simple set-up. A series of cleanly drawn diagrams and pleasingly succinct instructions follow; a basically useless but nevertheless amusing stopwatch graphic appears at the bottom left of each of the brochure’s panels, estimating — well, guesstimating — the total elapsed time at each step. There’s real wit and empathy at work here, and I have to offer a tip of the hat to Seagate’s designers for it.
The hardware itself is entertainingly packaged too, even inside of the box. Each of the drive’s few parts — cable, power supply and chassis — comes wrapped in a modestly stylish silver bag, with its flap folded over and sealed with a perfectly great little, round, yellow sticker that says, in typography that matches the brochure, “Hello.” A genuinely pleasant little touch that’s strongly but not slavishly reminiscent of Apple.
Still, all the clever packaging design in the world can’t fully obscure Seagate’s relative inexperience in this kind of thinking. While the company did invest the industrial design dollars to make the FreeAgent’s drive itself not unattractive in appearance, it glaringly failed to follow through in a small but very important detail.
The drive’s power brick — the transformer that’s a part of nearly every electronic device that sits on one’s desk — is of the sort that’s physically combined with the plug. Seagate should have made the brick its own component, with a normal, smaller plug attached to it via an extension. Instead, the company chose this presumably cheaper but much more inconvenient configuration, with the result being that the head of the plug is much larger and more unwieldy than it needs to be.
Among computer hardware manufacturers this is not an uncommon choice, but that doesn’t excuse it; taken all together, the many combination bricks and plugs that I have stashed under my desk is one of the least favorite aspects of my computing set-up. The thought of adding another outsized one to the mix, and the attendant frustration of negotiating the mess, does not reflect favorably on the Seagate at all.
To their credit, the brick-plug combination Seagate has chosen is not completely unsympathetic to the thicket of wires and plugs growing around nearly every power strip. Rather than extending downwards from the prongs, it extends to the side, so that it can slip in nicely with a conventional power strip. In theory. The problem is I use a slightly fancier power strip that attempts to accommodate the many other less clever brick-plug combos that I own by arranging the outlets side-by-side, rather than on top of one another. The logistics probably aren’t worth explaining in more detail here, but suffice it to say, this drive doesn’t plug easily into my power strip.
It seems unfair to ding Seagate to harshly for this faux pas. Clearly, they are thinking about the consumer experience at a fairly deep level over there, given their otherwise successful attempts to make the FreeAgent’s a friendly product, in packaging and design. They came close to really getting it right; just not close enough. In these matters, where small details count for so much, follow-through is everything.