Like any new homeowner, my weekends have been pretty much dominated by jobs around the house. Cleaning out the basement, getting a plumber to fix the sink, rebuilding the crawlspace door, etc. etc.

It’s been a really busy couple of weeks.

One of the items on my new homeowners to-do list today was to re-program the front porch lights. It’s actually kind of cool. The lights on the front porch are set on a timer and will go on and off automatically in the morning and evening to make sure we always have a well-lit front door.

I expected the job to take me about five or ten minutes tops. That is, until I pulled out this beauty:

FrontPorchLightsManual

What a gem. Forty-two steps in four parts. Remember: all of this is just to get your front porch lights to go on in the morning and off in the evening (thank god the prior occupants had left the instructions for us).

So I sat down and studied the manual for a good 25 minutes.

Here’s the thing: the tech-nerd side of me actually got kind of into it. This little light timer is packed with features, including:

  • The ability to adjust itself to daylight savings time (without connection to the internet).
  • It knows what time the sun rises and sets all year round based on your programmed region (again, without connection to the internet).
  • You can set up to seven different “programs” – which is their word for a timed on/off cycle. This means you can have the lights turn on and off a different time each day.
  • You can make the lights go on and off multiple times in the same day.
  • You can customize everything – even things that don’t make sense – like disabling the ability for the clock to adjust to daylights savings time – or having the light turn on during the day and off at night.
  • It even has a built-in “random” function that will randomly vary the time the lights go on and off in the morning and evening by up to 30 minutes to give the house a more “lived in appearance”.

Frankly, given all of the other features packed into this thing, I’m surprised there was no setting to strobe the lights on and off to the beat of my favorite song.

After getting the lights fully programmed and stepping away from my hour-long light programming project – this is still my favorite part of the instructions:

FrontPorchExcerpt

What they’re saying here is the product allows you to do things that don’t make any sense. If you do things that don’t make sense, you’re on your own and they have no idea what’s going to happen.

With my product hat on, all of this begs the question: how simple can we make this device? If I were to redesign this product from the ground up, I think I could get it down to four buttons.

The first button is power to turn the timer on and off. The timer is automatically set to go on at dusk and off at dawn. There is no way to customize this, reverse the on/off cycle or turn off and on multiple times per day.

The second two buttons are the + and – buttons necessary to set the clock to start. The clock automatically observes daylight savings time and you can’t change this. The clock set-cycle goes from year, to month, to hour, to minute to region (region, of course, being necessary to look up the dawn/dusk times).

The fourth button is the “random” button that behaves exactly as it does in the original directions. I actually really like the random feature.

That’s it. It wouldn’t be able to accomplish everything that the original design does, but it would make things dramatically more simple for 95% of users.

While I have to admit a part of me really does like the insanely complicated fully customizable version that we have, I would have much rather had a simpler solution and 55 minutes of my life back.

Overdesigned Products
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  • Ye olde Pareto principle. 20% of the functionality (or, in this case, perhaps 5%) suffices for 80% of the total need. The problem is that the last 20% isn’t nothing.
    I tend to think that, because you only set this up once (and, in all likelihood, this is aimed at contractors who will install it and will need to configure it based on arbitrary “requirements” by customers) the longer time investment might be a reasonable trade-off.
    Will it attract marginal customers or encourage people to recommend it? No… but I’m not really sure how much impact that would have.
    Also: did you check the defaults? I would *bet* that the factory defaults would work for 80% of people, and I wonder if you needed to re-program it from what the previous owner had set it to; as opposed to the default.

  • Good point about the defaults. I’m not sure. There is a reset button, but the instructions made it sound like that would wipe all settings rather than revert to some sort of desirable default.