Are consumer products crossing the line to too cheap?

Wednesday, January 19th, 2011 by Robert Cravotta

I love that the price of so many products continues to fall year in and year out. However, I have recently started to wonder if in some cases the design trade-offs that the development teams for these products are making to lowering the cost to produce them are crossing a quality line. I do not have a lot of data points, but I will share my observations with my office phones as an example that might inspire you to share your experience with some product. Maybe in the aggregate, our stories will uncover whether there really is a trend for razor thin quality margins.

Over the previous ten years, I have relied on three different cordless phone systems. The price for each phone system was progressively lower than the previous phone system and usually provided more functionality than the previous phone. In each case, the phone that I replaced was still working, but there was something else that made replacing the phone worthwhile.

The first cordless phone I purchased was a single-line, 2.4GHz cordless phone. It consisted of a single handset that mounted on a full function base station. I liked that phone a lot. Everything about it was robust – except the fact that it operated in the 2.4GHz band along with so many other devices in and around my office. For example, if someone turned on the microwave, it would cause interference with the phone.

I eventually replaced the 2.4 GHz cordless phone with a dual-line, multi-handset, 5.8 GHz phone systems. That system cost me less than the 2.4 GHz phone and offered additional valuable features. The hand-set was smaller and weighed less. The dual-line capability allowed me to consolidate my phone lines to a single system and the multi-handset feature allowed me to make both phone lines available everywhere in my home office. There were a few features that the new handsets did not provide that I missed from the original phones, but I could use the phones no matter how other devices were being used around the area – so I was happy with the phones.

After a few years of heavy use, the batteries could not hold enough charge. I would regularly switch between handsets during a typical day because the battery in each handset provided less than an hour of talk time. I bought replacement batteries which were better than the original batteries, but only slightly so. With continued use, the new batteries provided longer life (I assume this was because each handset’s state of charge values were slowly adjusting to the new batteries – I’d love if someone could explain or point me to where someone explains why this happened). However, the batteries were only useful for about a year.

At this point, I bought my current cordless phone system which is made by the same manufacturer as the previous two phones. It is a DECT 6.0, dual-line, multi-handset system. It cost less money than either of the other two systems and added a larger database on the base station. However, the phone system exhibits intermittent behavior that I never experienced with my other phones.

Most notably, the communication between the base station and handsets is not always robust. Sometimes a handset will start doing a continuous ringing instead of the normal on/off cycle. Other times the handset will not receive the caller-id that the base station normally sends to it. And other times I will notice a clicking sound that I have not been able to attribute to anything. These examples of lower robustness make me wonder how much the design team shrunk the product’s performance margins to meet a lower price point.

Are these systemic examples of margins that are too small or did I just get unlucky with the phone I received? Because the phone works well most of the time, I suspect it is narrow quality margins that are the culprit – and this made me wonder if other people are noticing similar changes in the robustness of newer products. Do you have a product that you have noticed a change across generations?


2 Responses to “Are consumer products crossing the line to too cheap?”

  1. Doug Abbott says:

    Well, let’s start by recognizing that consumer products are, more or less by definition, “consumable”. The basic idea is to sell something that will more or less work for some reasonable amount of time and then either fail or become obsolete so you’re forced to by a new one. That’s what keeps “the economy” going. So reducing the quality is simply a way of getting the product to fail sooner. I recently replaced an HP OfficeJet G85 printer that I had for about eight years. I have no illusions that the replacement will last that long.

    The American auto industry had a name for this phenomenon back in the ’50s. They called it “planned obsolescence”. It worked well until the Japanese came along and built cars with real quality. But now it seems that the whole world has caught onto the idea of churning crap as fast as possible to grow “the economy”. Oh, and God forbid we should make anything that might be repairable. That would be bad for “the economy”.

  2. J.S. @ TI says:

    yes,I met this situation sometimes. One time, my phone showed its question by shining snow flowers, and I pressed the button on/off, but the button did not work. Finally, I took the battery off directly. I dont know what is wrong with the phone up to now.

    Another time, my phone was ringing and ringing—someone called me! I could’nt listen the call . Although I pressed the button hardly, the button did’nt work any way. I t exausted me.

    My phone is a Copy version of Nokia,and “NOKIA” is printed into “NCKIA”. The most benifit of the phone is cheap, I think the quality line has been crossed too. It is a pity.

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