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Design

An IRL Quick Fix

Over the weekend I repaired a gearshift connector to my car’s transmission. As I put the innards of my faithful 2003 Toyota Corolla back together, I thought about the parallels between this repair and the notion of a quick fix for digital products.

This issue rendered my car completely unusable. A totally broken experience. When it happened, I was about to parallel park next to my home, but could no longer shift gears and had to carefully drive my car to a safe spot and leave it there. Then it would no longer start. I’m glad it happened in my neighborhood and not somewhere far from home.

When a car doesn’t start, anything could be wrong, and sometimes the fix is extensive, expensive, or the investment might not be worth the current value of the car. I got this car used, around the time I got my (also used) cat, Q, who died this summer. Realizing that 2019 has marked such a major point of transition in my life–now I’m definitely not in my 20s–I prepared to say goodbye to my “people mover” too.

As a woman–but former ACMT 😎–the car maintenance industry puts me on the defensive. I Googled immediately when I got home and am so glad I did. All that broke on my car was a small piece of plastic less than 1″ long. I found a replacement part on the internet for $20 and followed a tutorial that made it seem like the repair could be done in under 30 minutes. The most daunting part of the repair was taking apart the car enough to reach it without damaging anything else. It was hard to believe that such a tiny thing could have such power over an entire machine.

Here’s the damage.
This was all that was left of the part (that’s my girly wallet next to it for perspective).
Good as new.

On the one hand you could say this type of fail is to be expected of the base model of an already inexpensive vehicle. (I get it, I know drive a piece of shit). Why address such a critical function with a piece of plastic that took cents to make?

That being said, if it weren’t for this part, normal wear and tear would bring on serious damage to the adjacent systems in my car (gearshift, transmission, ignition). Those would be expensive, resource-heavy, higher-risk issues. My car would become obsolete after a few years or I’d go broke.

But this car is 17 years old and all it’s ever needed is a $20 repair. What looks like a byproduct of a cheap decision was probably good design built to last. You’ll find this generation of Corollas on the road all the time–the other day, my cousin was approached by the guy that she bought her Corolla from three years ago. He wanted to buy it back! People will pay a premium for a product that delivers its intended value reliably and dependably. Even if the product looks crappy compared to the trendy shiny thing. Word gets out. Cars are an awesome example of this kind of thing.

What made this a quick fix

  • The problem was clear (my car doesn’t start!).
  • The cause of the problem was known (the bushing!).
  • The repair fixed the problem (it starts and goes!).
  • The repair was inexpensive (diagnosis was efficient, the part was easy to find for cheap, and the work, including getting my tools and walking to my car, was less than an hour).
  • The repair did not create additional issues (when I plugged in my phone it did not fry).
  • Imperfect is truly ok (I lost one, nonessential screw on the way out).
  • I was fully empowered (I didn’t need take it to the shop, go through a mandatory diagnostic process, and come back another day to get the actual work done).

What’s more, a quick fix should always feel satisfying. It is motivating, because you know what to do. It brings closure, because when you’re done, you really are done.

I celebrated my quick win as I tested my repair, by driving to the coffee shop one block away to purchase a treat.

Thank you, 2003 Toyota Corolla CE, for delivering consistent value to me for the last ten years. You do exactly what you’re designed to do. You help me reach my transportation goals. You don’t need any cloud software or touchscreens. Because of this experience, you might be my favorite physical product now. I look forward to depending on you for years to come. I love you.