Small Design Issues Can Have Big Impacts

Dec. 12, 2011
Bill Wong talks about design issues and his appearances on You Bet Your Garden and WTF Are We Doing.

It must be the time for radio and podcasts this week. I am actually on two. I had a question that got me on You Bet Your Garden (YBYG), MP3 Dec 10, 2011. This is a program on my local PBS station, WHYY. The other was the latest biweekly podcast of WTF Are We Doing.

So what does all this have to do with design? Well, I had to work these in somehow but it does get a point I have wanted to make about how design has impact well beyond a developer's initial intent. This can be interesting as well as deadly.

Case in point, a friend and his family survived what could have been a deadly fire caused by their thermostat. Seems the designer included a feature whereby the batteries could be recharged by the system. Unfortunately, it can cause a fire if the batteries are not rechargeable batteries. I don't know all the details but a variant of the thermostat was already being recalled for just this issue. Luckily their fire alarms went off. A good reminder to change those batteries in your fire alarms if you have not done it this year. I just did.

But back to my short appearance on YBYG I'll start at the beginning. I've been composting leaves for many years now. I finally stopped using the shredded bark mulch that was actually killing my trees and replaced it with my compost. The trees and bushes are actually doing quite well now but usually my leaves didn't turn into the dark black compost everyone talks about. Part of the issue is the lack of things other than leaves in the pile because I use a mulching mower on the grass.

Lately this has changed because we have a share at the Honey Brook Organic Farm, a CSA (community supported agriculture) farm. That provides weekly vegetables and fruits during the spring and summer so there was some excess greener like leaves, cores, etc. that could go in the pile. Still, that didn't amount to much compared to the size of the pile that as 6' by 6' by 5'.

A little digging about compost led to coffee grounds. Now we don't drink coffee in our house but my wife Ann is now bringing some home from work. Many workplaces provide coffee and some are turning to the individual servings. This design provides users with options along with a good cup of coffee.

Unfortunately it is extremely wasteful. Not only are the packets not biodegradable, they essentially protect the coffee grounds that are inside. It is a tiny amount on an individual basis but a typical office many generate a hundred used packets a day. I suspect that millions are used every day. That is a lot of trash.

I suspect that it would not be easy to design a package that would work with these systems that was not plastic or metal. In any case, we are now recovering the coffee grounds from about 100 packets each day and tossing the coffee grounds in the compost pile. It takes a little time since I have to cut off the tops and use a knife to scrape out the grounds. It goes quickly once you get into the rhythm.

Now for the question of the week. How do you put coffee grounds into a pile that already exists as was the case this year. It turns out that there is a device called a compost turner or compost aerator. I was told about that is actually Wagle. I did a little searching online and finally bought one at Compost Mania.

If you listen to the YBYG podcast, I'm Bill from Yardley.

On the other note, I am on the 19th episode of the WTF Are We Doing podcast. This is a biweekly podcast that is usually about web design and development. Brant Steen, one of the hosts, is my son-in-law. Full disclosure and all that. The episode is about embedded design in the context of web design and development so it doesn't cover any new ground for most Electronic Design readers who are well ensconced in embedded development. On the other hand, it might be an interesting podcast series to check out if web design or web interfaces are part of your work requirements.

BTW, I picked up another Logitech Squeezebox Radio at Best Buy the other day. They are down to $129. I've had a Sqeezebox Boom (see Networking Invigorates The Home Multimedia Blitz) since 2008 and love it. I also run Logitech's free Squeezebox Server on my Linux file server. It is not always the easiest thing to set up but it works great once it is set up.

Actually set up is one thing I can complain about with the Squeezebox Radio. By default it wants to communicate with when My Music is selected. That is fine for a standalone configuration and you can maintain your preferences on "the cloud" but, as noted, I like to use a local server. A little searching online reveals the process. Temporarily disconnect your gateway from the Internet and try to play a file that it can now no longer get to. It finally lets you search for a new server and finds the local server.

The source selection should have been available in the Network settings. An alternative would have been to replicate the server selection that was available under the My Music menu. Unfortunately, the menu is not shown if the source is not available until a server has been found. Catch-22.

So there are some designs with small issues that can have a big impact on their use. They range from battery chargers that can cause fires to coffee containers that create more trash. Just about any designer can come up with dozens of these examples. The trick is not to repeat the bad ones and to think about the alternatives and long term issues when it is easy to make changes.

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