Design: It’s All About Alarm Clocks

By | September 17, 2007

Business writer and entrepreneur Seth Godin throws out product ideas like other people throw out orange juice cartons:

For twenty cents or so, alarm clock manufacturers can add a chip that not only knows the time (via a radio signal) but knows what day it is too. Which means that they can add a switch that says “weekends.” Which means that the 98% of the population that doesn’t want to wake up on the same time on weekends as they do on weekdays will be happier (and better rested.)

But he’s not touting a new alarm clock, he’s making a point: “So why doesn’t every alarm clock have this feature?” he asks. “Because most people in that business are busy doing their jobs (distribution, promotion, pricing, etc.), not busy making products that people actually want to buy–and talk about.”

Indeed, companies are always far too busy doing what they’re doing to think about what they’re doing and wonder whether they can do it better. And, as Seth points out, this is because companies are compartmentalized into responsibilities, and brave is the person who tries to straddle departments.

The weekend alarm clock won’t be made by a big alarm clock company, it’ll be designed by someone like Gauri Nanda, who I mentioned a few weeks back as the inventor of Clocky, the alarm clock that goes walkabout. Gauri, needless to say, was working on her own.

Actually what I suspect happens in companies is that they just ignore the user entirely. This is partly because technical products are built (and much of them designed) by programmers and engineers. I hate to generalize, but these people thrive on complexity, not on usability. For them creating and mastering the opaque is an achievement, not a symptom of failure.

What usually happens is that there are two sides to product development: the people in the company who think it’s a good idea and the people who have to build it. But in my limited experience there’s no one in between who speaks both languages, and, most importantly, can see what the customer might expect and want.

This is the hardest bit: it’s called usability and it seems to be the last thing people think about. If you’ve ever grappled with an alarm clock, to continue Seth’s example, you’ll know what I mean.

My favorite is the alarm clock that makes a beep every time you press a button: not so useful if you’re trying to quietly set the alarm but not wake your loved one. One clock I have, despite being sophisticated enough to tell me the temperature, the time in Lima and how many thous in a furlong, even makes a beep when I hit the backlight button. And no, it can’t be switched off without a PhD in molecular biophysics.

I wish I could say that this is confined to alarm clocks, but it’s not. Nearly every device or program is dumb in its own way. But there are bright spots. One of the things I love about Web 2.0 is that the people designing the tools really seem to understand usability.

Of course, given the fact that Web 2.0 is one big feedback loop, where new versions pop up like mushroom after rain, it’s inevitable. But the result is websites that are easy to navigate and to figure out.

Apple, of course, figured this out long ago, But everyone else seems to be having problems understanding it. I tried out a website the other day which was supposed to help me find the best form of transportation between two places. The search engine was not smart enough to know a building’s earlier name, or even to recommend alternatives if I got the name slightly wrong.

The internal calculator was not smart enough to get the distances right (one walk I was asked to make between bus-stops would have taken me into the sea and halfway to the next country); neither was it smart enough to realize that was an error. All should have been spotted by any usability tests. All undermine the whole point of the website, which is to make it easy to figure out a way to get from A to B.

I won’t bore you with more examples: You are users, and you come across this stuff all the time. What worries me more is that we’re not listened to, at least in a way in that makes sense.

I was sitting in a seminar the other day listening to an employee of a global cellphone operator talking about she and her colleagues have been canvassing opinions about how consumers use cellphones. This is good, and what should be done, but I was surprised by how she went about it: Getting users together and asking them to make collages about how they use technology.

Frankly, I don’t think making collages is the right way to go about things. We need to get out on the streets, into the offices, bars and clubs, into the villages and factories, and observe how people actually use technology. Don’t expect people to fill in forms or do collages for you: Follow them around. Spy on them. I do.

One of the side-effects of the cellphone revolution is that it’s taken technology out of the usual places (office, den) and into every other room in the house (texting in the bath, watching mobile TV in bed) and beyond, into the bus stops, the subways, the village gazebo. Technology is now a seamless part of our lives. Researchers need to get out more.

The sad truth is that we’ve moved on and the geeks need to catch up. Because, lame as the alarm clock that beeps all the time and doesn’t know it’s the weekend is, nearly all our devices are no better: They’re too smart in the sense of feature density and too stupid in the interface that lets us use those features.

So, companies: Hire a usability consultant to tell you about your products and how they might be better. Or just try your own products: sleep in on a weekend or let your spouse try to find the alarm light button in the middle of the night and see how you like being woken up.

Then rub your eyes, get out of bed and head for the design table.

Seth’s Blog: Alarm clocks

7 thoughts on “Design: It’s All About Alarm Clocks

  1. Danny

    Nice job on this one.

    Here i see two points of interest on which i’d like to leave a though.

    – Making something out of an idea.

    As obvious as it seems, it is worth saying : people get ideas. Lots of them. But sometimes they just don’t spot them.

    “This alarm clock bores me, why didn’t they integrate a no beep mode ? – I don’t know, let’s sleep”

    Then the main problem is that an idea remains an idea most of the time, since people have other things to do. Who is willing to check for patents and get in touch with the relevant company to bring his though to life when his time is consumed by so many other thing ?

    I have never seen a company with a rewarding program for user coming with relevant ideas for their products. Shame uh ?

    – Caring for the other

    It just feels like someone working to produce ideas is more inclined to struggle to see it becoming real than to carefully think about how it will be used.

    The one big exception I know is the video game industry. Their products being fun-and-interaction oriented, developers are obliged to take the user feedback in account, and so goes the beta-testing and pre-release phases when a game will be thoroughly combed for any gameplay flaw.

    But even then, when I entered the pre-entry exam for the french national video game school, I remarked that no one (including myself) had chosen the ergonomics major; everybody wanted to be a designer, a manager, a creative.

    Maybe involvement in the products and better feed-back processing should be the next “customer care” service…

  2. Michael

    Well those “big alarm clock companies” are big for a reason.

    Some facts:

    1. There are already numerous alarm clocks in the market with this feature, yet they don’t sell very well. (Google “msf alarm clock”.)

    2. There isn’t one single radio time standard. In Britain there is the MSF signal from Rugby. In Germany, DCF77 from Mainflingen. In Japan, JJY from Fukushima. In Jakarta… ??? All of them use different frequencies (and possibly different encodings).

    And what about those in other countries? Only four countries (UK, Germany, Japan & USA) maintain time signals in the VLF-band, which can be “heard” from reasonably long distances.

    3. Alarm clocks are commodity products. The money is to sell gazillions of them in as many markets as possible. Due to point #2 above, putting a radio time chip into the clock instantly reduces your market size. Bad for business.

    4. My $15 alarm clock lets me input the day of the week. So simple! Problem solved.

    It knows when the weekend arrives without fancy time chips, external antennas, and aggravating calls to customer service when this chip invariably fails to set the correct time.

    5. People like Seth Godin are too busy looking for technical solutions to made-up problems, not busy making products that people actually want to buy–and talk about.

    (Sorry, just couldn’t resist!)

  3. Pingback: Why Design Is As Important As Promotion

  4. beneuto

    Ah, a man after my own heart! I would like to say, in defence of techies, that those in the so-called “business” side of things can be just as bad when it comes to design – particularly in regards to websites. Time after time I find myself hitting my head against a brick wall trying to convince the client that their internal structures, implemented applications and/or projects do not necessarily translate directly as the best design for a consumer site.

    Everyone thinks they can design but unfortunately most given the opportunity cannot.

    In the software world, despite years of research proving the necessity of design, in practice development teams are employed before requirements, architecture or design is even considered resulting in project managers putting pressure on to complete those steps quickly to get the developers working on the “real work”. Short sighted isolated designs are encouraged in the name of meeting business requirements and designs that allow interoperability but may cost 10% extra are vigorously opposed. This is because apparently no organisation (in my experience) has a business requirement to manage information across its divisions. And of course when they do, the lack of interoperability is obviously the fault of technology.

    Anyway, I rant. Nice blog Jeremy. I look forward to future installments.

    Oh, by the way Danny, attitudes such as big companies are big for a reason are why no company lasts for ever. Because they are big they refuse to see what they are doing wrong until the point where the downward momentum is so great it is too late.

  5. Linda Jackson

    About 15 years ago I had a Sony alarm clock that had dual alarms that allowed you to select which days you wanted it to wake you up on. *sigh* I miss that clock.

  6. Rachel (American Innovative)

    Though I do not work for a “big alarm clock company”, I do work for one with an alarm clock that accommodates weekends AND is specifically designed from user feedback. American Innovative released our original 7-day alarm clock in 2004 and we have spent the last few years accumulating user feedback and feature requests. We are now releasing the next generation product, the Neverlate Executive, which incorporates those requests. The best part is, it’s still a 7-day alarm clock, meaning you can set a different alarm for weekend days (or no alarm at all). If you would like more info, you can find it on our website at


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