Tweaking is all about finding the hinges of a product's usability and stacking the features so the functionality tips into something entirely new. We're not talking about lasers on everything, or anything that drastic. Sometimes, the best tweak can be a little more metal here and there, or the movement of a feature by 90 degrees.
Take, for example, Douglas Tool's re-envisioned framing hammer. Nothing's re-invented about its basic form; After 2000 years of human tinkering, they knew not to change that. But new technology has allowed for some tweaks that change everything anyway. An added magnetic nail-holder slot on top lets you start and drive a nail one handed -- a huge advantage when you're holding studs with the other hand. Other tweaks include an extended metal "tang" to guard against mis-hits that could break the handle, and an extra set of pulling jaws set closer to the center of the head for more leverage. All this was made possible, because Douglas didn't set out to change everything, just the little places where it would matter most.
While we're on the subject of tools, Smith and Hawken have a subtle tweak of the common contractor's shovel that could make for serious improvements with only a small change. Based on the concept of a cheese knife, which eliminates large, flat areas because of increased friction with the sticky cheese, these shovels have a grid work of punched holes in the blade. Cutting through wet clay sod, scooping mud, or slopping concrete become easier, and the blade is lighter for long, repetitive work.
Another great tweak-type design is Oliso's Touch & Glide iron. Those of you with iron-shaped burn marks on your favorite shirt should perk up when you hear that this iron eliminates the danger of singed clothes. Sensors in the handle sense when it has been put down, and micromotors are engaged to lift the iron up on legs, away from the cloth. When your hand returns, so does the iron, ready for service. These tiny legs mean faster ironing, sure, but insurance against any shirt-burning is a tweak to end all tweaks.
Simplicity in the solution cannot be overemphasized when tweaking. You are looking for the one thing that will make the most difference, and the one way to improve it the most. A perfect example of this simple quality is the recently popular braided travel clotheslines. By braiding the line, you eliminate the need for clothespins entirely; Just stick clothes between the strands.
On the other hand of the simplicity argument are these super-techno weather sensing clothespins. While this certainly seems like a tweak, it's in fact more of a gimmick, as a quick thought experiment shows. Lets say you've washed a whole load of clothes. The spin cycle's done, and you're ready to dry. But these clairvoyant little beauties refuse to be used. Not even to string up the clothes in the house or basement. Even if you'd check them before the wash was loaded into the washer, the weather could have passed by the time the clothes were done washing. Wouldn't it just be easier to check online, or on TV to see if the weather was going to be bad? You use that information everywhere, so there's no reason to confine it to just clothespins.
Tweaking is a powerful design strategy. But don't be reduced to gadgetry, where adding feature upon feature gives you a bloated product that eventually dies under the weight of its own uselessness. Look for the thing that makes your product function -- how does it inform, console, educate, assist, simplify, or whatever -- and then reach out through brainstorming for a way to alter this function. Try thinking simply. Maybe you don't even need to add anything, just move things around. Or maybe taking some pieces away will free up space for the real function to poke through better.
Above all, remember, you're here to make things work, and work better. Making fluff products because your boss says you really need the client is a pretty shady deal. You're a designer, not a "feature adder". Tweaking is an art form for a reason. And as a designer, its subtlety is your birthright.
Copyright 2004-2006 Dominic Muren and IDFuel Team