Batteries Not Included

BattleshipChecking out at Toys ‘R’ Us I was asked “Do you need any batteries?” Well, I thought that the answer was no because I was buying Battleship, the classic naval combat game. So I said, “No.” When I got home I realized I was wrong. I do need batteries.

It turns out that I picked up Electronic Battleship which requires 4 AA batteries. It’s pretty sweet looking so I took the batteries out of two of our Wii controllers and put them in the new game.

The battleship explosion sounds were cool so I kept it. I think my nephew will enjoy it but it seems weird that this classic I played with in the ‘70s should all of a sudden need batteries to make the sounds that my friends and I enjoyed making ourselves. What’s next? Will Fisher-Price Little People and Erector sets need batteries? (Actually, kind of, the little people school bus requires 3 AA batteries and the Erector front-end loader requires 2 AA).

Isn’t this exactly the sort of sappy, nostalgic rant that makes young people hate older people? Just thinking about it, I’m starting to hate myself. But why pick on kids products? What about stuff for other age groups? Like stuff I have? Are there new versions of established products that used to work without batteries and now require batteries?

Just looking around my own house I found so many so fast that I stopped looking. My list included:

• headphones (The Bose® QuietComfort 2 takes one AAA),

• a razor (Gillette’s Fusion razor takes one AAA),

• a bank (Star Wars Electronic Talking Bank takes 3 AAA)

• and of course, the previously mentioned video game controller (Nintendo Wii takes two AA batteries per controller).

I wonder, Why does Lord Vadar want me to save my money? These products all claim a new benefit but is it really worth the additional requirement of batteries, including the additional cost, the hassle of having to change them—not to mention the negatlive impact they have on the planet? To me, the new benefits are all lame when compared to the requirement of batteries. They also present new problems. For example, the controller and headphones do not work without batteries and I do not keep a surplus of fresh batteries. So if they run out at 2am while I’m playing Mariokart and listening to my headphones, I’m out of luck. How did things get this way? When I was a kid, you could listen to the Eagles and play Atari all night long. You never had to worry about losing your power supply.

As a product designer, I’m seeing too many products being produced and marketed as innovative, when they’re really not. We need to start judging these products by their inherent design, not for all the gadgetry, lights, bells and whistles.

For instance, a small company or individual inventor might look at a well-known and stable product like a toe nail clipper and think that if there was only some way they could improve on it quickly and easily they could come into the market and immediately get some market share. So they go through a quick problem identification process and determine that visibility is hard for some consumers using current clippers. They determine that the way to get consumers to buy their toenail clippers over the established competitor is to put a light on theirs.

Is the light really going to improve the experience for the consumer? Is it worth the impact of adding batteries, bulbs and wires? I give the small start-up guys a pass because this is probably all they’re really capable of bringing to the product. They probably don’t know the industry that well and their goal is to quickly get something out there that gets them a piece of the pie.

However, the established brands that know the consumer and have resources for innovation and know the product history are getting into this game of faux innovation more and more. Many consumers trust these brands to offer products with real improvements and not trick them with gimmicks like light-up toe nail clippers or vibrating razors. So the cost to the planet in terms of battery proliferation is high and the cost to the brand in equity dilution is equally high.

I’ve always avoided the kitschy stuff like light-up shoes, spinning lollipops and wobbly ball-point pens. It never really bothered me because I assumed that this kind of impulse-buy, gadgety stuff has tended to be small start-ups desperately trying to gain an edge and establish a point-of-difference. I get that without the function powered by batteries, it would take away the reason to buy that product and as a product designer that’s the last thing I want to do. So, for those companies it’s understandable if not excusable. But the big brands should do better.

And really I should know better. Some of the items that I have in my house that require batteries were gifts but I bought the Wii and the Fusion razor and although I really do like them both, neither is that much better than its battery-free predecessor if you really think about it.

I know I could use rechargeables and a solar charger–and actually I do, but even they don’t last all that long. The question I need to ask myself at the end of the day is this: Can I live without this product’s battery-powered function? If the answer is yes, then I need to put down my battery-powered razor with enhanced indicator Lubrastrip that signals me when it’s time to change the blade—no matter how painful that might be—and start shaving again the old-fashioned way.

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