Doing it differently

Every now and then, a new product is launched which stands out as being different from its competitors – not because it is doing something new, but because of the way it does it.


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The underlying drivers may be design as in the case of this iconic Alessi juicer, efficiency as in the case of Dyson, or necessity as exemplified by the Pompidou Centre.

Modern advances in technology, combined with the benefits of web-enabled services have brought rapid prototyping, integrated design tools, crowd-funding and distributed team-working. Together, they have lowered the barriers to entry for newcomers, making it simultaneously easier for new concepts to reach the market, and harder to stand out from the crowd.

In its 1984 ad, Apple announced that there was an alternative to the uniformity and conformity which was dominating the computer industry at that time, and their dogged determination and belief in their message resonated with users and eventually saw them prevail. Their underlying message was right, of course. They did have an alternative, and adopting the same approach with music and phones has proved wildly successful.

Global adoption of international standards generally fosters conformity which is highly positive in cases where interoperability is important. Multiple (or at least more than one) adopted “standards” invariably cause confusion or irritation for customers (or users) – one only has to look at the vast range of screw threads to understand how and why incompatible solutions to similar problems emerge.

Any product development which includes adoption of a non-standard solution needs to be able to justify its inclusion – especially as cost is so often in the spotlight – and a cost-benefit analysis can quantify this objectively (at least to some extent). The different configurations below are not implemented for the benefit of the user; they are not driven by an Apple-esque desire to be different because it’s better. They result from a continuing legacy which becomes progressively more difficult to change without significant cost and upheaval.

Travellers to China or Russia may have been surprised by the different keypad configuration used at ATMs. The configuration used throughout the western world usually places the numbers 1-2-3 along the top row of a 3×3 grid. In China and Russia, the top row consists of the numbers 7-8-9. This can pose a problem for users who remember their PIN numbers by finger movement rather than as a multi-digit number. The different configurations used on calculators, phone diallers and ATMs generally causes no significant problems – familiarity usually resolves any problems for the user, though switching can be temporarily problematic. To make matters slightly worse, different keypad configurations can be found in China (ie 1-2-3 and 7-8-9), and certainly has the effect of keeping users on their toes.

Underground Train Door Controls

London Underground Central line passenger door controls

The semi-automatic doors on the Central line of the London Underground include controls which allow passengers to open and close the doors from the inside. The solution is entirely non-standard, and handed – the buttons on the right-hand side of the door are different from those on the left.

Given the cost of maintaining spare parts, it is difficult to see the justification for implementing a handed solution – particularly as it brings no apparent benefit to the passenger.

The use of colour (Open – green; Close – red) is interesting too. Apart from possible confusion for red-green colour-blind passengers, green is usually a colour associated with “go” or good or safe; red with “stop”, bad or danger. Any correlation between those states and open/ close is far from obvious in this context. The suggestion that in normal use these controls are already disabled by the driver, and that future trains may not include them further calls into question the original decision to implement this solution.

Other examples of configuration differences

  • Car indicator/ wiper controls are on different sides of the wheel, but they vary according to region
  • OK/ Cancel buttons are in a different sequence according to OS/ platform

To conclude

  • There are various reasons for doing something differently. It’s important to understand the drivers.
  • The user may or may not notice the difference. Whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing depends on what the drivers are.
  • Without a good reason (cost, standout design, efficiency) it’s probably hard to justify being different. The cost of adoption, the potential irritation for users and the legacy impact must not be underestimated.

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Additional reading



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