What Do Beard Trimmers Teach Us About Modern Product Design

Cords vs Cordless

If you have a beard, you need to trim it. Like so many products in modern life, this is something that seems simple. You'll need a device that lets you select how much to trim off and it will need to be relatively easy to operate. You probably won't use it on a daily basis but a few times a week you will pull it out. This should be a product that is painfully simple to buy. If everything we think we know about mass manufacturing holds true, this should be something where I walk in, get what I need and leave.

So why have I owned so many of the things? I've owned this one and I've tried that one. These are good brands (or at least I thought) with reasonable features that seemed to meet every need I could imagine. They have lots of high reviews and the price seems right in line with what I would expect to pay for a small motor with guides. But I kept running into problems.

These devices just never seemed to work that well. Mostly the battery simply didn't last long enough to get the job done. So I did what anyone does. First I started by taking my Remington beard trimmer apart. How they work is pretty simple. The cam of a DC motor is inserted into the middle of the cutter assembly and makes a motion which then allows the blades to move back and forth. There are two blades in the cutter, one which doesn't move and another that does. All of this is powered by a pretty normal looking DC motor that (according to google) is rated to move around 6,000 RPM. All of these are pretty common pieces.

With the razor apart I focused on the PCB components and the battery. As far as I could tell, all the PCB was doing is regulating the power supply to the motor and charges the battery (along with controlling the LED that shows whether the thing is charging or not). The power supply in this case was a rechargeable AA battery. According to Google this battery takes 14-16 hours to fully charge and should run a motor like mine for 20-30 minutes.

This, to me, is the problem with these beard trimmers. Nothing about this list of features is wrong except it is asking me, as the consumer, to make peace with all sorts of crazy compromises. 14-16 hour charge time? That's not portable! I was thinking of this device like I would a laptop or a phone, but of course it isn't. I need to plan ahead in order to trim my beard. So either I leave the trimmer sitting on my counter all the time (that looks super nice, right?) or I plan ahead. I guess I should be putting reminders in my calendar for the night before.

The other issue is the run time. I don't think 20-30 minutes of running on a single charge works. It's clear this battery isn't powerful enough to keep this device running for years. In fact, everything about this trimmer is designed to have a very finite lifespan for absolutely no reason. This battery at its peak can trim my beard twice with a charge after a night of charging. The performance will, of course, decrease as cycles increases on the battery. But the motor is still working fine. The basic mechanics of how the blades work will continue to function with lubrication for thousands more hours than the battery will. I have two highly understood pieces of machinery held back on purpose by the limitation of the power supply.

Ok but what if we just ran off the battery when we needed to? This would meet all of our needs. As far as I can tell neither of these products do that. It's always running off of the battery even when plugged into the wall. This has left me multiple times with half a beard trimmed. It's not a simple problem but there are designs for power delivery that allow you to work off the battery when the power cord isn't connected and off the wall power when it is. This seems like such a common sense design that you would, of course want. Because I would argue the worst case scenario for a beard trimming is to be left in a half-complete state. I'd rather you not even try if I can't complete the operation.

So many modern products make me feel this way. A series of compromises that don't help me and seem to be exclusively designed in order to ensure that I gain as few benefits from the product as possible. They know the DC motor is the same DC motor that a more expensive trimmer uses. They know that if power was not an issue you would need to buy one of these trimmers in your life (short of accidental damage).

This isn't just a beard trimmer problem. My new phone doesn't have a headphone jack, ensuring I go out and buy bluetooth headphones with lifespans limited by the internal battery of those devices. My laptop doesn't have any ports I might need or a replaceable battery, ensuring I need to both buy new versions of the things I already have. In a world where we are increasingly seeing more and more signs that we must slow down the rate of consumption of natural resources, we are surrounded by products designed to have a finite end date.

So what did I end up doing for my trimmer? Well once I took it apart it turns out the problem was pretty simple. It has a 600mah battery. I swapped it for a 1900 mah battery (after taking the entire thing apart even though there was no reason to make it so complicated) and suddenly my device was working so much better. Now that the one restriction on the correct functionality of the device is removed suddenly this trimmer has at least another year of life in it.

You might ask then "What is the problem Mat?" You solved the problem. First, I solved the problem because I'm not afraid to take things apart. Nothing about this device is designed to be taken apart. The designers of this product might as well be screaming "Don't do it" with the way this device is put together. Second this feels like a "tech tax". We don't teach people how PCBs work or how to take things apart. I only know how to do this because of my personal hobbies. But people who, for economic reasons, can't afford to keep replacing these items with new ones every six months might not have that same information.

So I ended up replacing my trimmer with this one. It's a cheap unit that operates on most of the same principals we laid out before with the exception being that this one just pulls power from the wall. With a small amount of light machine oil this thing will last me for years and years with normal operation. I never need to think about whether its charged or what kind of battery it has in it. It isn't designed with the idea of "what is the bare minimum we need to ship as a product" but instead is a very simple to operate and maintain machine that does exactly what you want with a minimum amount of fuss.

I would argue we need fewer tools designed to fail and more items designed like this. It is certainly an older fashioned way to design products. It means fewer units sold year over year and will likely limit the potential future growth of your company. However we are coming up to a lot of hard decisions around the future of the human race in relationship to the consumption of natural resources and one of the things we need to start to do is design the items in our lives to operate for longer. There is no recycling program as effective as making something we never need to recycle (or need to recycle much less).