Lightbulbs

29.01.2015

In retrospect, it was an unfair fight. The older woman was sophisticated, razor sharp, and clearly experienced in situations like this. The younger Canadian girl was a Genius, but she was tired, physically and emotionally, so she was on the back foot from the outset. The power surged from one to the other. It was impossible to look away.
 
“I won’t accept your excuses this time”, the older one asserted. "A firmware upgrade won’t be enough - I demand a new iPod.”
 
Now, I love getting stuff sorted in the Apple Store as much as the next man (a student called Jack, who was there with a failing battery in his iPhone 5. Just four hours at full charge!). The service is exemplary, and the camaraderie is guaranteed. Like any GP's waiting room, or prison canteen, sit there for a minute or two and the conversation will turn to what you’re in for.
 
The symptoms are similar, and treatable, but the underlying complaint is generally the same. The products in which we have all invested financially, and on which we are dependent emotionally, have let us down. Again. The great service of Apple and its on-the-ground team pours bearded, tattooed, soothing balm on our various maladies. But what takes longer to heal is the feeling that these failures are inevitable. And inherent.
 
The phenomenon of planned obsolescence was a recurring theme when I was a Product Design undergraduate in the 1980s (ouch). Since then, the replacement cycle just keeps getting shorter, a trend that is captured and articulated beautifully in the 2010 film The Lightbulb Conspiracy. We know that products often fail just outside of their guarantee. We know that we’ll keep investing in them to protect our original spend. We know that manufacturers will change something in the cynical knowledge that we’ll upgrade the product to match the peripheral. As the industrial designer Brooks Stevens observed, we have fully bought into “...the desire to own something a little newer, a little better, a little sooner than is necessary”.
 
And it’s not just limited to manufactured products or the fashion industry (which has made an absolute virtue out of seasonal obsolescence). It’s digital too. Software upgrades are pitched to make us feel we have to move away from the previous version, while not employing the technology or functionality that is being saved for the next iteration. But what about websites?
 
It’s generally accepted that the lifespan of an organisation’s website is similar to that of a computer: two to four years. Sure, this can be mitigated: content can be updated, an effective CMS will support the upgrades necessary to maintain the wellbeing of the architecture, good responsive design will accommodate changing browser sizes and screen resolutions. But the fact is, the organisations themselves are mutable. They merge with other companies, they adopt new strategies, they rebrand or they simply outgrow their online presence. 

Websites must be reflections of this organic lifecycle, in their structure, their content, their technology and the relationships they have with other channels. It's our responsibility to ensure that our clients understand the opportunities that creates, and are ready to embrace a pattern of more frequent change, despite the pervading culture of dissatisfaction with planned and often technological obsolescence.
 
I was thinking about this as I packed up to leave the Genius Bar with my repaired laptop. The woman opposite was sitting with a look of serene satisfaction, as only a septuagenarian could. Her exasperated Genius had finally accepted defeat, and scurried off to fetch a new replacement iPod. “Congratulations” I said. “That was impressive!” She laughed loudly, belying her years. “Oh that was nothing - you should meet my mum!"

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