Way Too Cool

Unanticipated effects always crop up in the field

In mid-2005, the Hilton family of hotels mandated installation of the official Hilton Family Clock Radio in 250,000 rooms. This wonderful labor-saving device was designed to rectify two long-standing problems at the hotel: the tendency of guests to fiddle with the clock-radio tuning dial and the burden imposed on hotel staff of checking and maintaining the correct time.

Hilton’s clock designers overcame the first difficulty with four buttons atop the unit. These buttons are pre-set to radio stations that local hotel management selects: rock, country, news, or classical. Now you can wake to one of the hotel’s stations, the buzzer, or nothing. No longer can pesky hotel guests leave the machine inadvertently dialed to an alternative radio station or white noise (my personal favorite wake-up sound).

Regarding the time-maintenance burden, careful studies of clock inaccuracy must have implicated those same pesky hotel guests. I can just imagine the hotel’s management, red-faced and furious, demanding that guests be forever barred from messing up the otherwise perfectly good time-keeping technology provided to them. In response, the designers removed all user-accessible time-adjustment controls from the new clock.

There is no little "time" switch on the back, no pinhole for a paper clip, and no combination of buttons that can adjust the time. Only a certified hotel maintenance engineer can adjust it. The engineer must physically access the clock, remove a Phillips screw near the top on the back, pop off the lid, and depress the "time" button inside to make the adjustment. It’s a time-consuming process.

The "no user-accessible controls" strategy requires that the clock be made superaccurate; otherwise, the extreme maintenance hassle of making even occasional adjustments would invalidate the new clock’s entire raison d’être. Toward that end, the developers equipped the clock with a precise internal time reference and a computer-controlled feature that automatically adjusts for daylight-saving time. The clock is so smart and so accurate that, in the opinion of its designers, it never requires adjustment. Initial user reviews said things like "Best clock ever made by man" and "Nice features, easy to read."

Fast-forward to Sunday, Oct 30, 2005, to the Hilton hotel where I was staying in Tuscon, Arizona. Early that morning, all the new Hilton clocks in Tuscon "fell back" precisely one hour, according to their seasonal programming, which would have been fine, except that Arizona does not observe daylight savings time. That morning, hotel guests all across Arizona woke up an hour late and missed their flights. Panic ensued.

A month later I visited the same hotel. I asked the front desk about the time situation. They explained that official word had come down from Hilton headquarters saying that the problem affected only some states, and those states would still be required to use the new clocks. The building engineer still wasn’t finished changing all the clocks. When I asked how long he thought it would take, he said, "We’ll be done in about six months."

Fast-forward again to March 11, 2007. During that year, Congress changed the daylight-saving-time law in the United States to different days than previously. Both the start date and the end date changed. So much for the Hilton Family Clock Radio.

Am I making a point? Anyone who ships product to a vast number of installations covering a wide range of application scenarios can tell you what I am talking about. Unanticipated effects always crop up in the field.

Traffic light in Oswego, Ill.This winter, we as a nation learned that incandescent traffic lights emit plenty of infrared heat through the colored lens—plenty to melt drifting snow that otherwise would accumulate, obscuring the lens. In a very unfortunate twist for all those communities that invested heavily in a complete retrofit of all traffic lights to use wonderful new, energy-efficient LED traffic lights, it turns out that LED-based traffic lights do not emit enough heat to melt snow. In a snowstorm, the LED-based traffic lights quickly clog with snow, becoming indiscernable. (Reference 1). If you live if Florida this is no big deal. In Minnesota, it's a killer.

Bad clocks just make people late. LED traffic lights cause fatal traffic accidents.

Rapid adoption of large-scale societal change is a bad idea. For example, when our government talks about nationwide health care, I think we should try it for a while in one state first to see whether it works. How about, say, Massachusetts?

Ed. Note: This article appeared in the middle of the great Obama Health Care debate of 2010. The author opposes health care programs so poorly conceived that the participants must be forced under penalty of law to join them while competing programs are ruled illegal.


[1] (source of photo) Saulny, Susan, "LED Signals Seen as Potential Hazard," The New York Times, Jan 1, 2010.