Why it's hard not to be a tech Grinch

CNET News.com's Charles Cooper has had it with bad product design and lousy customer service that leaves customers tied up in knots.

Charles Cooper Former Executive Editor / News
Charles Cooper was an executive editor at CNET News. He has covered technology and business for more than 25 years, working at CBSNews.com, the Associated Press, Computer & Software News, Computer Shopper, PC Week, and ZDNet.
Charles Cooper
3 min read
I should have bought the iPod.

Not quite as compelling an opening as "Call me Ishmael," but I'm having a hard time not regretting a recent bout of foolishness at the mall.

Mistake No. 1 was disregarding my better instincts and gift-shopping for the holidays on the Friday after Thanksgiving. It's been 40 years since I last went shopping on Black Friday (this recent excursion, for the record, was made against my will) and it will be at least another 40 years before I try it again. By the time I arrived at Circuit City, the ravaging hordes had picked clean all the one-day specials. And so it was that I settled on what was left over--in this case a Sansa m240 from SanDisk.

CNET Reviews gave the product a 7.3 rating, so I went with the recommendation. But after nearly two weeks of tinkering with the unit, let's just say I've been quite tempted to hammer the Sansa into scrap metal.

Too few technology gadgets and applications fall into the category of plug and play. More often, it's manipulate and pray.

I won't bore you with the details of the software hell I suffered, but there were any number of minor technical questions the company leaves customers to figure out on their own. Lincoln's Gettysburg Address is longer than the tiny booklet of "technical documentation" that came with the unit. Three pages of instruction?-in big type-?in three different languages just didn't do it. So my frustration grew as the afternoon lengthened into the late evening and still I was left trying to understand the particular mindset of the genius who designed the music player's interface.

Of course, you can send an e-mail to the company and wait hours until an anonymous technician responds. The way SanDisk and most other tech companies do the math, technical support is a cost center. The less interaction, the better. There's no gain for the bottom line when consultants spend time on the phone with Manny from Detroit, Bob from Brooklyn, or Charlie from San Francisco.

The cost of answering customer queries adds up over time. But that's because so few of the products companies make these days are designed so regular human beings can get them up and running in no time at all.

If I want a mind teaser, I'll open the day's New York Times crossword puzzle. I don't get my jollies wasting a full day trying to deconstruct the original intention of a clueless product designer--and from what I gather from a recent panel on what consumers want in their gadgets, most people feel the same way.

How many manufacturers really obsess about eliminating customer confusion? Unfortunately, Apple Computer is the exception to the rule. And that raises the bigger problem so many of you will encounter as the gift-giving season kicks into high gear. Too few technology gadgets and applications fall into the category of plug and play. More often, it's manipulate and pray.

So it is that vendors get away with putting the responsibility for technical support on your shoulders. The sad reality is that unless you're willing to pay for an extended warranty, you're on your own, folks.

Postscript to my personal tech tale of woe: after a day mucking around with the Sansa, I eventually got things straightened out. But it also confirmed the indelible truth that SanDisk CEO Eli Harari is no Steve Jobs.

I should have bought the iPod.