TECH FIX
Buyers of Amazon Devices Are Guinea Pigs. That’s a Problem.
Amazon’s experimental approach to product design can hurt your wallet and the environment. Why does it need our help to figure out what it’s doing?
Glenn Harvey
By Brian X. Chen
Published June 16, 2021Updated June 21, 2021
Leer en español
About four years ago, Paul Hollowell found out that Amazon was making a gadget he desperately wanted: a camera whose sole purpose was to photograph his clothes.
The oval camera, called the Echo Look, worked by photographing several clothing combinations and using artificial intelligence to highlight which outfit looked best. Mr. Hollowell, an entrepreneur and a frequent traveler from Dallas, usually spent hours picking clothes to pack for a trip and believed the camera would help him decide. He ordered one for $200.
He was correct — the camera saved time. But what he didn’t predict was that Amazon would send an email three years later with sad news: The product and its app would soon cease to work. The company said it had included some of the Echo Look’s features, like giving style advice, in more popular Amazon products, so it was time to put the digital fashionista to rest.
Mr. Hollowell, 39, was angry. “You can sunset the service, but at least let me use the camera,” he said. “It just did nothing.”
Many have learned a hard lesson about what it means to be an Amazon customer. Even when you’re paying lots of money, you are a guinea pig at the whims of a company endlessly striving to innovate. At any moment, the company could surprise you with an unwelcome change to an Amazon product you own or decide to kill it altogether.
Last week, many people who own Amazon devices were automatically enrolled in Sidewalk, a new internet-sharing program that drew intense scrutiny. Basically, the program lets owners of newer Amazon products share their internet connections with others nearby. If a neighbor’s Ring camera has a spotty internet connection and yours has a strong one, you can share your bandwidth with your neighbor.
That all sounds nice if everything works as expected, but security experts have raised concerns that device makers could have inappropriate access to people’s data. They advised that people opt out of the program to avoid becoming part of Amazon’s experiment because there are still many unknowns.
This high-risk, high-reward approach to innovation is woven into Amazon’s culture. Jeff Bezos, the company’s founder, has said Amazon’s failures cost it billions of dollars. He once told investors that his company was “the best place in the world to fail (we have a lot of practice!), and failure and invention are inseparable twins.”
Indeed, Amazon’s unbridled embrace of failure has included high-profile flops in consumer electronics. For about four years, it sold millions of Amazon Dash Buttons, which you could push to replenish items like toilet paper. Amazon killed the Dash in 2019, after orders placed through the buttons significantly decreased. In 2014, the company aggressively marketed the Fire, its first smartphone, and shelved it just a year later amid lukewarm reviews and sluggish sales.
Amazon continues to experiment with kitschy ideas. Last year, it unveiled an autonomous drone that flies around your home and shoots video to catch intruders. The drone, which was widely panned by the press because of privacy concerns, has yet to be released. Halo, a fitness product that Amazon claims can tell you precisely how fat you are, received mixed ratings from professional reviewers and early customers, including complaints that the gadget could give people body dysmorphia.
Why does Amazon, a brand that probably knows more about what we want to buy than any other company, need to sell us experimental products just to figure out what it’s doing? Tech companies big and small typically do their research and development in house before releasing products to us.
What’s more, when Amazon fails like this, you, the guinea pig, lose your hard-earned cash and a product you may enjoy. There is also an environmental impact: The electronic device could end up in a landfill, and even if you recycle it, only a small portion of its materials can be reused.
Lisa Levandowski, an Amazon spokeswoman, said that internal teams tested the company’s inventions extensively but that, because they were novel and ambitious, customer feedback could help improve them. This approach allows Amazon to make products like the Echo and Alexa what they are today, she said.
Design veterans with experience creating products for big tech brands like Apple and Samsung confirmed that Amazon’s method was atypical. My general recommendation is to think twice before buying cutting-edge tech products made by Amazon — and if you do, be aware of the risk.
Slow and Steady vs. On-the-Fly Innovation
A television, no matter how thin, makes an ugly centerpiece in a living room once it’s turned off. With this in mind, Yves Béhar, a Swiss designer, teamed up with Samsung to design a TV that could blend into the room like an art piece, he said.
They took a slow and patient approach.
Mr. Béhar said he and Samsung designers had started with making observations about consumers: Homes were getting smaller, and tastes were becoming more eclectic. With that insight, the product developers worked with curators in museums and galleries to assemble art that could be shown on the TV.
After a few years of testing prototypes and forming partnerships to procure artwork, the collaboration resulted in the 2017 introduction of the Frame TV, a Samsung television that resembled a picture frame. It used motion sensors to show art when people were present and shut off when nobody was around. The TV has become a best seller.
Mr. Béhar, who founded Fuseproject, an industrial design firm, said he understood Amazon’s approach as a retail company to rapidly test ideas — like when it measures how customers respond to different prices in its stores. But “with hardware, people end up being left with stuff that’s useless or doesn’t work anymore,” he said. “In the world that we live in today, with global warming and plastics and waste, I do think it’s something to be very careful about.”
Don Norman, who founded the Design Lab at the University of California, San Diego, and wrote the book “The Design of Everyday Things,” said that throughout his career, he had seen some other companies use approaches similar to Amazon’s.
In the 1990s, when Mr. Norman worked with Apple as a user experience architect, the company collaborated with Sony on a product. He said Apple had planned to spend years doing market research and testing prototypes before shipping it.
“Sony laughed at us and said: ‘What a stupid way of doing things. We just build a product, and we sell it. We get the feedback, and we kill it and do a better one. It’s much more efficient and faster than your method,’” Mr. Norman said.
This on-the-fly approach to development is unpopular, he said, because most companies recognize that customers get angry when gadgets are quickly killed. “There’s some logic to it but also a complete disrespect to what it might mean to your customers or environment or the world,” Mr. Norman said.
Kyle Wiens, the chief executive of iFixit, a company that sells parts for people to repair gadgets, said there were better ways than Amazon’s to discontinue products. When Pebble, a smartwatch maker, shut down in 2016, the company said the software would continue to work. People continued to enjoy the product years after the company’s death.
Mr. Norman’s advice for consumers is simple: Protest. Amazon is more likely to change its ways if people complain when they are treated as guinea pigs and steer clear of experimental gadgets like surveillance drones until they are proved to be lasting products.
Mr. Hollowell is an example of how tough it can be to pacify unhappy customers. When Amazon was announcing the death of the Echo Look, the company sent two emails. The first included a promotional code to get a newer product, the Echo Show 5, for free. Mr. Hollowell took the offer but found that the Echo Show was a poor substitute: The camera was subpar and lacked software to organize his closet, he said.
The second email was a reminder that the Echo Look would soon be dead and that it could be recycled. Mr. Hollowell missed the part about recycling. “I very distinctly remember putting it in the trash one day because it just wasn’t working,” he said.
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