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A classic reminder of product misdesign

February 22, 2009 0 Comments

Many large-scale software projects, whether commercial, two-party, or internal, end up poorly matched to their intended use and fail to achieve their intended use. But the same factors that lead to such disappointments occur in all industries and settings. Though I never drove one (and probably only saw them rarely while growing up), as a child I constantly heard of the Ford Edsel (above) as being the archtypical failed product design.

Car Lust gives the history of that failed product, and there are many lessons for software product designers, architects, and implementers to learn:

The tale of the Edsel is fascinating because it’s an instance of a large organization full of talented, competent, well-intentioned people setting a goal that seemed perfectly reasonable, marching confidently toward that goal–and going straight off a cliff. There was no one big colossal mistake–well, actually, there was one big mistake, in my opinion, but we’ll get to that–so much as there was a long series of minor to moderate miscalculations that all added up to an idea that not only didn’t fly, but crashed and burned on takeoff and left a great smoking hole in Ford’s corporate treasury. . . .

To make the Edsel different, it was decided to feature a pushbutton interface in place of the usual column shifter. Rather than put the pushbuttons in a logical location on the dashboard, like Chrysler did, Edsel’s brain trust stuck them in the center of the steering column–creating the infamous Teletouch Drive found on something over 90 percent of 1958-model Edsels. As a matter of ergonomics, the Teletouch Drive was just a little bit dodgy, as it put the shifter where most cars traditionally put the horn button. (Edsel owner tries to honk horn, puts Edsel in reverse, hilarity ensues.) It also later proved to be unacceptably fragile. . . .

In the last weeks before E-Day, build quality suddenly became a critical issue that threatened the whole project. Since the planned new Edsel factories did not yet exist, the Edsels were being built at Ford and Mercury plants. Edsels were different from Fords and Mercurys, they took different parts and had different assembly sequences–which made them inconvenient and annoying to deal with–and they didn’t really “belong” there. As a consequence, Edsels didn’t get the attention they deserved, and they were coming off the line with parts missing and body panels out of alignment. The Edsel sales and support staff, and many dealers, had to scramble to make those first cars presentable, and quite a few Edsel dealerships had “hangar queens” squirreled away in the back room on E-day, waiting for parts to come in. . . .

It was about this time that a lot of the build quality issues that had been hastily covered up in the month before E-Day began asserting themselves. Cars developed squeaks and rattles and minor (and major) malfunctions. The fragile Teletouch Drive began misbehaving with alarming frequency. Edsel dealers’  service departments suddenly became very busy. Word got around that the cars were lemons. Wags began claiming that the name “Edsel” was an acronym for “Every Day Something Else Leaks.” Bob Hope added Edsel jokes to his stage routine. Just a few weeks after hitting the market, the Edsel had gone from being The Next Big Thing to a national punch line. . . .

You mean, kind of like Microsoft Vista? 🙂 Be sure to read the entire article: it’s fascinating, informative, and entertaining to boot. Hat tip to Instapundit.  ..bruce..

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About the Author:

Webster is Principal and Founder at at Bruce F. Webster & Associates, as well as an Adjunct Professor for the BYU Computer Science Department. He works with organizations to help them with troubled or failed information technology (IT) projects. He has also worked in several dozen legal cases as a consultant and as a testifying expert, both in the United States and Japan. He can be reached at 303.502.4141 or at

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