After doing a short stint in Costa Rica, I headed out to freelance in Bangkok during late 2014, soon enough I landed in Singapore. These experiences didn’t have much in common in terms of projects given, but lately I’ve noticed a strange bridge between them, the fact that I’ve had to design things roach proof, I wonder, is this a part of the “developing world design experience?”
These projects include kitchen items, public structures, and outdoor furniture; you would think these items have to be immune to insects, right? Wrong! Plenty of them are not. Since I can’t elaborate details of these projects due to confidentially, let me talk about experiences I reflected on while trying to tackle the issue.
Pest as User Experiences
My cousin, in the mid 2000’s was teaching in Costa Rica, the teachers’ room had a coffee machine used every morning by the major body of employees, no one wanted to clean the thing, roughly a year passed and one day someone finally suggests, “hey, its about time to clean that old filter”. When they open this coffee machine up, guess…..guess what they found, a cockroach so washed out by the daily boiled water that it had turned as transparent as Hilary Clintons emails ( Perhaps a molt result: a shed exoskeleton ). The brand of the coffee machine will be left out of the story, which my cousin tells with humor, she goes on about how the teachers didn’t drink coffee for over a month. Supposedly the staff didn’t replace the machine but instead began to clean it, perhaps what they should have been doing in the first place.
Tale of the tape, you do not want pests as part of a product experience. Research in the pest management field introduced me to something called ‘aesthetic injury levels’, meaning the individuals tolerance threshold of acceptable viewed pests, studies show that different societies/countries/communities vary in threshold. Good for me South East Asia is a bit more tolerant, however, it depends on the person.
Here is a personal story from Malaysia, I’m out alone on a weekend lunch having Thai food, behind me is a couple who just arrived and ordered BBQ, minutes later they get a platter full of fresh veggies, seafood and meats, along with a mini portable grill that the waiter switches on the flame. Not 5 minute pass before the man jumps up with cell phone in hand yelling “WHAT THE FUCK!! ” and knocks his chair back at the sight of at least twenty baby roaches trying to escape the heat, they crawl on his food, near his girlfriend, on his beer. Alarmed, the manager comes over, filled with aggression the customer immediately threatens to sue or post his findings on a popular local blog “YOU WANT THAT FINE ON YOUR HEAD!!” he spits out turning as red as can be while making what I felt was a overdramatic scene “ WHAT WILL YOU DO, WHAT WILL YOU DO” he asks or commands. The manager was clearly holding back anger but complied with his suggestion and gently stated “I’m sorry sir, you will not pay any of this, very sorry sir”. I simply returned to my meal and forgot about this incident, but it was one month later that I’m in a factory with a R&D lead telling me that he wants venting added into his machine but doesn’t know what to do about the roaches. “It’s not that bad that they get in, its that they get out…..these roaches make their way in overnight, and when morning comes and the machine starts to operate, they either hide inside or scatter along the floor of the kitchen…Can you make them stay in there?” he asks me. I turn to my engineer and repeat something from Wired.com I learned two days before “did you know a adult roach can go through a 3mm gap”, he replies in brainstorm fashion” how about foam, or wiring, maybe..”.
Through brainstorming we quickly began to rule out ideas that sounded too ‘gadgety ‘ as in building an entire other product within a product to stop an infestation, think Bug monitors, pesticides, traps. We even thought about ‘putting a bird on it’, would bugs get scared at the sight of a predator? Bad ideas, gadgety, costly, bad ideas, followed by the acceptable idea directions, such as having a slippery coating or finish, adding a light or color that disturbs them but also adds ambiance to the machine, and limiting or patterning the venting to discourage access.
Our research showed that roaches do like to huddle together, and they are reared for some time, if you limit the access for mama bear, little baby bear is less likely to venture. Roaches don’t want to be alone, their social, they want to go where the party is, and the after party, the after after party, then tell others of the colony to join them the next night.
One should understand the natural movement function of roaches, they navigate with their antennae by touching their surrounding with them, when they feel something they tend to turn away from it, if we can create a structure that limits slits and crevices and finds a way to lead the roach through a space and back out via a designated exit we might have a maze like solution. Foam to block them can give off algae and fungus, wiring mesh can collect dust, narrowing spaces can lead to difficulty in disassembly/ higher costs/ and lack of heat sink or ventilation.
It’s important to note that these critters actually changed my design, made the product different, and made the design process more challenging because they can invade your user experience. I’m not sure this is a ‘authentic developing world design experience’ or a ‘equator line design issue’ but we might consider. Thanks to these projects every time mechanical engineering requires vents in any product a picture of a roach crawling inside comes to mind. One of these days my boss is going to notice I exclude vents from all my sketches…
About the Author : Herald Ureña – Umaña is a American industrial designer currently working in Singapore, his work can be viewed here , feel free to contact him at email@example.com. He is a graduate of College for Creative Studies in Detroit and has done work for clients such as Coca-Cola, LG, P & G, Marvel, Singapore Government Bodies, Intel, and startups.