Innovation Inspiration #009—Fix Something

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I know you have something broken, somewhere around the house, office, garage, or in storage.

Pick something you care about too much to discard, but not quite enough that you’ll be crushed if your fixing doesn’t succeed.

Set aside a couple chunks of time for this project—chunks that you will not interrupt for anything less than a family emergency. Put it on your calendar, and mark it as unavailable, so you can point to it when co-workers or family members complain about you not answering the phone.

Use the first chunk of time to get any documentation and tools you need to open it up and diagnose the problem. Don’t start fixing anything yet; just take it apart and leave it that way. You’ll want a workbench or storage box you can dedicate to the disassembled item. Clear is better, because you want to keep looking at it over the next couple of days or week.

And do wait a few days after you’ve opened its guts. Marvel (or cringe) at how it’s put together. Do two things before the next chunk:

  1. Think about the parts, and how you might fix it.
  2. Buy the right tools for the job.

Do not, under any circumstances, start fixing it without the correct tool! First, you will do damage to the part (even by doing something as simple as using the wrong size Philips screwdriver). Second, you won’t be learning the right things. Specialized tools have high value (even unitaskers, despite Alton Brown’s protestations to the contrary) and enable you to do the job more quickly, easily, and accurately. Some repair jobs are simply impossible without a one-track-mind unitasker.

(Oh, and don’t buy junky tools—if you’re needing a screwdriver, get a Wiha; a soldering iron, a Weller; etc. If you don’t know why, that will be covered in a future post.)

You’re looking for several things:

  • How inelegant most things are on the inside.
    This is both good and bad. In one sense, the only things that matter are how the thing works, how it looks on the outside, and how intuitive it is to use. The pretty outside can hide ugliness on the inside, and still result in a very good product. You can bring this product to market more quickly, but it won’t be as good or as easy to repair and maintain. I recently tried to repair a rechargeable device, for instance, only to discover that the batteries were tack-welded together, and half of them were separate and crammed into deep recesses in the device. It made for a sleeker outside, but repairing it would take more time and effort than seemed worthwhile.  A bit more engineering would have made it easily repairable in the field, instead of a bulky hulk for the recycling bin. Are things that can fail, such as batteries, soldered or socketed?
  • Look at the part that failed.
    Could it be made stronger or more reliable? This is one of the most important things to derive inspiration from. But you’re also training yourself to look for the weak links in your creations.
  • Can the product be simplified?
    Fewer parts will make it more reliable, and building for better manufacturability will make it more profitable or affordable, even if it’s just software.
  •  Is there documentation inside?
    Are the screws labeled? Look at the bottom of a ThinkPad, and you’ll see icons that show which screws have to be removed to replace the keyboard, RAM, etc. Could you use a similar technique on your thing?
  • What will fail next?
    While you have it taken apart, look for other weak links. What’s wearing out? What’s loose?

Somewhere in this process, you’ll learn a couple of worthwhile things, I’m sure.

Author: Peter Sheerin

Peter Sheerin is best known for the decade he spent as the Technical Editor of CADENCE magazine, where he was the acknowledged expert in Computer-Aided Design hardware and software. He has a long-standing passion for improving usability of software, hardware, and everyday objects that is always interwoven in his articles. Peter is available for freelance technical writing and product reviews, and is exploring career opportunities in interaction design. His pet personal project is exploring the best ways to harmonize visual, tactile, and audible symbols for improving the effectiveness of alerting systems.

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