Posted by: kevinliebl | April 10, 2011

The Value of A Simple Red Light

Smoke DetectorMost companies are continually managing the lifecycles of their key products.  Marketing teams are researching industry trends, looking for new opportunities.  Engineering departments are developing new products to satisfy market requirements.  Product teams are sustaining existing products by introducing incremental enhancements.  Finally, older products are being removed from the market to make room for newer models.  The cycle never ends.

Unfortunately, this ongoing cycle often becomes unmanageable.  Watching companies manage their product life cycles is often like watching a dog chase it’s tail.  More and more products are pushed into the development pipeline to where the engineers can never deliver on time.  The cycle times are compressed and a proper product launch program never seems possible.  Products are removed from the market before they reach maturity and are fully accepted by the consumer.  The result is that companies deliver products that are of marginal success.

Companies often talk about “product velocity”, or the ability to introduce products on a steady cadence – and most importantly – faster than their competition.  I would argue that most customers don’t care about product velocity.  They are more interested in getting product value and solutions that solve their problems.

As an example, most of us have smoke detectors in our houses.  We have a total of eight in our house.  Every time a battery needs to be replaced the unit creates a beep to indicate that the battery is low.  One would think that this simple chirping would help isolate the unit in question.  However, most of you know exactly what I am talking about.  I have honestly had my entire family stand in different locations of the house in complete silence waiting for the alarm to chirp, trying to identify which unit needs a battery.  It is one of the more frustrating challenges in life.

I would like to meet the marketing/engineering team that designed the chirping mechanism.  I would ask a few questions:

  1. Why don’t the alarms chirp on a regular interval?  I’ve stood for 10 minutes waiting for an alarm to chirp.  I leave the room and then it chips multiple times within a 2-minute period.  Other times the chirping has stopped for hours.  The interval seems to be entirely random.
  2. Wouldn’t it have been logical to have the chirping continue for more than 3 milliseconds so that the consumer had time to find the failing unit?  A 5-second chirp would have been very useful.
  3. How were you able to design a chirping noise that has no sense of directionality?  Almost every other noise known to man can be identified by location.
  4. How were you able to design a unit that would run out of battery power at 2:00am – every single time?  Wouldn’t the laws of random behavior allow it to begin chirping mid-day – just once?
  5. Putting an expiration on the unit was probably a smart move.  I am sure that this improves the life-saving capability of the product (as well as helps you sell more units).  However, making the 8-10 year automatic expiration chirp the same tone as the battery-low indicator was just cruel.  After replacing the battery in every unit in my house, I finally found an article on the Internet telling me that if the unit continues to chirp after inserting a new battery, then your unit may have reached it’s expiration date and need to be replaced entirely.  Couldn’t you have used a different sound to indicate this?
  6. Most importantly – Is it too much to ask for the unit to have a red light indicating that the battery is low?

Using very rough calculations, I figure that most families have five or more smoke detectors per home.  Lets assume that one of these units needs a new battery every year.  I would estimate that I waste about 30 minutes each time I replace a battery trying to figure out which smoke detector is chirping.  The U.S. Government Census estimates that there are 114,825,428 households in the U.S. alone.  A simple red light would save 57,412,714 hours of time.  If we calculate the value of time using minimum wage ($8.00/hour in California), then adding a red light would save U.S. households a total of $459,301,712.  Maybe you don’t agree with my math, but you get the point.

Most company’s product strategies focus on outflanking the competition and forget to listen to the customer.  Sometimes all the customer really wants is a simple red light indicating that a battery needs to be replaced.  One day a young marketing trainee will make this suggestion and put all the other smoke detector companies out of business.  We will tell our grandchildren stories about how we used to run around the house cussing at the smoke detectors trying to find the one that is beeping.  And they will respond with, “That’s silly!  Didn’t smoke detectors always have a red-light?”


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  1. This was a great reminder that it is imparative to drive solutions based on actual customer needs, not just what you think is required or desired. Too often, companies are predisposed to a particular solution and allow that to cloud what they “hear” from their customer. As a result, customers are not getting solutions which meet their needs and companies will lose market share to those who take the time to really listen.

    Your analogy of the smoke alarm is very timely…My family recently experienced this exact scenario, at 2am on an evening when, much to my wife’s chagrin, I was out of town on travel. Since that night, she makes me set up the 10-foot step ladder in the living room every time I travel, just in case this episode happens again. It sure would be easier if all I had to do was check for the Red Light instead!

  2. the TV show Modern Family did a brilliant episode on this very thing. He turned his house upside down tracking the chirp. He finally asked his young son what he did with the old smoke detectors they replaced last year and his son said he put them in the attic….the chirps were from the attic. No directionality. i vote for red lights.

  3. just one more thought….Kevin, if you chirped, maybe you’d at least get their attention!!

  4. Have had the same thing happen to me. I have three within 10 feet of each other and it drives me nuts. I’m guessing the battery lasts longer with a chirp, and it’s cheaper to put in, like with the sound chips in greeting cards. Chirp AND light gets my vote.

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