Product Design

Broken Is a State of Mind, Researchers Say

Why don’t people fix things? Some UK design researchers have a reasonable, but not shocking, answer: Repair means we have to work for our stuff, when we expect our stuff to work for us.

A group of Nottingham Trent researchers surveyed 507 vacuum cleaner owners last year about their maintenance and repair attitudes. In theory, most people are open to repair: 80% of respondents said they’d consider getting a broken vacuum repaired—but only 18% had ever actually done it. Nearly as many people (16%) admitted that they never perform any vacuum maintenance, such as changing the filter or cleaning the brush bar.

Dyson vacuum repair
French iFixit user christophe is among the 18% of vacuum owners who have repaired one. From his Dyson repair guide.

Vacuums contribute more to greenhouse gas emissions than any electrical product except televisions. And 50% of the people who bought vacuums in 2012 were replacing one that was less than 5 years old, even though most expect a vacuum to last at least that long.

Giuseppe Salvia, Tim Cooper, and their team say that when users think something’s “broken,” it’s “not necessarily an intrinsic condition but, rather, a perception of the machine demanding unwanted effort of the user.” That is, it often ain’t as broke as we think—people are just lazy. When you buy a machine, you’re trying to automate something. Repair and maintenance invert that relationship.

In non-repairing people’s defense, products often encourage our laziness. The greatest tech minds in the world are competing to build a bowing, deferential personal assistant crew: Siri, Cortana, Alexa, and Google Now all live to serve. And they bury the repairable, maintainable bits behind seamless button-free exteriors and proprietary, hidden screws. Because, of course, a butler wouldn’t want to trouble you. Don’t worry about little old me, Siri says. I’ll just be over here nursing my swollen battery until you decide to replace me.

So, the researchers conclude, the real key is better product design. Designers can make maintenance and repair intuitive, easy, and obvious—just as the Fairphone 2 designers have done.

Someday, machines will help us help them. Until then, to make our stuff last, we need to stop thinking of things as broken and start thinking of them as fixable. And maybe let Siri put her feet up once in a while.