Sunday, June 10, 2012

Fidget Factor

Watch any knife review on Youtube and you will see one thing happen over and over again, no matter who the reviewer is or what they are reviewing--opening and closing the knife.  Click, open, push, snap, close.  Over and over again.  It is compulsive.  It is like a cigarette for someone nic-fitting.  Those of us that love gear, we like to play with that gear, even if it is something as simple as opening and closing a knife blade.

So does this matter?  I think it does.

Here is the premise of the argument: knives and lights that rank high on fidget factor are actually very nice products.  The reverse is not true, not all great knives or flashlights have a high fidget factor.  Why does fidget factor matter?  I think a high fidget factor belies a good design and is evidence of good build quality and fit and finish.

Argument #1: High fidget factor is a result of an good and appealing design

One of the hallmarks of good design is that the thing's function is obvious from its form.  That is, how it looks tells you how it works.  It is sort of like a very brief and intuitive instruction manual.  Take a look at these chess pieces, designed by German designer Josef Hartwig, to see what I mean:

Every piece's appearance tells you how it works based on how it looks.  Fidget factor is sort of like that.  Take, for example, the knife flipper.  The position of the flipper and the shape almost beg you to touch it and when you do the blade comes out.  The better the flipper design, the more you want to touch it, the more you want to touch it the better you learn how to use it.  Fidget factor makes it easier to use things and in turn makes it more intuitive to use, which means you can use something with less thought and more as a reaction--a positive when you are in a self-defense scenario or when you are doing a job that requires you to focus on something else other than your tools.  In the end, that is what good tools should do.  They should allow you to ignore the tool and simply get things done.  A great tool is one you don't have to think about, don't have to fiddle with, and don't have to do maintenance on.  You just pick it up and go to work.

Argument #2: Fidget factor is also a good indication of a high level of build quality

Flicking open a blade or popping on a flashlight is not the only way that we fidget with gear.  There is also the "fondling" part.  When you slowly open a Sebenza and hear the lockbar click into place and then, being sure to catch the sun glinting off the mirror polished secondary bevel (cutting edge), you are appreciating the knife's excellent build quality.   Well designed and well made things again crave our touches and we crave touching them.  It is another way, aside from visual inspection, to actually feel the quality of an item.  My McGizmo Haiku feels different in the hand from any other flashlight I have.  It feels like a quality item.  That feel confirms our research, our visual inspection, and our rational understanding of the item's performance.  It is a final "gut check" on a product.

And good designers know this.  Bang and Olufsen, a high end AV company, goes out of their way to accentuate these features on their products.  Here is a piece on this.  What is the shittiest part of your AV equipment?  It is your remote.  The remotes on normal AV equipment are light, plasticy, and ugly.  But they are the thing you interact with most--the thing you touch most often on your AV equipment.  To make their products FEEL, literally feel, different B&O uses zinc instead of plastic or aluminum.  Zinc has two properties that make it interesting for remotes and proof of the fidget factor argument #2.  First, zinc, unlike aluminum or other metals remains cooler to the touch.  It does not absorb heat as quickly as other metals and as a result when you pick up a zinc B&O remote it literally FEELS cool.  Second, zinc, unlike aluminum and titanium, is very heavy.  Their remotes feel substantial because they are more substantial.  It is a nice bit of synergy for B&O that zinc is also very soft and cheap to machine, even cheaper than aluminum, but the other two design oriented properties are more important.

Fidgeting with gear is fun.  But it is also useful.  It helps you decipher just how well designed something is and it helps you figure out how well made something is.  When I get a product for review, in addition to using it (usually a TON), I also like to fidget with it.  I take it in the car on long commutes.  I open and close it.  I look at it (when I am at stop lights).  I do the same thing at home when watching TV.

Fidget factor is important.  Now go play with that assisted open flipper. 


  1. Never thought about this, but you're absolutely right. Opening and closing my Macbook Air is as addictive as using it. It just 'feels' like a well-built item...unlike opening many other laptops which use cheap plastic latches, etc. Great post.

  2. excellent points. I agree with both arguments, and I'd even go so far as to add that the inverse argument is also true, at least for #2. for example, if I'm checking out a new knife, the first thing I do is start fidgeting with it. if it doesn't give me a satisfying snap when the blade locks into place, or it feels loose, or the flipper doesn't function properly, I put the knife back and take those as signs of poor build quality.

  3. I totally agree! I have a particular knife I open and close repetitively. Other knives I won't because they just don't feel as good doing it over and over again. It's the same way with my favorite flashlight. I can't stop clicking and spinning it. That's definitely the sign of high quality or at least comfort.

  4. This makes perfect sense as it is an extension of kinestetic learning/listening. EDCers have grown to appreciate the practical value of putting our fidget tendencies to better use. We compile hand held assets and take them with us so we can turn our fidgets into practice for the moments our tools are needed most.

  5. This is all so true. I fiddle with one of my gadgets generally everyday. I will get a light out and do a ceiling bounce, I will open and close my spidie a dozen times and i'll inspect my Leatherman micra just for the hell of it. Noting will need illuminating, nothing needs cutting or tightening. Crazy but I'm like a magpie, I'm just attracted to shiny things!