The Musings Of An Opinionated Sod [Help Me Grow!]

The Curse Of Over Engineering …
July 23, 2009, 7:32 am
Filed under: Comment

Have a quick glance at these instructions …

Can you tell what it is?

OK, have another look …

Any closer?

Well in the interests of you getting off this blog as quickly as possible, let me help you – they’re the instructions for a toilet.

Yes … a bog!

Now you may be wondering why you would require instructions for a product that has, for all intents and purposes, been the same for decades – well that’s because we’re in the era of over-engineering.

Of course there’s a fine line between evolution and over-engineering – and I appreciate that things can always be improved – however I can’t help but feel that when you have a toilet ‘misson control centre’ that looks like this …

… you are in overkill mode.

Buttons to put the seat up and down.

Buttons to make the toilet seat warm.

Buttons to make the seat jiggle to help you ‘perform’.

Buttons to wash your front or back bits.

Buttons to dry your front and back bits.

Buttons to flush the thing, even though it does it automatically.

There’s even a button – which I admit is quite cool – that produces a sound of pouring water so it encourages you to wee whilst making sure that anyone else in the bathroom can’t hear you when you decide to ‘drop your kids off at the pool’.


To make matters worse, you end up being so bloody captivated/weirded out that you spend 3 times as long in there as you would otherwise do meaning everyone outside thinks you’re either up to no good or have the worst constipation since Oprah. [Why else does she go from thin to fat in seemingly 7 weeks?]

What’s wrong with the old shit-and-go toilet?

OK, so I appreciate cleanliness is a big issue – especially in public areas – and touching a loo seat isn’t going to be high on most people’s agenda’s, but christ, a piece of toilet paper could help you move that up/down with minimum germ risk.

Don’t get me wrong – I appreciate the need for companies to continually evolve and I accept I’m writing a post on it so it could be argued it captured my imagination – but to me, this all smacks of the micro-innovation I talked about a while back … where companies ignore exploring cultural insights that could drive their innovation inspiration in ways that could genuinely engage society in more meaningful and motivational ways, in favour of simply forging ahead with what they know – heads down, blinkers up.

Have a look at your phone.

How many functions do you really use?

I’m not talking about once or twice … or in a mad burst of activity when you first downloaded/bought the new app … I’m talking about something that is a fundamental part of how you live your life.

Yes I know I am a total hypocrite given I own robot dogs, cats, rabbits, flowers and R2D2 dolls … but if you’re anything like me, you’ll maybe use 10 core functions on your phone a day.


And yet phone companies pack them with all sorts of features … features we might never even know, let alone access.

In our quest to grow, too many brands/companies/people are focusing on features rather than value – and in a day where an app that allows 140 characters to be sent has more impact than the latest 400 trillion megapixel camera phone from Samsung, maybe it’s time brands started getting back to understanding what’s really going on in people’s lives rather than just churn stuff out.

I’ve said it many times, but I believe the future of brands and advertising is understanding people and culture better than anyone else and sadly, I can’t help but feel there’s an awful lot of companies out there who believe they know it all and/or feel society is too thick to express what they really want.

Sure, people might say – as in Henry Ford’s famous quote – they want a “faster horse”, but as I’ve banged on countless occasions, if you were to explore that statement more closely and ask some pertinent questions, you’d be able to identify that what people are really saying is they would welcome a method of transportation that can get them from point A to point B in a relatively quick time, regardless of weather, road or distance. In other words, a car.

For me, this ability to ‘translate’ is one of the core skills of a planners – or it should be – but sadly so many agencies have sold objectivity and creativity so far down the river that the only way they can justify their monthly retainer is by getting guys to churn out paperwork rather than have them explore, identify and apply [or at least encourage the application of] relevant, powerful and game-changing insight.

But then we know as much as agencies say it, most of them can’t think beyond the ‘ad’.

Oooh I’m fiesty today aren’t I. Must mean I had a good nights sleep, ha!

16 Comments so far
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if that techno bog keeps people on the throne for 3 times longer than they normally sit then i assume you missed a weeks worth of fucking meetings.

why is this post so fucking late? ive had to sit here like a twat for the last hour waiting to abuse you. get your act together campbell, people have lives to live you know.

and its all fucking well you say brands should focus on value rather than just packing in features but you buy more fucking phones than a fucking terrorist so take your advice on yesterdays post and practice what you fucking preach you techno slut/addict/victim.

ps: i do understand what youre trying to say and i agree so lets not spend an hour tonight discussing all the finer points of your view. 🙂

Comment by andy@cynic

Toilet to advertising, only you could draw the parallel, in fact, some people say ‘stuff’ from both is going down the drain!

Comment by bhaskar

Really interesting post Robert, especially about people/companies thinking they know it all.

I remember doing some freelance at a big agency and being shocked the planners never once asked anyone outside their agency or their client relationship for a viewpoint. .

I think one of the problems is that “value” now pretty much equates to price so brands throw in more and more unnecessary elements to try and make their price value equation fit.

Some features are fantastic, but like you said, they tend to make the biggest impression when they have been created with real people insight in them (one of my favourites was when Apple made their Macbook power cords magnetic, now they just make them a bit faster. Sorry Baz. 🙂 ) but some seem to be created by people who subscribe to Henry Ford’s quote about faster horses rather than yours.

Agree with Andy on you being a bit of a hypocrite on this post though. LOL.

Comment by Pete

come on bhaskar, its the most fucking obvious one of them all.

Comment by andy@cynic

actually it is! Guess most people in ad land are just in denial!

Comment by Bhaskar

Watch out mate, you’re falling under Andy’s evil spell, ha!

Comment by Rob

you make that sound like its a bad thing

Comment by andy@cynic

I wonder why ! ha !

Comment by bhaskar

pete challenges baz to a duel.

handbags at dawn?

Comment by andy@cynic

To be fair to errrrrm, me … I did say I was being a total hypocritical fuck but then I don’t buy tech just for the sake of it – nor do I hand over my semi-hard earned cash because I believe a product has some perceived ‘aspirational value’ – for me it’s always driven by the fact a particualr item offers me something I find of specific and personal value which is why if you see the technological toss that I have in my life, you will be very quickly able to determine I am a very sad man with sad tastes and a stupidly understanding wife.

I agree with your’value’ definition Pete … even in business it seems to have become synonomous with “free” rather than things that make a quanifiable difference to the overall end product/service.

OK … OK … so you could argue giving additional services for ‘free’ helps achieve this result – but like people who spend more time focused on their process rather than what their process actually produces – added value should also be judged by what is achieved not just by what has been put in, but in this beancounter World where everything has to have a ‘tangible value’, we are walking away from recognising the value of people who can just think about bigger issues and bigger possibilities.

But then I would say that wouldn’t I!

Comment by Rob

can you actually have innovation without the stupid/over engineered end of the spectrum? isn’t the stupid end, just as vital as the ‘status quo’ end, in terms of providing context for innovation? “ok, so we don’t want to go that far, but we want it better than we’ve had it, so this bit in the middle-ish is where we’re headed next” kind of thinking.

so the ipod is the biggest portable innovation in the last couple of years (which then facilitated said iphone) – imagine if, when it came out originally, people went ‘why would you wanna only listen to mp3s – they’re shit compression. and who needs a wheel navigation and menu system – a play/stop button works just fine, thanks.

yes, that loo is seriously OTT, but in developing that toilet was the creation of said ‘coolest thing’ – the sound of running water – which is starting to save japan fuckloads of water being wasted from people actually flushing loos in order to give themselves some acoustic privacy in public.

sorry – got all serious.


Comment by lauren

I know what you’re saying Lauren – you can’t have one without the other – but I don’t know if that is strictly true.

Saying that there’s a couple of points I should raise …

1/ One person’s “over engineering” is another persons “perfectly acceptable”.

2/ At the end of the day, an organisation ended up buying a shitload [sorry for the pun] of these toilets so ultimately someone wanted them.

However my issue is more about the intent of all this product development that is going on.

Sure, over-engineering can open up fresh thinking and possibilities – however in the mass market commercial World, I still think there’s a hell of a lot of over-engineered things that are introduced to justify a price point rather than ideas that have been nurtured to fundamentally address a human need or value.

I’m being a hippy again aren’t I!

Comment by Rob

Yes over-functionality in anything (including over-elaboration in non-tech products) is a bad thing, but it seems to me that Apple use their phones and iPods as cheaper test-beds for ideas/functions to incorporate in their other products. Beta testing that you get paid for.

Comment by John

no. if you were a hippy, you wouldn’t have a blog, you’d have a vegetable patch and a composting toilet.

and yes, i agree – over engineering to get that old ‘just noticeable difference’ happening, for the sake of a marginal profit increase is shit. it’s the underpinning of what is wrong with capitalism. perhaps the standards/patents office needs to have a little more control over its ‘pending’ system…

Comment by lauren

This is a vegetable blog, which is why I put a huge pile of shit on it every morning. Don’t know if anything is growing on it yet.

Comment by Rob

[…] so a lot of it is – arguably – more evolution than anything else, but it is important which is why companies make a big deal out of […]

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