in Industrial Design

Feature dependency and context of use

Imagine buying a new (and expensive) car and discovering that the car will only run if the air conditioning is turned on. You take the car back to the dealer and ask them to fix the problem. But to your surprise, the dealer informs you that that this is how the car has been designed. This seemingly surreal analogy is not too far off the mark from my experience purchasing (and later returning) the Bose Quiet Comfort 2 Headphones.

Bose Headphones

I received the headphones and was immediately impressed by their compact and light design. I plugged them into my notebook and fired up iTunes. Unfortunately, all I got was silence. No music. I called customer support to report the problem and was informed, to my surprise and great dismay, that the only way to be able to hear music is if the noise canceling is turned on.

So why is this a problem? Well, first of all, the noise canceling requires a battery, meaning that if the battery that goes into the headphones is dead, I will not be able to listen to music, even though hearing that music does not require a power source.  Second, the noise canceling is so good that a person can be standing next to you talking fairly loudly and you can’t hear a thing.  Worse, it is probably highly unsafe to be walking around in NYC with the noise cancelling on, since you would, for example, have no ability to hear an oncoming car or bus. In fact, and somewhat ironically, the insulation of the headphones is so good that you almost don’t even need to turn on the noise canceling for the headphones to reduce noise.

Why is this bad, from a design perspective? Recalling the car analogy, just as driving is the primary function of a car, listening can generally be seen as the primary function of headphones (not to be confused with the earmuffs you might see people wearing at a noisy construction site, which will become relevant in a moment.)  Just as air conditioning is a secondary feature in a car (you can have a car without air-conditioning,, but not vice versa), so noise canceling is a secondary function of headphones.

But wait a minute, you say, isn’t the primary function of these headphones to cancel out noise? Possibly, but that still doesn’t justify any kind of dependency between these features. Listening to music should not require having noise canceling turned on. there is no logical dependency between these features.  instead, the dependency has very unfortunately been manufactured into the design. And in reality it’s probably a legacy problem (for those who think that computer systems hold a monopoly on being hampered by bad design due to legacy issues, take heed.)  The Bose QC2 are the offspring of industrial grade headsets Bose designed for US Military helicopter pilots, to shut out the extremely loud noise of the chopper engines and allow the pilot to hear what was being said in their headphone intercom units.

Similarly to how the Humvee was sold to civilians in the form of the Hummer, Bose discovered a market for these headsets among business travelers sick of the drone of jet engines on passenger planes, and the Bose QC1 (bulkier than the QC2 and with a separate noise canceling box and power pack) was born.  I’m guessing that the original military headsets were drawing power for both the noise canceling and the intercom from the same source, and when the civilian version was designed, this was maybe not even have been considered as something needing to be addressed.

Would the noise-canceling/audio dependency issue not have been uncovered with some simple usability testing with civilian users? Or did Bose decide that all the rigorous testing that inevitably had been required for the headphones to pass muster in the military was sufficient, and that the (supposedly) lesser needs of civilians meant that no further testing was necessary? This, perhaps, is at the core of the issue: civilian use is obviously a completely different context from military use, which means all bets are off as to whether the design intended for the original context will be valid in the new one.