DesignInnovationMarketingProduct ManagementSaeedSales Engineer

How NOT to communicate with customers

I had a post a couple of weeks back entitled Bad Design on a UPS, describing what I see as a problem with the UPS I bought last year. One of the readers posted an excerpt and a link to my article on the APC-forums. A couple of days later a response was posted by APC.

I have to say, I can’t imagine a worse response that could have been given. While I’m sure the response was well intentioned, it clearly was written by someone who didn’t understand the broader context of the issue and the implications of writing what they wrote on a public internet forum.

Let me make a few points clear:

  1. I am a customer of APC. I bought their product and currently use it in my house
  2. In general the UPC addresses my needs for my home office
  3. I gave the product credit for the things it does well
  4. My main issue with the product is the very prominent and easy to depress power button on the front of the unit that, when depressed, virtually instantly shuts the unit down along with all devices connected to it

Now, let’s look at the communication from APC and what we can learn from it.

The response from APC was posted by Kevin AKA “The Notorious K.M.P.” If you click on the link, you’ll notice that Kevin has a status of Silver Platinum Medalist. I’m assuming this means he’s a relatively experienced employee at APC. But there are a number of mistakes in his response. Here’s how NOT to communicate with customers.

NOTE: The original response that Kevin posted, and which I quote from below, was altered on or around July 30, 2008 (i.e. 9 days after I originally posted this article). Thus some of the sentences below, may not read exactly like what is currently posted on the APC forum. Click here for a screenshot of the original response – thanks Google cache!

1. Misquote the customer

Kevin starts out his response with this statement:

I had a discussion with a couple of APC Escalation folks yesterday, and in no way shape or form can this be defined as a “fatal design flaw.”

Kevin uses quotes around the words “fatal design flaw”, implying that is what I said. I did not use the word “design”. I actually said:

Now, this is a great device except for one fatal flaw.

This may be a small point, but when quoting customers, it’s important to actually quote exactly what they said in the response. And if you have the full text of what the customer said — in this case my blog post — then misquoting it is simply unacceptable and diminishes the credibility of the rest of the response.

2. Use faulty logic when trying to support arguments

In the second sentence Kevin states:

If it were, obviously OTHER UPS companies wouldn’t use this design and try something different to give them an upper hand. But since they do – that becomes negated.

Here, Kevin uses a logical fallacy to support the design of the power button. i.e. because other UPS vendors do it, it can’t be a bad thing.

Let me say that bad design is everywhere, and just because a number of companies use a certain design, it doesn’t make the design a good one. How many cars have cup holders that when holding a tall cup, either end up blocking the central console in the car (e.g. block access to car stereo controls) or aren’t deep enough to hold the tall cup properly? I’ve seen this in several models of cars, but no one could claim that because many companies do it, the cupholders are well designed.

Additionally, this argument, that because others do it, it must be OK, is a sign of stagnation in a market, and an opportunity for someone to change the situation and either innovate or change the game. This certainly happened in the MP3 player market, when Apple changed the rules in that market with the iPod and iTunes music store.

3. Use irrelevant examples to support your position

Kevin then continues with the following paragraph:

The other side of this is that a 2-year old can also turn off your TV or other electrical equipment that requires a push of a button to turn off. If you have a $2000 LCD HDTV on a surge protector with a DVR and Blu-ray player and the 2-year old turns that off, and blows the HDTV because it doesn’t have the time to cool down, now what’re you more frustrated about? The fact that your PC shut down because your 2-Year old turned it off and you have to do work over again (that raises the question of why autosave wouldn’t be enabled), or that you now have to spend over $500 to fix your HDTV because well, your 2 year old saw a light and wanted to turn it off.

So let me see if I understand what he’s saying. First, states that a 2-year old can also turn off other electric devices such as televisions. Yes, that is true. Then he uses the example of a $2000 LCD HDTV that could be turned off by a 2 year old, and possibly damaged because it doesn’t have have time to cool down. Then he asks what’s worse, a damaged TV or some lost files.

First of all, the issue here is about the APC unit and not random electrical devices. And the fact that a TV could sustain damage simply by being turned off would be a “fatal design flaw” by any standard. So the example is weak at best and basically irrelevant to the point of the original post.

4. Insult the customer and/or his/her family

Kevin continues in his post, referring to my son as “a menacing child that tampers with things“. Now I don’t think he meant it directly personally, but there is no place in his response for that kind of assertion or language. It does show a lack of professionalism and understanding when that is the kind of language that is used in a customer response.

5. Offer pointless solutions that don’t address the problem

Kevin finishes his response with the following suggested solution:

…put electrical or duct tape over the button and the child won’t wonder what’s behind the tape.

Honestly, I had to chuckle when I read this last line. Ah yes, electrical tape, the solution to almost everything. So, let’s see….if I put electrical tape over the power button what will happen? Does Kevin think that somehow the tape will be less interesting to my son than the button? Would a 2-year old not wonder what happened to the button? Is this really the best solution APC can provide?

As a Product Manager, I can’t help but look at this response and think, “What a missed opportunity!”

Instead of responding the way he did, Kevin should have either escalated this to a Product Manager or Product Marketing manager, or had the insight to understand that for a customer, the most important letter in UPS is U for UNINTERRUPTIBLE. And whether due to a power failure or a lightning strike or a curious 2-year old, APC should be making sure that their product only cuts power to the devices attached to it, if and only if it is absolutely necessary.

The soft, single touch power button, with an almost instantaneous shutdown on the UPS may not be a problem for office use, but is a clear problem for home use. I’m sure I’m not the only person who has experienced this. If there is a Product Manager or Product Marketing Manager at APC reading this, I’d appreciate a response. Everyone else, what are your thoughts?


See the next part of this sage:
How to LOSE customers!

  1. Richard Marr

    I’d have to know the market to comment on whether their product design was right, but rather than being defensive they could have taken your comments on board and talked passionately about a subject that their customers would hope they were passionate about.

  2. Jeff Lash


    I had to check the date to make sure it wasn’t April 1.

    Seriously? One of the more amazing responses I’ve seen from a company.

    I’m with Steve — I don’t know where to begin to respond on that… except to say that with horrible customer service like this, it’s no wonder companies are looking to offshore it. (“If we’re going to have horrible customer service, we might as well have inexpensive customer service.”)

  3. Frits

    Aparently the only thing truly uninterruptible is the nonsense spouted on behalf of the company. It does not make sense to have a breaker on the power delivery side: it is useful to have one on the power supply side to test the UPC. Ooops, was that was it was for and the unit is actually not working? I would pull the plug and verify that you have power backup before concluding (as I expect you will) that the design is flawed. If you had to cut power to your PC in a hurry you’d just pull the plug (or did they weld those in solid so a 2-year old cannot disconnect them?). Engineering you call it?

  4. saeed


    Thanks for the comment, though it’s not clear to me (at least) what point you’re trying to make in the comment.

    The UPS is meant to be a failsafe for supplying power to all the devices plugged into it. By putting an easy to access power button right on the front, in a home environment, the UPS becomes a single point of failure for all devices plugged into it. i.e. exactly the opposite of what it is meant for.

    While a child could unplug any single device, there is no way they could turn them all off individually. But the button on the UPS makes that possible.

    There are many easy solutions for the problem… put the button on the back, or put a molly guard on it, or make the button harder to depress so a 2 year old couldn’t do it easily, or, something else to minimize the UPS from becoming a single point of failure.


  5. Raj

    WOW, I am amazed at how unfriendly APC’s response is. I had to double-check the forum, I thought you might have taken it out of context or something.

    At most companies I know (including my employer) – a response 1/10th as unfriendly simply will not be tolerated. I generally have a positive opinion of APC – hopefully this is just a one-off forum post, not systemic throughout the company.

  6. Peter


    Hope you’re making headway with APC.

    Meanwhile, I’ve been thinking of compiling a critique of products with “poor usability ratings” (i.e. the opposite of this list here http://www.jnd.org/GoodDesign.html). The value-add would be to invite and suggest practical re-designs in a section of the blog. What say you to a collaborative effort?

    And back on the topic of the UPS on/off switch, this link has a pictorial history of how such things have gone from good to bad over time. It’s the irony of progress eh?

    The Evolution of the ON/OFF Power Switch Symbol http://designblog.nzeldes.com/2008/05/the-evolution-of-the-onoff-power-switch-symbol/


  7. Andrew Bradner

    OK, we’re guilty as charged! Saeed is right, our UPSs can be turned off by merely depressing a single button. As one of APC’s product managers for the Back-UPS line, I concede.

    However, I can assure you we’ve thought many times before about the frailties that the on/off button of a UPS injects into a computer set up. To combat this problem, on some products we have recessed the button. Although, this method seems like it wouldn’t have worked in the presence of a small child with a penchant for pressing buttons. We’ve also considered requiring users to hold the button in for a few seconds in order to turn it off, but we already use this method on our units with AVR as a means to adjust voltage sensitivity transfer settings. Software changes could also be made, but many people never install it. We even put a removable “kick guard” on one of our surge protectors, but we found out that the vast majority of people didn’t read the instructions and never used it. And to further frame this issue, we try to maintain a consistency of features across a product line, so that customers know what to expect from APC as they purchase different units over time. In other words, in a perfect world, all the on/off buttons of our Back-UPS products would look and operate the same way.

    While there have been a lot of people jumping on the bandwagon of the original post, to be fair, it’s worth looking at this from a UPS manufacturer’s point of view. As a product manager, I can tell you that every feature we include on our UPSs represents a trade off, a compromise between user needs and ease of use, between cost and functionality, complexity vs aesthetics. In order to be as competitive as possible in this marketplace, we strive to please the maximum amount of people with the minimum number of products. This probably holds true for most of the companies people reading this post work for. Additionally, I can also tell you that APC spends considerable resources on focus groups as we try to continually improve our products. And you’d be surprised when seemingly harmless changes deter less tech savvy people, sometimes forcing us to retreat to more “plain vanilla” features in an effort to please the most people with the fewest number of products. Frustratingly, the old adage, “You can’t please all of the people all of the time” comes to mind.

    Now, having said all this, based solely on this blog, there are a few people here talking about some new ideas to better protect the on/off button. Please keep in mind that any changes critical to user interface, like this one, have to be reviewed and pass a series of “hurdles”, any of which having the potential to guide us towards (or away from) keeping this switch just as it is now. (Incidentally, testing new ideas like this is one of the best parts of my job). So while we haven’t found the “perfect on/off button” yet, APC, and a lot of others are still on the hunt.

    Good luck with your 2 yr old. I used to shut the french doors to my office and quarantine my kids in the living room. I can still remember their tiny faces pressed against the glass as they drooled yogurt and saliva onto the rug, wondering what I could possibly be doing on the computer for so long. Oddly, it seems that now-a-days the situation has been completely reversed…


  8. saeed


    Thanks for listening and writing your response. It’s good to read a reasoned response.

    Now , let’s see which company gets a new line of improved, adequately molly-guarded home/office UPSs to market first!


  9. Peter

    Andrew your UPS is a candidate for ‘The Almost Perfect Product’ but it would be a shame to post it there simply because you guys haven’t yet addressed a fundamental element of the “de facto” user requirement, namely that irreversible operations should be difficult.

    Of course, you’ve acknowledged this need and while doing so, even explained how a consistent presentation of the solution across your consumer UPS/backup systems might strengthen market perceptions of your brand (“we try to maintain a consistency of features across a product line, so that customers know what to expect from APC as they purchase different units over time”.)

    I don’t think any of us in product management could have said it better: “In other words, in a perfect world, all the on/off buttons of our Back-UPS products would look and operate the same way.” Sounds like a roadmap objective to me. I say go for it!


  10. Dave Marcus

    APC could find a lot of learnings about kid-proof design in product safety areas, especially in the area of making it hard for a kid to open a bottle of hazardous materiaone ls. Push-hard-and-turn seems like a common “switch” around my house. A better imo is turn the knob or cap to align two pointers, push, and then turn in the opposite direction, with the cap spring loaded to never stay in the turned position.

  11. saeed


    You’re an engineer no doubt?

    The problem is real, not fictitious nor frivolous. And its not simply the lack of a mollyguard on the switch, but the incredibly unprofessional way that Kevin responded. There is no excuse for that kind of response.

    BTW, bad design is rampant in the software and technology industry, and it is these kinds of small things that add up to cause us to waste our time or worse.


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