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Design

The role of UX in challenging planned obsolescence

10th March 2022

Planned obsolescence is a concept invented to sell more stuff.

It’s not good for our wallets or for the planet. So how did we get here?

In 1924, a group of the world’s biggest manufacturing companies banded together. Their aim? To shorten the life of their light bulbs. Their light bulbs could last for years, and that durability was limiting their sales growth. They agreed on a thousand-hour standard—that’s about three or four months of use—and planned obsolescence was born.

In the same year, the US car industry had a similar problem. It was running out of customers to sell cars to. General Motors executive Alfred P Sloan Jr suggested bringing out new models and design changes each year, to give people something new to buy.

In 1932 we get the first known use of the phrase. New York manufacturers circulated a pamphlet: “Ending the Depression through Planned Obsolescence”, with an article warning that “if merchandise does not wear out faster, factories will be idle, people unemployed”.

Why it matters

100 years on, some lightbulbs are still out there burning brightly. But one by one they’re flickering out. Today, technology companies are up to many of the same old tricks. This shortens the lifespan of their products and is often motivated by the same need to achieve more and more sales.

Billions of devices are manufactured, sold, and disposed of every year, and the impacts are well documented: greenhouse gas emissions, widespread pollution, mounting piles of e-waste, and a race to extract dwindling resources from the earth, often from nations who have already suffered since colonial rule. 

80% of the energy footprint of a laptop or smartphone is used during its manufacture, an industry today still powered mainly by fossil fuels. Some companies have promised to switch to renewables, but it’s a gradual process.

You probably already know that each of your devices is a mini treasure trove of precious metals. But did you realise that miners dig through an average of 34 kilos of rock to extract the few grams of cobalt, tungsten, and gold now sitting in your hand?

Improving the user experience of buying, repairing, and recycling our stuff has an important role to play in challenging the cycle of consumption and waste. That’s why building a circular economy presents a multitude of design opportunities: we ask what would it look like to seize them?

The UX of owning

1. Shopping for a new device 

Shopping for a new device is where many of our consumer troubles begin. Choosing a new phone or laptop is designed to be seamless and carefree, guided by glossy images and compelling marketing copy.

If you’ve taken a scroll lately down the product page for a popular smartphone, you probably didn’t see any mention of environmental impacts. The focus is on features and prices. Considerations like warranty cover, repair information, and other consumer rights are often missing from the buying journey, buried deep in the T&Cs where no one ever sees them.

Design opportunity: Reshape the hierarchy of information on their websites and in their shops, giving more prominence to warranty and repair information and helping users make more sustainable choices. For example, France introduced a new repairability index last year, which gives every device (including laptops and smartphones) a score out of 10 that must be displayed right next to the price. This works in a similar way to the energy ratings on consumer appliances. 

It’s even harder to find information about the supply chain of a device and its impact on the environment. In its Greener Electronics report, Greenpeace found that just six of the world’s leading electronics companies even publish a list of suppliers at all, and only Fairphone and Dell provide details on what each supplier brings to the manufacturing party.

Design opportunity: Build products with responsibly sourced or recycled materials. Fairphone uses recycled copper and plastic in its smartphones, and Apple says it’s working towards a “closed-loop” system in which new Macs and iPhones are made from 100% recycled materials. Although the devices probably won’t look any different, a lower resource footprint is likely to be sold as a benefit to environmentally conscious consumers.

2. Keeping a device going

In 2017, Reddit users accused Apple of releasing software updates that slowed down older iPhones, supposedly to protect the battery life. The tech giant settled the ensuing lawsuit for $113 million in 2020. It was just one in a string of legal battles, the latest in 2021, over the charge that Apple are “throttling” older iPhones.

Design opportunity: Apple could have chosen to communicate openly with its customers about the software releases. It chose not to. Transparency can be a differentiator for brands looking to build long-lasting relationships with loyal customers.

Older models also run the risk of being excluded by new software releases, making them at best vulnerable and at worst unusable. Android phones are particularly susceptible to this. If a new update to an operating system isn’t compatible with your device, it leaves you with little choice other than to buy a new one.

Design opportunity: Ensure backwards compatibility. It can be a technical headache, but it keeps OG users in the loop. Open-source operating systems tend to be better at helping to extend the lifespan of devices because they’re not driven by the financial goals of the manufacturer.

Even if your phone or laptop works fine, you’ll probably still feel the itch to replace it sooner or later. This itch is known as perceived obsolescence—hard to avoid when a bigger and better version of your device appears on billboards and in your friends’ hands every year.

Design opportunity: Create stuff that lasts. This could be an entire series on its own, but for now, let’s just agree that a smartphone is a lifestyle item as well as a functional bit of kit. We need products that are beautiful as well as robust and repairable.

3. Getting it repaired

Many of us will have a repair story of woe just like mine (sleep tight, little buddy) because most manufacturers make it difficult and expensive to get a device repaired.

In July 2021, the UK introduced “right to repair” laws, which will come into play next year. These new rules will mean manufacturers have to make official spare parts available to customers and third-party repairers. But there’s a problem: they don’t cover smartphones or laptops.

Design opportunity: Make repairs easy and cheap. This starts with product design, incorporating a modular approach to make it easier to take devices apart and replace parts such as screens, cameras and batteries.

To get a high score on the French repairability index, a product needs a good repair manual and to have plentiful spare parts on offer. We think a good repair experience should also include a convenient booking system, a quick turnaround time with courtesy equipment to use in the meantime, flexible payment options and transparent communication throughout.

As we mentioned earlier, warranty information is often an afterthought when you’re in the first flush of owning a new phone. That means many people aren’t aware of their rights when it comes to getting a device repaired.

Design opportunity: Tell users their rights. Like we explored at the shopping stage, this comes down to communication and information hierarchy (assuming companies are meeting their warranty obligations) to put users in control.

4. Saying goodbye

If you’re a smartphone user and you’re nearing the end of your pay-monthly contract, you’ll start receiving enticing offers on brand new devices. These types of contracts are falling out of favour, replaced by SIM-only deals as more people opt to buy their phones outright. With fewer people on the treadmill of replacing their phone every two years, we may start to see fewer handsets being discarded.

Up to 80% of the materials in a smartphone are recyclable, including plastics, glass and precious metals. But research in 2020 found that there are 55 million old phones gathering dust in British homes.

By law, retailers have to help consumers to get rid of their unwanted electrical devices responsibly. This means they either need to take them back from you themselves—via creatively-named “take-back” schemes—or provide an alternative. But if that isn’t available, there are plenty of ways to recycle old devices.

Design opportunity: Make people aware of their options and make it easier to take advantage of them.  There are many ways to donate, re-sell or recycle old devices but this process could be streamlined—not to mention incentivised.

Wrapping up

There are so many opportunities to improve users’ experience throughout the journey of buying, using, repairing and recycling a device, and UX has a part to play in helping the electronics industry to move towards a more circular economy.

Key players throughout this vast ecosystem, from manufacturers to recycling centres, can use thoughtful design to put customers first and challenge the entrenched structures of planned obsolescence.

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