Design Puzzles

28 March 2007 at 2:54 pm 49 comments

| Steven Postrel |

So you’ve purchased your coffee and chosen to sit at one of those round outdoor tables. As you lean on the table to write comments on a paper, it rocks annoyingly, possibly spilling some of your coffee. You try moving the table slightly on the uneven pavement, hoping to stumble into a stable configuration for its four feet, but several attempts fail. Eventually you resort to shimming one of the table feet with a piece of folded up paper, or a stack of sweetener packets, and this creates at least a metastable condition. Looking around, you notice that many other tables have similar combat repairs, so that the cafe looks like a furniture trauma ward.

Why don’t these tables have three legs instead of four? With three legs, they wouldn’t rock on uneven surfaces because any three points define a plane. You wouldn’t need those adjustable table feet that no one ever bothers to adjust because it’s so awkward to lean down and twist them. While each leg would have to be slightly bigger, you’d have fewer assembly or machining steps to perform. Is a 60 degree angle that hard to produce in this day and age?

The puzzlement that occurs when you run into objects and processes that seem, in obvious ways, to be badly designed is an especially clear example of the paradox of entrepreneurial opportunity. (By “obvious” I mean that superior alternatives, appearing to weakly dominate the item on all salient dimensions including total cost, exist or could be generated by straightforward modifications.) The aggravation involved induces stimulates entrepreneurial curiousity — one needn’t be some sort of preternaturally alert Kirznerian arbitrageur to notice that something seems messed up. Is this really a $20 bill lying in the street? If so, why hasn’t it been picked up yet? And if you’re so smart, why aren’t you rich?

Broadly speaking, there are three kinds of reasons why such apparent inefficiencies might not be remediable by entrepreneurial action:

1) You’ve overlooked or underestimated value or cost drivers that makes your proposed alternatives unattractive (i.e., surplus destroying). In the case of the table, maybe a) there are huge volume economies of producing long runs of single table-base configurations, and b) the four-legged bases can also be used with square tables, while three-legged ones really can’t (unless there’s some ingenious asymmetrical arrangement I can’t visualize). Or maybe the added wear on the feet of a three-legged table due to 4/3 greater pressure on each foot reduces durability too much. In general, there might be something like this that an industry insider would know right away that an outsider would not.

2) The sunk costs of transition, even excluding persuasion and organization costs, exceed the surplus gain. If the round table market isn’t too big and the three-legged advantage isn’t too overwhelming and sunk retooling costs are high, then it might not be worth it to make the shift, even though after retooling no one would ever want to go back to the old method.

3) While there could be a surplus gain from the innovation, and the present value of that gain could exceed the technical sunk costs of making the switch, the sunk costs of persuading people, reorganizing relationships, and/or overcoming collective action problems might be too high to justify the effort. End users may be happier with round tables that don’t rock, but it isn’t clear how this happiness would get translated into demand. Could a cafe with non-rocking tables put up a sign advertising this amenity, as movie theaters once did with those melting-ice-cube signs that said “AIR CONDITIONED”? Or could cafes expect more repeat business because they’ve eliminated a nuisance that people subconsciously associate with patronage?

And how could one convince a cafe owner (or furniture dealer) that either mechanism was realistic? You could try to overcome skepticism by writing a contract where some of your payment came only if more people sat at your non-rocking tables than at the older type, but there would be large measurement and transactions costs, not to mention institutional resistance to such unorthodox business models (as our sociologist friends would point out).

Here are some other design puzzles. You can add your own, collect them or trade them with your friends. Feel free to analyze which of the three categories above applies to each. If none does, then cheer up; you’ve just identified an entrepreneurial opportunity.

“Pick a horse” checkout lines (e.g. in supermarkets), instead of standing in a common queue and getting the next available clerk.

Multi-piece towel racks, where the bar can slip out of the mounting brackets if they loosen up and flex a bit over time, instead of single-piece racks where the bar is permanently attached to the brackets.

Standard spring-loaded paper napkin dispensers, which invite overloading to the extent that the first five or six draws produce only shreds, and which are occasionally loaded with the napkins oriented so that there is nothing to grab onto. Alternatives include the vertical one-at-a-time dispenser recently deployed at some McDonald’s.

Auto-numbering in Microsoft Word, which behaves like a peevish poltergeist, randomly changing number and letter headings, creating and destroying tabs, etc., instead of almost any other numbering utility I can imagine.

Medical bills and insurance forms, which go out of their way to obscure what was charged, what was allowed to be charged, what was paid, what you owe, etc., instead of almost any other reasonable design.

Mustard packets, which for some reason are much harder to tear open cleanly (the tear tends to go too deep) than ketchup packets.

CD jewel boxes, which are hard to open, expensive to make, and fragile, instead of cardboard sleeves sealed in plastic wrap.

Entry filed under: Entrepreneurship, Former Guest Bloggers, Management Theory.

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49 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Windypundit  |  28 March 2007 at 8:04 pm

    Microsoft Word’s numbering process is flexible and logical and changes nothing at random. I know this because I’ve read a complete and detailed explanation of how it works. It was 25 pages long.

    The reason it makes no sense to you is that Word is hiding some very important concepts from you. If you build a very simple document or use only style-based numbering, Word will likely just magically do what you want.

    But the moment you start shuffling things around or (God have mercy) copy numbered sections from one document to another, you are totally screwed, because you’ve accidentally created data structures which Word will not allow you to manipulate. To fix the problem, you’d have to write or buy macros or add-ins.

    Like most software oddities, Word’s numbering mechanism is mostly due to (2) above: Changing the numbering mechanism would require changes in every part of word that uses it, every add-in that touches it, every macro that uses numbering written by users all over the world…lots of stuff would break.

    Granted, that’s not always a show-stopper for Microsoft, but it makes any change costly. Then again, Microsoft’s market dominance probably produces a little bit of (3) as well: How many people don’t buy Word just because they hate the numbering system?

  • 2. Bill Woods  |  28 March 2007 at 8:25 pm

    It’s moderately well-known that you can get all four feet on the ground by rotating the table, up to 90°. (Assuming the ground doesn’t have any jumps in elevation; on something like a flagstone terrace this might not work.)

    As to why four legs instead of three, the first thing that came to me was that it’d be hard to get four people seated around a three-legged table.

  • 3. Carl  |  28 March 2007 at 8:35 pm

    When we call an 1-800 number, instead of saying, “Please wait for the next available representative,” they should say, “Caller ID detects your number is ### ### ####. We’ll call you back either when the next representative becomes free or 10 minutes, whichever comes first. *click*”

    In addition to preventing a lot of cases of cauliflower ear, this would *save* the companies money, because they have to pay the long distance fees for the time period you’re connected.


    Word is such a nightmare, it’s really ridiculous. One example: Is it that strange to think one common use case scenario for Word is “writing a scholarly paper with a bibliography”? If not, why isn’t there a built-in style that properly switches the first line indention around and prevents squiggly green lines from going under “Havard University Press.” for being an incomplete sentence?

  • 4. Chihmao Hsieh  |  28 March 2007 at 9:15 pm

    Very entertaining if not interesting post.

    It took me a few moments to envision the type of round coffee-shop table being described. My best guess is that reference is being made to those typical designs where there is one thick column that extends underneath the center of the table for most of the ‘vertical’ distance, but in the last few inches four table legs jut out roughly only 1/3 of the radius. Of course, there is a reason for that ‘coffee-shop-table’ design, as opposed to four separate thinner columns as legs: it allows people to seat themselves around the table without worrying about fighting against table legs for leg room, or stepping uncomfortably onto table ‘feet’.

    I’ve thought it through a bit and perhaps the only really good reason to avoid a 3-legged design has to do with specific but not uncommon situations where disproportionate weight is placed on one of the three 120-degree sectors of the table top. Those who rest their entire weight on one of those sectors via elbows or nap-taking (or those who sit on one of those sectors) risks toppling the table, at least more so than if a 4-legged 90-degree design was employed.

    I certainly have experienced the problems of wobbly coffee-shop tables. As a former manufacturing engineer, however, I can empathize with some of the design issues. Most notably, while the table itself may be made of any number of hard heavy materials, the material contacting the floor is usually a different material like rubber, for obvious floor-related reasons. Adhesives used to effectively (ha!) affix such hard often-metallic materials to rubber-like materials can sometimes be highly specific, and once those rubber-like pieces fall off–perhaps from dragging tables–coffee-shop and fast-food franchisees everywhere are at a loss; Elmer’s glue just doesn’t cut it. (One of my biggest projects as a manufacturing engineer at Cummins Inc. was to develop plant-wide best practices for failsafing in assembly, and that involved researching the use of barcodes, labels, and adhesives for many if not most parts used during assembly. It sounds simple enough but it was a so-not-funny nightmare.)

    On the user side of things, I’ve done my share of coffee-table shimming. While there are all sorts of ad hoc, Macgyver-ish solutions involving newspaper and sugar packets, I suppose I could go to Lowe’s and buy one of those thin plastic triangular furniture wedges and keep one in my wallet at all times. But everybody would have to have one. I’d hate to be the one in a busy coffee shop, getting ready to make my exit, and telling the unprepared those who are waiting for my table that I have to ‘remove my thin plastic triangular wedge and take it with me.’ Wouldn’t that be mean?

    To wobble or to topple: is that the question?

    Following up on some of the other design issues mentioned:
    –I have had monstrous deep-tear problems with ketchup packets.
    –Aren’t CD’s sleeved in cardboard and sealed in plastic the pirated versions?

  • 5. Cliff Woodhall  |  28 March 2007 at 9:49 pm

    I agree with Mr. Postrel about Microsoft Word autonumbering. Windypundit’s comment that it will ‘just magically do what you want’ could only be ture if everyone wanted his number list to look the same way. Since we don’t, we all magically get what one person arbitrarily decided everyone wants.

    But it’s not a marketing opportunity, because Microsoft actually recognizes that not everyone wants autonumbering, and (in my opinion – this is the very best thing about autonumbering) you can turn it off!

    Go to the Tools list at the top of the screen (you may need to expand to see the full list) and click on AutoCorrect Options. You will see a tab labelled AutoFormat As You Type. Under this tab, unclick the box for Automatic numbered lists (and Automatic bulleted lists, if that also drives you crazy).

    There’s other stuff here that Word thinks almost everyone wants done but you can turn it off if you disagree. If you don’t like the automatic superscript for 1st, 2nd, etc. or you prefer the big 1-slash-2 to the tiny little one-half character, you can turn these and other “features” off as well. A good thing about correcting in this way is that you do it once and it applies from then on – you don’t have to repeat the process for every document.

    I work with taxes, and when writing, I frequently refer to tax code sections, like 415(c) or 412(i), so I was thrilled when I fgured out how to stop the (c) from changing into a copyright symbol or the lower case i from automatically capitalizing every time I typed these.

    My instructions above are for my current version of Word (Word 2002). If these instructions don’t work for you, you’re probably using a different version. The good news is, the instructions to turn off the auto features in your version of Word are in your Word help. The bad news is, my searches of help lead me to think Microsoft Help was designed by the same peevish poltergeists that turned on autonumbering in the first place.

  • 6. spostrel  |  29 March 2007 at 2:51 am

    Didn’t mean to start an anti-Microsoft pogrom here. I normally don’t turn off auto-numbering in Word because sometimes it’s very handy. But the damn thing’s internal logic, as Windypundit notes, is so baroque that it’s like working with a tempramental diva–“I don’t WANT that to be a 3).” I’ve deactivated most of the really annoying stuff in the program, though.

    Chiehmao Hsieh: It’s hard for me to believe that a three-footed column-type table would be much more likely to topple than the classic four-footer, especially if the feet were a little longer to give a slightly wider stance in each sector. But I’m no engineer and I’ve never tried it, so maybe the tripod-types would be too tippy. Interesting point about the adhesive problem for rubber feet–that never occurred to me.

    My 100% legit Metric CDs, bought in corporate outlets, came in cardboard analogues to the jewel box. Far superior to the usual hard plastic (polycarbonate?) model with the disintegrating hinge.

  • 7. Jim Rait  |  29 March 2007 at 2:58 am

    Why did office chairs go from 4 legs to three to 5? The stability of the 3 leg is less than 4; 5 legs give you the benefits of 3 and 4. I tend to lean my elbows on tables and during conversations discover which tables are three legged by spilling peoples’s coffee! Adaptation by adjustable means: napkins, beermats or screw adjusters are quite good. £1 coins are very good and add to the tip in cafes!

  • 8. Marcin Tustin  |  29 March 2007 at 4:50 am

    “Pick a horse” checkout lines (e.g. in supermarkets), instead of standing in a common queue and getting the next available clerk.

    Requires fencing to direct the one, very long queue. This can be wasteful of space, and creates an area through which there is no passage. That is why this is used selectively.

    Multi-piece towel racks.

    Almost certainly cheaper to manufacture. You can probably get single-piece racks easily if you’re willing to pay a premium.

    Standard spring-loaded paper napkin dispensers

    Almost certainly a hangover of how it’s always been done.

    Auto-numbering in Microsoft Word

    Stop using word. Go have a word with your mathematics colleagues, and learn how to use LaTeX. Your documents will look 500% better.

    CD jewel boxes, which are hard to open, expensive to make, and fragile, instead of cardboard sleeves sealed in plastic wrap.


  • 9. Blake Lewis  |  29 March 2007 at 7:42 am

    I still prefer the CD jewel box than using a plastic wrap, my wife will slap me :)

  • 10. Windypundit  |  29 March 2007 at 8:58 am

    Being a Visual Basic programmer and having used TeX typesetting for many years, I think it might be easier to learn enough VB to download and customize macros to fix the numbering than it would be to learn LaTeX. However, TeX does allow you to do some fine looking typesetting.

  • 11. Photophores: March 29, 2007 « Kinetic Loop  |  29 March 2007 at 9:06 am

    […] 29th, 2007 Design Puzzles (From Dynamist Blog) The puzzlement that occurs when you run into objects and processes that seem, […]

  • 12. Donald A. Coffin  |  29 March 2007 at 11:02 am

    Interestingly, most banks have gone to the single-queue approach for getting to tellers, while grocery stores still have pick-a-line as the standard. Other retailers with the single-queue approach include Circuit City and Best Buy; office supply stores (Office Depot and Office Max, for example) don’t. I suspect there’s a paper in there sowmewhere–why do some stores pick one approach, while other stores pick a different approach? (For grocery stores, I’m guessing it has to do with the need to minimize the amount of space devoted to lines, but that needs some additional thought.)

  • 13. charles  |  29 March 2007 at 2:22 pm

    It’s moderately well-known that you can get all four feet on the ground by rotating the table, up to 90°
    On the other hand, it’s very well known that four points in R3 don’t necessarily lie on a plane, no matter how much you rotate them.

  • 14. Mike Sullivan  |  29 March 2007 at 2:30 pm

    Imagine what that single queue at the bank would like like if everyone had a carriage. And if the teller area were 4 times as long! I imagine turning corners with a carriage within those velvet ropes would be especially annoying.

    While I believe Best Buy has carriages – I seldom see anyone in line with one.

  • 15. tde  |  29 March 2007 at 2:44 pm

    Re: “Pick a horse” checkout lines – I am not sure that a single queue would in fact be better, especially at larger stores. If you have, say, a Target stor with 15 open registers, the people waiting would have to be notified each time there was an opening and then they would shuffle on down to the open register and to avoid confusion, think you would have to wait for that person to get there for there to be anotehr announced opening. Also, if you are trudging down to open register #15 and you see that register #9 just opened up, wouldn’t you stop there instead?

    The single queue does make more sense in coffee shops or places where you only have a few registers.

  • 16. mars  |  29 March 2007 at 2:44 pm

    Why does anyone use auto-numbering? Is it that hard to put numbers in yourself?
    I use MS Word all the time, for a living, and never touch the auto-numbering, bulleting, or any of those ghastly prefab template things.

  • 17. Tony  |  29 March 2007 at 2:45 pm

    A case where the good design did prevail in the end: notebook computers.

    In the early days, when the Apple Powerbook 100 was introduced with the keyboard at the back and the trackball front and center, it was obviously the right design. Yet for years after that, notebooks were still coming out with keyboards at the front (no place to rest your wrists) and trackballs and pointing devices in every location imaginable.

    I never understood why it took so long for computer designs to converge on the Powerbook-style layout. But they did – I suspect that in the early days, most customers were so unfamiliar and unskilled with computers that they really didn’t know any better.

    The main barrier to proper design is, imho, lack of consumer discrimination. I never cease to be amazed at what people will put up with for no good reason.

  • 18. Daranee Oakley  |  29 March 2007 at 2:53 pm

    Recently I visited a friend in Finland and we were marvelling at the greatness of the toilets there, and wondering why the U.S. still carries on with the handle attached to the chain attached to the floater. It means the chain is susceptible to breaking and every so often you have to jiggle the handle. This seems to be poor design to say the least.

    I’ve done my fair share of travelling and have studied various examples of toilets. There is Thailand where you flush by pouring water in the toilet from a nearby bucket. Berlin where there’s a shelf in case you want to study your deposit before flushing. How bout Britain, where the seat is is good deal higher than the water thereby causing, how do I put this, splash.

    Observe your standard American toilet by putting in a bit of toilet paper and flushing. That toilet paper sidles up to every inch of the rim before it finally gets sucked down. Not a pleasant thought when it comes time to clean. But Finland, marvelous Finland. You press a button (not a Chain!) and woosh. Anything and everything gets carried away in a second. Your refuse doesn’t take a leisurely circular stroll like our American Standard.

    Who knows? Maybe all the American toilets I’m talking about are decades old, but it seems like what I’ve described is more common than not.

  • 19. Tom  |  29 March 2007 at 2:54 pm

    I think you’re missing a key factor: Self-indulgent designers. While in many ways we live in a golder age of design, there remain designers who see their creations entirely as objets rather than as things to be used by real people fo s specific purpose. I suspect four-legged tables are an example of that. Four-legged tables look cool, especially in the catalogue, so four-legged tables it is! Then, once the table infrastructure is installed, it’s too expensive to replace.

    I, personally, think self-indulgent design is a leftover conceit of modernism, in which the artistic vision took primacy over all other factors, especially the practical. That’s why I’d rather sit on the floor than in my great-looking Wassily chair.

  • 20. Doc  |  29 March 2007 at 2:55 pm

    Or the plastic blister packaging which makes you wield e a pair of scissors like you’re taking out an appendix and leave razor sharp edges?

    Or the Paramount DVD boxes which make you go through the hurdles of opening a CD but also throws latches on the box since God knows they’re always popping open on me and shooting the discs across the room.

    Word’s auto-numbering drives me crazy also. Setting the defaults just never seems to ‘keep. Like having every email address or URL convereted into a hyperlink now blue and underlined. No, I *don’t* want help typing a letter Clippy!

    Second is Excel insisting any string of numbers be converet into some exponential form that can’t be undone (try typing in a string like 003283746222…something you might find in a phone number and see how fun that is). Oh Clippy, there you go again!

  • 21. seraficus  |  29 March 2007 at 2:57 pm

    Something to add to the list:
    Boarding an airplane by row number makes constant traffic jams while multiple passengers settle in at any given row. Why not switch to boarding first all window seats, then all middles, then all aisles (adjust as needed for different row configurations)?

  • 22. Uncle Fred  |  29 March 2007 at 3:00 pm

    Re the supermarket lines issues:

    It’s well known that retailers prefer multiple separate lines as opposed to the single queue. This is because they have more space to stock the tabloid rags and mints and cigarettes that they hope you’ll pick up and add to the purchase. Fry’s tries to keep candy and stuff along the long queue, but I’ve seldom seen people pick any of those up, mostly because the line keeps moving ..

    BTW, this is the same reason why some chains don’t have automatic checkout stands .. they want you to wait and pick up the tabloids and candy. Or so I was told by a pal who works at Safeway.

  • 23. Daniel  |  29 March 2007 at 3:00 pm

    I think that a three leg table is less stable than a four leg table, and the chance of upsetting is greater.

    I used to have a lot of trouble “rasslin” with MSWord, especially since my office converted from Word Perfect, and all of our documents were translated, with all kinds of weird translation glitches. Then one day, I made a miraculous discovery: “clear all formatting.” It has changed my life. Now there is no MSWord problem that I can’t handle; I just “clear all formatting,” keep the text, and start over.

  • 24. Jen  |  29 March 2007 at 3:17 pm

    I imagine the problem with grocery store/Target store type lines is that people are more likely to have widely variant amounts to buy. No one buys for two weeks at the coffee shop and rarely would someone at a Best Buy have 100 items.

    You’d have to have 2 or 3 lines for a grocery set-up: less than X items, over X items and next available self check-out station.

    But having three lines would solve the long line cutting off all traffic problem wouldn’t it?

  • 25. Joe  |  29 March 2007 at 3:22 pm

    The loss of left-hand function keys on computer keyboards! Why were useful, convenient, FAST, 1-handed shortcuts made inaccessible by putting them above the main keys? If you don’t use a program a lot, then the presence of the function keys would not prevent you from using the mouse. But if you spend enough time with a program to learn the shortcuts, not having the keys there is a real disadvantage.

  • 26. Steve T.  |  29 March 2007 at 4:11 pm

    Another factor with the “pick a horse” checkout line is that you then have someone standing right behind you, maybe close enough to look over your shoulder. In a drug store, not a big deal. In a bank, very big deal.

    But the CD jewel box wrapper actually is an entrepreneurial opportunity. The specialized CD wrapper cutter sitting on my desk is proof. It’s even an entrepreneurial opportunity on several levels, as I got it as a free handout at a convention, with the logo of Crescent Music Services printed on the side. Everybody wins.

  • 27. STATE  |  29 March 2007 at 4:45 pm

    I have a large, round coffee table with three legs in my house. It’s major design flaw is that the three legs make it extremely unstable. Put too much weight on one side, and the whole thing flips over; much more easily than it would if there were four legs. It’s why four wheeled vehicles are more stable than three-wheeled vehicles. Anyone who had a tricycle as a kid probably discovered this same flaw the hard way.

  • 28. Sonora  |  29 March 2007 at 4:51 pm

    #7 Why did office chairs go from 4 legs to three to 5?

    I missed the three legged evolution, but I can tell you that 5 -legged chairs are the norm now due to ergomonics. Wheeled, 4-leg (or less) office chairs are easy to topple if you shift your weight too far forward or backward between the leg gaps. 5 legs prevents this entirely and has eliminated a source of workplace injuries. No more busted noggins and tailbones.

  • 29. Jen  |  29 March 2007 at 6:44 pm

    For grocery store lines, any time there’s a conveyor belt I’m sure people are getting through faster if they get into the multiple lines and put their things down. Also, having worked as a cashier at Target, when there are a lot of registers (and especially two rows of registers, as our store was set up), customers are impressively bad at noticing when a register is open. Even when there are long lines, unless you assign someone to directing them, cashiers will have to go down and tell people waiting in line that they’re open, or they’ll stop at what register’s right in front of them, even if some others have no lines at all.

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  • 33. John McGinnis  |  29 March 2007 at 7:11 pm

    One other factor: Most of these flawed products are produced to be cheap, not well designed, and are in any case not bought by the end users. No one at the cafe is inconvenienced by the wobbly table except the customer; the cafe decorator is concerned with meeting the cafe owner’s furnishings budget. No one at Microsoft is enraged by Word’s autonumbering feature; better to get the bloatware out the door before a rival appears. And no one at Sony or Amazon cares whether our jewel boxes scratch and crack and break when exposed to oxygen; buyers are much more interested in the music. In short, the general issue here is at least as much one of incentives as of design.

  • 34. Adam  |  29 March 2007 at 7:37 pm

    It is true that four points don’t necessairly align in a plane. However, tihs is more about the unevenness of the ground, not of the imperfection of the table (most likely a cheap mechanically mamufactured item which is nevertheless fairly rectangular).

    In that case, it is more likely that the floor has a ridge or valley in it, so you can make your four-legged table fairly stable (if not horizontal) by aligning the sides of the rectangle with the direction of the rigde.

  • 35. Bill  |  29 March 2007 at 8:02 pm

    The pick-a-horse approach to check out lines is simply inefficient. As any basic book on queueing theory will tell you, having a single queue (line) and multiple servers (checkstands, tellers, etc.) is the approach which will produce the lowest average time to get thru the queue for any given number of servers. Anything else, like what you find in most grocery stores, is slower. Now why the grocery store might want you to spend longer standing in line . . . that’s a whole different question.

  • 36. Matt  |  29 March 2007 at 8:56 pm

    Medical billing complexity is a loss to the consumer, but actually a gain to the decisionmakers…it grows out of the desires of doctors to get paid more than their insurance reimbursement contracts entitle them to, and the equal desire of insurers to avoid paying for things that the policies they’ve written obligate them to pay for. These two desires are at odds, but their combined effect is a death-spiral of obfuscation that delivers temporary benefits to everybody who actually has any power to call for change.

  • 37. Jordynne  |  29 March 2007 at 9:09 pm

    Supermarket checkouts are as they are because:

    1) They afford retailers last-second opportunities to persuade shoppers (and their eye-hungry children!) to impulse-buy from the magazine, candy, and assorted other product racks that separate each register’s queue. This is why those impulse-buy racks are there…and it’s also why staples (milk, eggs, orange juice, meats, poultry, fish, and such) are always located in the farthest reach of the store – to compel customers to impulse-buy other products that line the aisles they must navigate to reach the staples in the back of the market.

    2) A common waiting line wastes time (and, as an earlier commenter observed, they consume too much space and block the free movement of shoppers and their carts; there might also be a public safety issue since a supermarket common line, which owing to carts, children, husbands/wives, lengthening them far above the persons-only lines which banks employ), would block emergency egress).

    3) Shoppers actually prefer to choose a register and its clerk, if only because each line’s conveyor belt persuades, or fools, shoppers into believing that she has and exercise the freedom of choice to choose the fastest line (this method gives each shopper the pleasant illusion that her keen eyesight and ability to assess each clerk’s efficiency or demeanor and to calculate each preceding customer’s time-at-register choice of shortest or longest payment method (e.g., those people who write checks for the two items they’re buying in the “express” line!) makes her smarter than all the other customers in the store.

    4) The multiple line method speeds purchase and store egress by allowing each customer to begin to place her imminent purchases on the conveyor as the checkout clerk’s removal of each of the first-in-line customer’s items advances the conveyor and expose its belt’s cleared length and span for the second- and third-in-line customer to shift her imminent purchases from cart to conveyor: having customers in a common queue defeats the time-saving (and the supermarket’s sales’ volume – in the same manner as table-service restaurants that depend on rapid “table-turning” between prior and arriving diners).

    5) This is why each conveyor is provided with separator batons that maximize conveyor capacity by encouraging customers to pre-load their items onto the conveyor. The batons are also brand banners which thus also perform the marketing function of reinforcing in the customers’ minds the store’s brand-identification.

    6) A longer common queue is more problematical to bound on each side with impulse-buy magazine and notions racks (such longer racks make it very hard – and labor-costly – for store personnel to restock, or to re-order customer mis-replaced items on those racks, and it greatly increases stores’ labor costs for clerks compelled to replace, reorder impulse-buy items, and to collect and restock items which customers had selected from aisle shelves refrigerators/freezers and then decided while in queue to lay aside because they don’t want them after all – and a longer common queue would invite public health problems from laid-aside perishables which would also lie for long enough to spoil partially and thus become discouragements to – negative ads for – the store’s claims to product freshness.

    7) The psychological effects of a common queue made longer by laden carts and massed impulse-buy racks, made more undendurable by the presence of other customers’ impatient and unruly children, would prompt customers to shop at multiple queue stores; also, a longer common queue creates the discouraging impression that “there’s ALWAYS a line at that store.” Atop all that, there’s just something too discouraging, too Orwellian – too creepily Soviet – about long food queues.

    8) There’s always a customer who, having forgotten to draw an item from an aisle shelf or cooler, needs to leave the queue to fetch that one item – imagine the resentment they’d cause by trying to wriggle back out, and then back into, such a queue: they provoke enough consternation, dirty looks, grumbling, and customer dissatisfaction in the existing shorter, multiple register queues!

    9) Marketing geniuses had all of the preceding studied, understood, and worked out decades ago. No doubt there are some sound marketing arguments for multiple and against common queues of which I’m unaware.

    Seraficus’ suggestion that aircraft be boarded in order of window/centre/aisle seats is excellent! Tickets could be LETTER OF COLOR-CODED/STAMPED (e.g., W or blue for window, C or green for centre, A or yellow for aisle seats – no red color because it connotes alarm/emergency) so that gate agents could refuse admission of impatient holders of disordered colored ticket holders.

    Condiment Pouches:

    1) Opening tear-ability is purely determined by the CHEAPEST available, FDA-approved for food-contact, longest shelf-life-assuring pouch material. To contain, protect, and preserve their contents mustard pouches need only a single layer construction of single material – the ORIENTATION of molecules of the plastic material is determined by the material type and its manufacturing method, which also determines the material’s shear, tensile and other strength properties, as well as its tear-propagation characteristics.

    2) Ketchup’s more prone than mustard is to spoilage, so ketchup pouches are most commonly made of two or three layers (usually three: outer layer of white plastic that affords printability; middle layer of foil for its moisture & vapor transmissiopn blocking properties; inner layer of clear polyethelene that shields the product from contact with the center layer’s low temper aluminum); each layer’s material affording the pouch its necessary properties of product containment, protection, preservation, and printability). The center layer is of LOW TEMPER aluminum foil (temper determines aluminum’s stoutness – its flexural, ductile, tensile and other characteristics, which is why low temper aluminum is NOT used to make beverage cans!), and it’s the presence of the foil layer that makes ketchup pouches tear open more predictably than single-layer plastic mustard pouches tear open, because the aluminum layer’s molecules aren’t UNI-DIRECTIONALLY oriented in the way that a mustard pouch’s single-layer plastic’s molecules are.

    3) Having unsoiled fingertips and fingernails of proper length affords pouch-openers their greatest assets in determining any pouch’s tear-propagation.

    Jewel Boxes:

    Perhaps the most unfortunately named item in the contemporary consumerist lexicon! They’re made of the same brittle, easily scratched and clouded material that plastic ship, vehicle, and aircraft models are made of: polystyrene (PS). Why? Because polystyrene is CLEAR and it’s the CHEAPEST clear and rigid material – which is why they also disintegrate like those Exploding Battleship toys you ordered in the 1950’s from cereral carton offers. My city’s library replaces the original PS boxes, that inevitably and quickly suffer the usual missing hinges and whole other bits and slabs, with translucent, one-piece “living hinge polyethylene (PE) boxes which, laid flat in their final manufacturing stage, have heat-affixed to their outer panel a clear PE outer sleeve into which each disc’s one-piece graphics cards are inserted. Another advantage of the library’s one-piece PE folder-style boxes is that they DON’T IRRITATINGLY RATTLE. However, a one-piece PE box to contain more than two discs is a design complicator (two discs are accommodated by molding a disc spindle into each inner face of the one-piece PE boxes): but three or more discs necessitates a THIRD panel onto whose two faces spindles would have to be integrally molded, and adding this third panel makes it impossible to splay the box flat so that its outer clear PE jacket can be heat-affixed for the accommodation of graphics cards bearing album art and liner notes.

  • 38. 2020 Hindsight » Design irritations  |  29 March 2007 at 9:39 pm

    […] A post about what it takes to overcome annoying designs. [via daily dish] Here’s a description of something that makes me go razzum frazzum: Auto-numbering in Microsoft Word, which behaves like a peevish poltergeist, randomly changing number and letter headings, creating and destroying tabs, etc., instead of almost any other numbering utility I can imagine. […]

  • 39. Eric H  |  30 March 2007 at 10:46 am

    The single bank queue works because bank customers all have roughly the same time requirements (their transactions are all roughly equally complex – the more complex loan transactions are typically handled in a separate office). Customers in a supermarket have widely ranging time requirements – two with a carton of milk, four with 5 items, one buying 2 weeks of groceries for a family of 8. Much as it is fun to ridicule people for their irrational belief in their own superiority in picking the fast line, sometimes there are real differences between customers and between lines. How would you like to be the milk buyer behind the other two types of customer? Wouldn’t an express lane be a good thing? How did it evolve in the first place? And how would the bank divide people into “simple transaction” and “complex transaction and/or demanding customers”? One of Paco Underhill’s enjoyable books hints at this problem when he points out that most supermarkets put milk at the back to get you to go all the way through the store … until convenience stores starting taking that business away from them. Some supermarkets have started putting such convenience store items in limited quantities near the front. It is worth considering how these practices evolved in the presence of competition, some of which may no longer be with us because it was more inefficient than the surviving practice.

    I doubt the opportunity to ply you with gum and magazines explains it. After all, you could place those offers just as easily along the single line as among multiple (it could easily be re-stocked at night, the same way the aisles are, or by making the displays swing open to the rear as I’ve seen done). Likewise the conveyor divider bars: you could just as easily put such adverts everywhere along the single line (such as at the “start line”). More likely those things evolved in response to the way things were done rather than Jordyne’s implication that supermarkets prefer to set things up so they can advertise Marlboro to us on the divider. I think Mike Sullivan’s explanation that the bank queue would be frighteningly huge if everyone had carriages (or carts) is the correct one. Jordyne’s observation that a market switching to this would have the reputation of always having a line is also valid, which is probably how express lanes developed in the first place.

    Heavy duty theodolites must be precisely leveled and stable to operate correctly. The 3 vs 4 leg design is a perennial argument. 3 is easier to level, 4 is more stable, but there is always a difficulty in getting the fourth foot down and load-bearing without upsetting the level. Photographers’ tripods are another illustration: they are very easy to level for a certain amount of stability, but a camera isn’t as dynamic a load as a coffee table would necessarily have to support. When there is a chance of upsetting the tripod, the photographers resort to sandbagging and/or staking them down, which is why many professional tripods come with stake-down and tie-down features. At cafes, I find it occasionally easier to put one of my own feet on the fourth leg that happens not to be on the ground. Besides, they have just successfully transferred the cost of solving the problem to you, the customer, who cares more about it and has more to gain from solving it then the cafe. Isn’t that more efficient? ;~)

    I think medical forms go out of their way to be inscrutable on purpose. After all, they don’t want their customers to be able to compare providers on the basis of cost. I can’t remember the exact details, but a few years ago (10?) someone had set up a service (website?) which would allow people to compare doctors (and hospitals, etc.) on the basis of how much they charged for each service by using the AMA’s Current Procedural Terminology (CPT) codes as an index. The AMA aggressively defends its copyright to those codes, so they won an injunction to stop the service. While I think some of the claims above for sticking to designs you consider to be inefficient are based on dubious beliefs about the nefarious intent of the management, that logic may be valid when applied to the medical establishment. It is, after all, a cartel that has aggressively fought explicit price competition for about 100 years. The RIAA is a bunch of snot-nosed amateurs compared to the AMA. IIRC, they succeeded in getting Medicare/Medicaid to adopt the CPT, which forces all doctors honoring those programs to purchase the annual CPT update, which is of course a windfall to AMA that helps to fund their lobbying practice.

    You might add to the list: why hasn’t Apple adopted the multi-button mouse? Why haven’t Asians adopted forks? The suggestion about call-back on 800 lines is brilliant.

    Why are the hours of operation of most public services (DMV, court) so inconvenient? McDonald’s does not sell anything mandated by law, yet you can go there from early in the morning to late at night without having to take time off work. The DMV sells a product that *is* mandated by law, yet you always have to take time off work to get it (which is a much harder problem for the working poor). I’m afraid that bad product and process stories seem far more common in the public sector.

  • 40. Craig  |  30 March 2007 at 1:52 pm

    Regarding the airplane-boarding question, many carriers (e.g. Delta, United, American) use a “zone” system that attempts to incorporate boarding window-middle-aisle – what United originally called “WIlMA” when first introduced on United Shuttle, their first attempt at an “airline within an airline”, meant to compete with Southwest in the western US market.

    In a perfect world you’d be able to board all the window seats first, then all the aisles, then all the windows. In the real world, it doesn’t work as well, mainly because not all flyers are travellling alone. The airlines incorporate keeping folks together in the “zone”, so couples and families board together. This makes the boarding “clumpy”, so to speak.
    Also, if you try to really go for maximum efficiency and set up the zones to incorporate both position in the aisle and position in the aircraft – say, zone “1” being windows in the back, zone “2” being middles in the back and aisles in the center, etc., you wind up with a lot of zones and invariably people board in the wrong zone.

    Finally, any “WilMA”-like proposal winds up with aisle-seat holders getting screwed on overhead-bin space.

    Airlines have put a great deal of thought into this over the years. Alaska Airlines actually did experiments and determined that the best system was for everybody to board at once – the randomization of one big line spread people out more efficiently than any other system. Ironically enough, I’ve heard that Alaska has abandoned this system because the “one big line” forming at the gate becomes unmanagable.

  • 41. Sage  |  30 March 2007 at 2:16 pm

    CD jewel cases actually serve a particular purpose. Cheapness is not the factor. Yes, it is cheap plastic, but other packaging alternatives such as “digipaks” made of folded cardboard are often cheaper, more colorful, and better-looking.

    The problem is that alternative packaging solutions do not fit neatly into retail racks the way that jewel cases do. Not only are jewel cases more sturdy than cardboard packaging, they are also thicker. Those annoying white labels across the top that are so hard to remove? They’re actually there as a service — their presence allows retail customers to easily find what they’re looking for in a crowded CD rack.

    So the jewel case isn’t dominant because it is cheap, but because it has a specific functionality that most people don’t think about.

  • 42. The smartest thing I’ve read today  |  30 March 2007 at 4:53 pm

    […] at Organization and Markets (link to post), Steven Postrel wrote a post about design puzzles. E.G.: Why do round tables outside cafe’s, […]

  • 43. bennyandthejets  |  30 March 2007 at 5:37 pm

    I want to know why Starbucks can’t manage to invent a to-go lid for their coffee cups that doesn’t randomnly spew the cups contents all over the hand that carries it.

  • 44. David Hoopes  |  1 April 2007 at 10:22 am

    How’s our paper coming Steve?
    I think you’ve found your true calling.

  • 45. rk dino  |  3 April 2007 at 4:18 pm

    Don’t let software rule your life! Make Word your slave; don’t be a slave to Word! I always dread a software upgrade because I know I will have to spend at least two hours turning off all the “helpful” features that I hate. Autocorrect, spellcheck, thesaurus check, grammar check, autonumbering, certain paragraph formatting can all be switched off or changed to a more desirable setting. HOWEVER, the two hours I devote to this task are well worthwhile, as I never have to struggle to fix an autonumbered list that’s all bollixed up due to Word’s “helpfulness.”

  • 46. Richard Makadok  |  3 April 2007 at 8:29 pm

    I’ve got dibs on him after David.
    — R

  • 47. VeddyVeddyBadAng  |  4 April 2007 at 2:35 pm

    Our AF base commissary grocery uses the single-line checkout. They have a designated area for the line to loop back and forth 3 times, indicated by lines painted on the floor with arrows, and which doesn’t cut into the flow of the other shoppers. The sides of the area are lined with impulse-buy or sale items, of which I invariably pick up 1 or 2 on my way by.

    At the waiting point, there is a light-up number post, indicating which checkout is available for the next customer. The light is triggered by the checkout operator when she is nearing the end of her current transaction, and accompanied by an automatic voice prompting the waiting customer “Next please”. Often there is a helpful employee there, too, to help direct traffic. Since you enter the checkout lane before the person in front of you has left, this solves the problem of wasted time in loading an empty belt. Order dividers, gum, candy, magazines are still provided along the sides of the checkout line, since you will still be waiting a small amount of time. Albeit a much shorter time than in a regular grocery store.

    I prefer to shop at the commissary at busy times and if I have a lot to buy, because this method is extremely efficient. Yes, the single line can get long, but the line is moving CONSTANTLY and at a pretty quick pace. Almost too fast to pick up those impulse items placed nearby.

    The best part is, it takes the guesswork out of deciding which line is going to be fastest. There is NOTHING more frustrating than picking the wrong line at the grocery store, and then seeing the person in the line next to you exit the store before you even get your items on the belt. It’s much less stressful, and I would submit that it makes for less jockeying and line-rage when it comes time to check out, especially during holiday season or after work.

  • 48. Paul Moore  |  10 April 2007 at 9:58 pm

    Regarding package design: Flour and concrete are dusty, heavy, and need to be protected from moisture. Why are they sold in paper packages? Meanwhile, small hardware items come in bulletproof bubble packs when they could be sold by the piece from bins and bagged at the checkout. (The old fashioned way.)

  • 49. Jens Fiederer  |  17 August 2012 at 2:27 pm

    Good point, Sage, on the desirable rack-fitting qualities of jewel boxes – the extra thickness to make labels possible also helped for home display in the dark ages where we still actually used them (now that they are ripped to our media library, that part of the use is definitely waning). I’d like to add that “hard to open” might have been a POSITIVE at one point (although most retail locations add even harder-to-open jackets now) to discourage shop lifting.

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