Innovation opens weird and wonderful possibilities. Also uncomfortable, impractical and even dangerous possibilities. For example:
The Hawaii Chair sought to mitigate the health risks of the sedentary office worker. It’s certainly a long way from what Thomas E Warren had in mind when he designed the first office chair in 1849. The Hawaii Chair sought to combine productivity and a workout for the abs. Remember hula hoops? Now picture the same movement while sitting down and writing notes.
With the touch of a button, the seat swivels in circular movements to emulate the exercise you would get by hula-hooping. As the company’s tagline says, “If you can sit, you can get fit.” Whether anyone ever achieved six-pack abs from using the Hawaii Chair is a mystery as the main issue was, well, everything else. Answering phones, typing and any activity that didn’t involve clutching the arms of the chair as your mid-section gyrated was rendered impossible.
Not every innovation flops because the product doesn’t work. The Segway was heralded as a technological marvel. In-built sensors made the scooter’s balance better than that of a human and a narrow design made it easily manoeuvrable. The Segway was expected to forever change the way people got from A to B. Whether this was from home to work or from your desk to the printer. In 2001, Segway founder Dean Kamen declared that the Segway “will be to the car what the car was to the horse and buggy”.
If you had a large open-plan office and walking around was somehow the less-practical choice, the Segway was the solution – if you could get it into the office. The hefty vehicle weighed up to 45kg, making it too heavy to hoist onto your shoulders and trudge up the stairs.
There was also the issue of getting to the office. Australian law requires any Segway to have a bell, lights, reflective strips, a licence plate and insurance. And riding a Segway is dangerous: Jim Heselden, owner of the Segway company, was killed while riding one.
Instead of selling the forecasted 10,000 units a week by the end of 2002, the Segway barely sold 30,000 units in the next six years, according to Forbes.
The idea behind open-plan offices was to boost collaboration and productivity between peers by removing as many physical boundaries as possible. It also meant fewer overheads for the company. Why lease two storeys if you can squeeze everybody, and everything, into one?
According to a recent study, open-plan offices have the opposite effect. Instead of encouraging social interaction, the study found that employees in this office design spend less time in face-to-face interactions, while emails and IMs increased by 67 per cent. Removing all the physical boundaries between people in a confined space triggered a natural human response to retreat from interaction.
Open-plan offices were intended to be the solution for social interaction in the workplace; now Panasonic has come up with a solution to the solution. The Panasonic Wear Space, essentially human blinkers, “give the user a personal psychological space”. Goodness.
Microsoft Office 97 is synonymous with Clippy, the virtual assistant in the form of a personified paperclip. The intuitive software was designed to help people write and format their documents as well as navigate their word processors. The phrase “It looks like you’re writing a letter. Would you like help?” still inspires rage in those who used Office 97.
The virtual assistant quickly became a hindrance for computer users who found almost every action interrupted by Clippy. The pushy paperclip simultaneously guessed and suggested your next action while it bobbed and blinked at you from the corner of your word document.
Any attempt to ignore the paperclip’s questions and suggestions was met with impatient flips and wiggles as it wrestled your attention away from your work to check one of the boxes it offered.
Despite criticism, Clippy made it almost six years before he was turned off by default in 2002, and was then completely removed from the software in 2007.
Better productivity in the office is a goal we are constantly reaching for, and not every invention helps us get there. But every flop is paving the way to new success. Who knows what you’ll see in the office of the future?