I recently watched Seth Godin’s 2006 talk entitled “This is Broken,” embedded below. In it he talks about how user experience can go wrong because products are poorly designed or designed to be frustrating. He covers a number of examples of failures to consider the perspective of the people who receive, interact with or use designed objects.

One way things can be broken is intentional – the company behind them considers the damage to their brand to be less expensive than the potential benefits of the customer being frustrated in their attempts to use the product. Seth’s example of this is gift cards. They are intentionally designed to make it difficult to use the full amount on them. So, the sponsoring company takes the unused portion of the cash that was deposited on the card – with a very specialized card or a somewhat lazy recipient, this can be the entire value of the card.

I think another example of intentionally broken products is mail-in rebates. How many people actually send those things in? Perhaps more on big ticket items, but if that rebate is less than, say, 50 bucks, I’m willing to bet that the utilization rate is very low. Yet, the idea of the rebate still influences people’s purchasing decisions. The customer in the store deducts the rebate from the price of the product in their head, and probably does intend to follow through, but then goes home and forgets all about it.

I recently broke one such broken system. A few weeks ago, I saw a good deal on a 30-pack of beer. It was on sale for $18.99. “Fabulous,” I thought, “that’s less than 70 cents per!” Only when I set the case on the check-out conveyor belt did I notice that it had a mail-in rebate coupon attached to the side. So, by chance, I had avoided being influenced by the mail-in rebate when I made my purchasing decision. The rebate scaled up according to the number of beers in the pack; for the 30-pack, it was six dollars off. For the cost of less than five minutes of my labor and a forever stamp bought, uh, forever ago, I was on my way to getting my six dollars. This would bring the price down to less than 50 cents per 12 ounces of frosty beverage, making for some very happy hours indeed.

Last week, I got the check (in the form of a postcard!) and deposited it on one of my next trip to the ATM. They tried to be broken, but I got ’em.

Not that I really agree with the concept of “getting” others – I mean it’s fine for your gangly friends, but as a world view it buys into the fallacy of self/other dichotomy.)