iRobot and lessons for design

It’s funny how something can be a great design, and yet with a few tweaks, it becomes completely awful.

Witness the Roomba.  I love my Roomba – I bought it in October 2006 when I moved in to my cottage and realised I needed a vacuum cleaner.  I bought the bottom of the line model, no accessories, and as of August 2008, with some minor maintenance it still runs great.  Even its battery, while definitely not as great as it once was, still has enough charge to clean the whole room.  It’s easy to use, cleaning it is very simple, and maintenance is also very user friendly.  And of course, it does a great job of cleaning the whole cottage (although I am lucky to have Roomba friendly floors and furniture).

With so much love for the Roomba, it was a natural choice to buy a Scooba as well.  I don’t mop and I could see grime building up.  Scooba was only $99 on Woot, so I bought one straight away.  I noticed immediately that it’s a lot bigger and heavier than Roomba, making it more difficult to move around and to manipulate while cleaning.  It doesn’t fit as nicely in our cupboard, and its increased height means the light sensor keeps getting caught under cupboard doors.  It leaks water when being moved from room to room, and will often insist to check the tank for no discernable reason.  There are a lot more parts to clean, and maintenance is a lot more complex.  Emptying it becomes a gross chore (instead of tapping a box into the bin, I usually manage to cop a bit of spray back when pouring out the dirty water).  When I lift it up, the tank often separates from the body.  I am struggling to get it to clean a single room at the moment with its myriad of problems, and it’s only 6 months old.  iRobot won’t support it because it’s refurbished.

Long story short, I’d never recommend the Scooba to anyone.  But I’d recommend Roomba in a heartbeat.

So how did they go so wrong?  There were several key areas:

  1. They identified an alternative niche and went for it at all costs.  I suspect their other products like the Looj will do better.  It seems like at no point someone wondered “will having <problem x> in addition to all the other problems mean people will just give up?”
  2. It’s overcomplicated to the point it can no longer complete its original purpose.  Mopping by definition is more complex than vacuuming because it is a 2 phase process.  However I can’t help but wonder if it would be more successful if they sacrificed some of the cleaning capabilities for simplicity.
  3. Too many choke points in the design.  The beauty of Roomba is it keeps working if some parts of it aren’t.  Scooba will fail if the tank connection gets clogged, if the hand-mixed formula is not done right, or if it detects a problem with its pipes.  One of these three things happens to me every time I try to deploy it.
  4. They forgot the Roomba design ideals.  It’s clunky, hard to use, makes a mess and has inherent design faults (such as a battery that fails after just a few months).  It was like they started from scratch without taking on-board any of the Roomba lessons.

I love domestic robots, but unless you’re really desperate, do not buy a Scooba.