Wearing in vs. Wearing Out

I like the concept of wearing in rather than wearing out.

—Bill Moggridge

I’d really like it if all of the things I use got better over time. But today, most consumer products wear out instead of wearing in. I think there are a few interconnected reasons for this:

  1. planned obsolescence, plus active OEM hostility to DIY repair (and repair in general) 1Pick your example: John Deere, Apple, et al. They have claimed various reasons for why DIY’ers can’t work on their products, which truly go against the DIY ethos of farmers and computer nerds alike.
  2. artificial demand generation from advertising
  3. business logic that demands unsustainable growth
  4. equivocation of low cost with value
  5. the attending cultural economic schizophrenia resulting from 1, 2, 3, and 4.

Whereas many products used to be overbuilt for your lifetime, many products are underbuilt for a specific life cycle. Consider the inconvenience of warranties that end precisely when major components are likely to fail. For example, a washing machine might boast an impressive warranty on the motor, but the more sensitive and failure-prone component might be the interface. And in the event that a part fails under warranty, how easy is it to get customer service to actually service the thing?

We live in a time when it’s not really “cost-effective” for things to wear in. If things got better over time, or at the very least were designed for longevity, then it would upend business models that are very much entrenched in our culture.

I spend a lot of time working on the internet, with software, and with various computer hardware. The digital products that I use change constantly. Almost every time I open an app I’m prompted to install an update. 2The worst offender in this category IMHO is Zoom, which always likes to prompt me for an update while I’m trying to join a call that starts in like two minutes. Why can’t it prompt me after I hang up? Such products “wear-in” in the sense that the UX generally gets better over time as developers respond to user needs, but I think that kind of wearing in is qualitatively different than the wearing in of a beloved pair of blue jeans, for instance.

I also spend a fair amount of time diagnosing and repairing our family’s vehicles (7 in total) as well as fixing things around the house. I love the challenge of new technology and the satisfaction of repairing things, but as I get older, I appreciate things that don’t break, require troubleshooting, or clutter my visual field with warning modals. There is a definite pleasure in using products that don’t require entering in my admin password ad nauseum so dependencies and privileged helpers and security preferences can be reconfigured.3One could argue that I should let all of my updates be automatic so I wouldn’t have to think about it, but I think auto-updates work only sometimes. With WordPress sites, for instance, auto-updating every plugin could introduce a conflict that jacks up the site’s layout or functionality. For system updates, like a new version of macOS, iOS, or DSM, I like to know what’s happening, and I like to control the timing of these things. As a general rule, I’m OK for auto-updates for a lot of software, but I also like to maintain awareness of what is being updated and why.

Finding products that wear in

As a counterpoint to working with digital technologies, I want to use as many simple, timeless, long-lasting, and no-fuss products as possible.4Examples include cast-iron cookware, French Press coffee makers, basic paracord instead of ratchet straps whereever possible, actual books instead of the Kindle app, wrenches, etc. I think Bill Moggridge and Marie Kondo would approve of such products.

In my view, simple products are ones that do one thing and do it really well.5This also happens to be a principle for software written in UNIX. Computing power was quite limited, and software bloat could not be tolerated, therefore programs needed to be simple and straightforward. Long-lasting means that it’s useful lifespan can be measured in decades. No-fuss does not mean “maintenance-free,” but rather that maintenance is straightforward and relatively easy.6In my view, “maintenance-free” often means “maintenance free until this thing breaks and then it’s time to take it to the county dump.” With respect to cars, Scotty Kilmer says that when an auto manufacturer claims the transmission fluid is a “lifetime fluid” they really mean that you won’t need to change the fluid for the expected time of ownership, which may be as short as five years or less.

Two of my favorites that fit this bill include:

  • Cast-iron cookware
  • Red Wing Shoes

Both of these products requires a certain amount of maintenance, and when properly cared for, they get better over time.

The most reliable and non-stick piece of cookware I own.

My 12” cast-iron skillet is the most non-stick piece of cookware I own, and I don’t have to worry about nasty bits of Teflon comingling with my scrambled eggs. Regular cleaning with coarse salt followed by a good rinse and a light coating of oil keeps it looking shiny and new. If it needs a major refresh, I can wash it, sand it, and re-season it in the oven to restore the finish.

My Red Wing Shoes require a quick wipe down with a wet cloth followed by a coating of leather conditioner every few months to keep the leather supple. Once they conformed to my feet, they became some of the most comfortable shoes I’ve ever owned. Even though I’ve had them for two years, I know that they’ll continue to wear in and become more comfortable year over year.

When products wear in gracefully, they actually become more valuable and treasured over time. Bill Moggridge explains:

“You’d like to create something where the emotional relationship is more satisfying over time. You may not worry about it or think about it very clearly—people don’t have to have a strong love relationship with their things, but they should become a little more fond of them perhaps over time.“

— Bill Moggridge

My wife and I have made so many meals in our cast iron skillet—fried eggs, scrambled eggs, egg-in-a-hole, shakshuka, baked chicken a half dozen ways, steak, pancakes, Dutch babies—the list goes on and on. My two year old just helped me make a grilled cheese in that skillet. The skillet occupies a more or less permanent spot on the stove at all times. It’s a utilitarian object, but it reminds me of so many good meals and times and memories that I truly can say that I’m very fond that particular piece of cast iron. I look forward to passing it down to my kids.

My dad and I at Denali National Park and Preserve, August 2022. Putting some special miles on my Iron Rangers.

I wore my Red Wing Iron Ranger boots on a once-in-a-lifetime trip with my dad to Alaska in 2022. We went to Anchorage, Fairbanks, Denali National Park, and went halibut fishing in Seldovia. It was an absolute dream, and my Red Wings were my main footwear for those three weeks. The leather gets better over time, and like my cast iron skillet, they contain memories and emotions that go far beyond their use value as a functional object.

Things that wear in have a story to tell. They’ve been around the block, seen some things, and have some marks and memories to show for it. Or they comprise a key part of the user’s story. Either way, they’re irreplaceable and meaningful in ways that are hard to articulate. They don’t demand to be valued—they become cherished simply because the person who made them loved what they were making, and the user simply reciprocated that care because the thing wore in well.

It doesn’t matter if it’s a piece of cookware or software—things can be designed to be trashed or to to be treasured. The outcome depends greatly on the maker. How much harder is it to make like we care?

  • 1
    Pick your example: John Deere, Apple, et al. They have claimed various reasons for why DIY’ers can’t work on their products, which truly go against the DIY ethos of farmers and computer nerds alike.
  • 2
    The worst offender in this category IMHO is Zoom, which always likes to prompt me for an update while I’m trying to join a call that starts in like two minutes. Why can’t it prompt me after I hang up?
  • 3
    One could argue that I should let all of my updates be automatic so I wouldn’t have to think about it, but I think auto-updates work only sometimes. With WordPress sites, for instance, auto-updating every plugin could introduce a conflict that jacks up the site’s layout or functionality. For system updates, like a new version of macOS, iOS, or DSM, I like to know what’s happening, and I like to control the timing of these things. As a general rule, I’m OK for auto-updates for a lot of software, but I also like to maintain awareness of what is being updated and why.
  • 4
    Examples include cast-iron cookware, French Press coffee makers, basic paracord instead of ratchet straps whereever possible, actual books instead of the Kindle app, wrenches, etc.
  • 5
    This also happens to be a principle for software written in UNIX. Computing power was quite limited, and software bloat could not be tolerated, therefore programs needed to be simple and straightforward.
  • 6
    In my view, “maintenance-free” often means “maintenance free until this thing breaks and then it’s time to take it to the county dump.” With respect to cars, Scotty Kilmer says that when an auto manufacturer claims the transmission fluid is a “lifetime fluid” they really mean that you won’t need to change the fluid for the expected time of ownership, which may be as short as five years or less.
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