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Scientist: Complexity causes 50% of product returns

March 6, 2006 12:00 PM ET

Reuters - AMSTERDAM -- Half of all malfunctioning products returned to stores are in full working order, but customers can't figure out how to operate the devices, a scientist said on Monday.

Product complaints and returns are often caused by poor design, but companies frequently dismiss them as "nuisance calls," Elke den Ouden found in her thesis at the Technical University of Eindhoven in the south of the Netherlands.

A wave of versatile electronics gadgets has flooded the market in recent years, ranging from MP3 players and home cinema sets to media centers and wireless audio systems, but consumers still find it hard to install and use them, according to den Ouden.

She also found that the average consumer in the U.S. will struggle for 20 minutes to get a device working before giving up.

Product developers, brought in to witness the struggles of average consumers, were astounded by the havoc they created.

Den Ouden also gave new products to a group of managers from consumer electronics company Philips Electronics NV, asking them to use them over the weekend. The managers returned frustrated because they could not get the devices to work properly.

She said most of the flaws found their origin in the first phase of the design process -- product definition.

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