Out of the Box Thinking

Seagate FreeAgentGenerally, 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.


The Consumer’s in the Details

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.

This Won’t Take Long

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.

Bag

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.

Power Brick

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.

So Close, Yet So Far

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.

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  1. I got one of this FreeAgent hard drives and I was as surprised as you, I liked the little manual that had these big fonts with the phrase ‘This won’t take long’.

  2. I own the same drive as well, and I also remember being pleasantly surprised upon opening up the box.

    Interestingly enough, I sat through a presentation from some folks at frog design earlier this evening, and they just so happened to spend a few minutes talking about the out-of-box experience they designed for this exact line of storage devices from Seagate.

  3. Oddly enough, both (European?) versions of Seagate’s FreeAgent and FreeAgent Pro that I’ve bought in Israel didn’t have the sticker text, nor the manual…

    Also, the FreeAgent Pro has a weird on/off touch-button which rarely works as intended, and doesn’t provide feedback when operated.

  4. The wall-wart opinion is an opinion, so I think any choice the designers make is a compromise. I know plenty of folks who despise the dangly power brick as that needs to find a home.

    Having not seen the product, would it have been better if the stickers said what was in each package, instead of just ‘hello’?

  5. I concur with the previous poster that this adapter design is a decision rather than a failure. Sure, the wallwart is inconvenient, but I don’t need yet another brick fighting my feet for control of the floor. A better design is employed by the Nintendo DS, whose adapter includes prongs that fold into the body of the wallwart and make it easier to pack and move.

  6. Every filmmaker and editor I know has a cluster of 5-10 firewire drives on the floor next to his/her Mac. Dealing with them is among the worst day-to-day parts of the job. Sometimes I’ll try a new drive brand just to see how its ergonomics work with my setup. That said, the dangly brick is a slight improvement over the wall-wart. For the FreeAgent, fun design or no, I’d have to take points away because it’s not stackable. If someone could design a good experience of owning four or more drives, serial drive buyers like myself would line up like kids on their way to recess.

  7. Power bricks in general are evil. The only situation I can think of where they are justified is portable battery-powered devices; if you can take it on the road and operate it without a power plug, it makes sense to separate the power supply so you don’t have to carry the whole thing with you. In all other cases, I vastly prefer it if the designer builds the power supply into the case itself, and provide a simple, standard power cord. Less clutter, easy to replace the cord if it gets lost or damaged.

    I’ve seen the argument that making the PS an external brick improves cooling issues, and I don’t buy it as a general argument. There have certainly been hundreds of thousands of devices designed over the years that have had no cooling problems with internal power supplies.

  8. I was also at the presentation from Frog Design, and I think they did a pretty good job with the packaging design. Its refreshing to have that type of packaging on a computer related product. I think often times computer equipment often seems kind of cold and uninviting, especially to older users, and this makes it seem more personable and friendly.

    On the note of the powerbricks, it would be nice if a company made a brick that could accommodate multiple cords (one brick could be used for up to 4 or so hard drives), or one that could be connected to each-other, like christmas light strands, at least there would be fewer bricks under the desk to get my feet tangled in.

  9. I too was surprised by the nice packaging when I opened up my Seagate drive earlier this year. For some reason it made me feel like I had made the right choice, and that it was going to be more reliable than my previous purchases.

    So far that seems to be the case (fingers crossed).

  10. I have to say that I like the small brick that comes with your Seagate drive (and a similar unit from Fantom that I just purchased) more than the cord-brick-cord style that came with the 5 other external drives on my desk. For a drive I’m likely to throw in a bag and take with me, I really appreciate that the brick is smaller and the cord is thinner and there’s less of it.

    But I agree that it’s too bad that the design doesn’t extend to the power adapter. The whole problem of proliferating non-standard transformers could use some deeper thinking — The 6 external drives on my desk have 5 different types of DC plugs — even devices from the same vendor. I had to mark them all with different colored paint at each end to be able to figure out if I was unplugging the right one. Something like Powered USB that would eliminate all these device-specific cords and bricks would be wonderful.

    Until then, props to Apple for extending design to the power cord. Their transformer with folding prongs and built-in cable management satisfying everytime I pack it up. Other manufacturers, please copy.

  11. Hatred of clunky bricks led me to the smaller USB-powered Free Agent.

    The Free Agent packaging was alluring, but it also left me disappointed: From the outside photos I thought the drive case was rubberized. I wonder how many others were fooled.

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