"Why didn't anyone think of that before?"
August 6, 2008 10:14 AM   Subscribe

What are some innovations that come across as obvious solutions for problems? Something that makes you say, "Why didn't anyone think of that before?" Three that I can think of are: ketchup bottles that pour from the bottom, adding a notch to make it easier to tear open sealed packages, and having a single line for all bank tellers instead of a line for each teller.

Ketchup bottles pouring from the bottom: I've also seen this with shampoo. However, I don't think they have this completely right yet as most of the time the bottles are essentially upside-down regular bottles that are top-heavy and can fall over easily.

Notched packages: I only recall seeing these in the last five years are so. How long have this been done for? It certainly cuts down on the struggle of opening plastic packages.

Single lines for bank tellers: I first noticed the switch in the mid 1970's. Previously, there were individual lines for each teller and you'd never know if you'd get stuck behind someone with an annoyingly long transaction. It would be nice if something like that could be done for cashiers at supermarkets and retail stores.

And here's one that I think someone should sell, take the pour from the bottom of the bottle one step further and use a syringe for thick liquids (ketchup, mustard, honey, etc.)
posted by ShooBoo to Grab Bag (69 answers total) 34 users marked this as a favorite
I'm frankly amazed it took so long for Hanes to start making t-shirts without tags, given how often they were cut off.

Notched packages have been around for as long as I can remember (I'm mid-20s) if you're talking about what I think you are.
posted by Tomorrowful at 10:21 AM on August 6, 2008 [1 favorite]

Postage stamps that don't require licking.
posted by macadamiaranch at 10:27 AM on August 6, 2008 [2 favorites]

Squeeze bottles for mayo.

Ziplock style resealable closures integrated into processed food packaging such as sliced deli meats & cheese, tortillas, and dry snacks. I like the ziplocks on Archerfood (Target in-house brand) chips but have missed them on other brands (meaning: they might be on them by now but I don't buy Doritos enough to know for sure). I wish dry cereal makers would add them.
posted by jamaro at 10:33 AM on August 6, 2008

It always amazed me how long it took for the US postal service to create self-sticking postage stamps. How long has sticker technology been around? Why did we have to lick those awful things for so long?
posted by Citrus at 10:34 AM on August 6, 2008

OXO's entire line of ergonomic kitchen tools. Before that, a lot of gadgets were hard to hold while you tried to use them.
posted by beagle at 10:37 AM on August 6, 2008

Inflating your tires to increase your gas mileage would seem pretty obvious, but apparently not from everything I've been hearing on the news the past couple of days.

Auto-updating operating systems?
posted by mark242 at 10:38 AM on August 6, 2008

Sippy cups. My mom and mother-in-law are constantly amazed.
posted by The corpse in the library at 10:39 AM on August 6, 2008 [1 favorite]

The grippy elastic bands and headbands. The kind with the strip of rubber to make them hold to hair and not slip out or loosen. Effing genius and I'm shocked it took so long.
posted by gwenlister at 10:41 AM on August 6, 2008 [2 favorites]

I don't know if every state had the same policy, but in Michigan for years and years everyone's license plate expired on the same day and there was a HUUUGE line at every Secretary of State office that day - long, long lines of folks waiting to renew. Finally, in the early 1970s, Richard Austin had the bright idea of making the plates expire on the vehicle owner's birthday, thus eliminating that bottleneck at the local SoS office. A great idea that should've happened long before it did.

I'll also submit the pop-top openings on pop and beer cans. I'm old enough to remember a time when you needed an opener in order to partake in the refreshing coldness of a can of Stroh's or Coke. Then the pull-tab was invented, which eliminated the need for an opener, but added the hazard of discarded (and very sharp) tabs on sidewalks and beaches.
posted by Oriole Adams at 10:42 AM on August 6, 2008 [1 favorite]

I just recalled one that has had me amazed for weeks: super concentrated liquid laundry detergent. A quart-sized bottle now substitutes for a 3 gallon bottle. I found myself getting somewhat angry that P&G was making me schelp around those huge heavy bottles all those years.
posted by jamaro at 10:50 AM on August 6, 2008 [2 favorites]

Note that one-line versus many-lines is provably better mathematically but only with queueing theory which didn't really get a start until the late 50's and didn't hit Operations Research journals until the 70's. Given the continued existence of multi-line setups in a lot of places (notably Canada Customs at Pearson, argh!) I don't think it's obvious to anyone that single-line is better. So that may be why no one adopted it until the 70's. Also, a lot of people seem to think that multi-line is somehow better given that without barriers people will attempt to convert a single-line into multiple lines at the first opportunity (innumerate idiots!).

Ziploc bags were certainly covered by patents which delayed their use in low-cost generic packaging by at least 17 years plus the fact that manufacturers are generally reluctant to abandon old yet functioning (e.g fully depreciated) packaging machinery.

Why did we have to lick those awful things for so long?

Sunk costs of existing postage stamp manufacturing equipment. The post office makes money, they don't spend money.

Milk cartons with screw-top caps are along the same lines as bottom-dispensing ketchup bottles, and as with many of your other examples, add cost and complexity to the manufacturing process for containers. You see them as great, Product Managers who are forced to spend a few million dollars to upgrade equipment for a product that makes a profit of a few cents a bottle may not agree.

The widespread availability of "natural" peanut butter was a relief to me as I prefer it to the kind with sugar. Why people insisted on having sweetened PB for all those years completely mystifies me. And it's got to cost less to make considering that it has one fewer ingredient.

Finally, self-checkouts. I really like them and they seem pretty obvious given how little skill is required for most cashiers these days.
posted by GuyZero at 10:59 AM on August 6, 2008 [1 favorite]

Whole Foods already does the single-line for multiple registers. It makes newcomers freak out to see such a long line at the Columbus Circle Whole Foods, but the line moves very quickly.
posted by ChickenringNYC at 11:04 AM on August 6, 2008

wheels on luggage. the remote controls for unlocking your car.
posted by alkupe at 11:07 AM on August 6, 2008 [3 favorites]

This may be a little TMI for the men in the audience: the little groove/depression that is on tampon applicators now. It makes it SO MUCH easier to withdraw the applicator after deploying the tampon - something for your nails to grab onto other than smooth, potentially slippery cardboard. The first time I used one like that I actually ran out of the bathroom to tell my best friend.
posted by 8dot3 at 11:13 AM on August 6, 2008 [3 favorites]

A lot of people seem to think that multi-line is somehow better given that without barriers people will attempt to convert a single-line into multiple lines at the first opportunity (innumerate idiots!).

If you are first going from single to multiple lines, you are cutting in line, and will likely get through faster. It is down hill from there.

posted by Monday at 11:24 AM on August 6, 2008 [1 favorite]

The corn-shaped, corn buttering tray.
posted by drezdn at 11:31 AM on August 6, 2008

I can turn off the engine of my car and take the keys out, and still be able to operate the power windows.
posted by echo target at 11:32 AM on August 6, 2008 [1 favorite]

Along the lines of 8dot3's example..."wings" on pads and pantiliners to help them stay on!
posted by radioamy at 11:43 AM on August 6, 2008 [2 favorites]

Not sure how new some of these are, but I'd say:

• Parking garages
• Carpool lanes
• The kind of meat thermometers where the display is outside the oven while the probe, connected to the display via wire, is inside the cooking meat, eliminating the need to open the oven door
• The three-plug system (red/yellow/white) of connecting media players/video game systems and screens
• Gift cards instead of gift certificates
• Rollerblades
• Cell phone waiting lots at airports
• ATMs that accept cash deposits without envelopes (saw these in Europe, haven't seen many in the States)
• Jetways
posted by mdonley at 11:55 AM on August 6, 2008

The corn-shaped, corn buttering tray.

Science can pretty much stop now, I think.

The one that still gets me is the noise that warns you if you open your car door and you've left your lights on. It's a great idea, and a friend's car had it 15 years ago, but for some reason lots of cars still don't have it now.
posted by Who_Am_I at 11:56 AM on August 6, 2008

The wheel
posted by BrnP84 at 11:57 AM on August 6, 2008

To continue the theme of feminine sanitary product innovations, adhesive pads! I once tried to use a pad with a belt thingie and it was the most horrible thing ever. I'm so glad to have been born late enough for me to not have to wear those things.
posted by peacheater at 12:00 PM on August 6, 2008

Post-it notes.
posted by peacheater at 12:00 PM on August 6, 2008

posted by peacheater at 12:00 PM on August 6, 2008

Vacuformed packaging that has perforations to allow you to get the package open without using a giant scary knife. I suppose that isn't used so often due to the possibility of theft, though.
posted by cabingirl at 12:08 PM on August 6, 2008

Sliced bread. Why did we have to put up with tearing chunks off for so long?
posted by cmonkey at 12:09 PM on August 6, 2008

followed by:
Velcro/adhesive on diapers.
Can opener (my grandmother used to tell storied about having to use and axe to get some cans open)
Auto focus/Auto exposure
Toner cartridge (most of the places I worked that had early printers always had a small vacuum cleaner in the printer room to clean up toner)
posted by plinth at 12:11 PM on August 6, 2008

Those flat plugs for electrical sockets.
posted by echo target at 12:14 PM on August 6, 2008

Bendy straws!
posted by joedan at 12:18 PM on August 6, 2008

In line with what Who_am_I said, headlights that turn off automatically when the engine is turned off.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 12:19 PM on August 6, 2008 [1 favorite]

Traffic lights. Imagine NYC without them.
posted by Guy_Inamonkeysuit at 12:21 PM on August 6, 2008

Space Bags!
The keyless system on the Prius
Keycards in hotels
posted by The Light Fantastic at 12:24 PM on August 6, 2008

String winders for turning guitar tuner pegs when putting on new strings get my vote.

Ergonomic handles on almost anything. I remember being a boy scout and carrying a pot with a thin wire handle (like on a bucket) endless miles on a camping trip. Darn near lost my fingers. Now coolers, baby carriers and all sorts of things have handles that don't hurt you.

Needed: (Free idea, just share the product with me)
Tennis ball cans that don't use those stupid metal death razor tops that can slice fingers.
posted by cccorlew at 12:26 PM on August 6, 2008

Modern can openers. Those that cut along the side, not the top. Although I find that using these new ones require me to put the can on the table at all times, otherwise it start to cut crookedly.

About non-lickety stamps: I remember hearing that old stamps were useful for tracking down the Unabomber because he left spit behind, which can be checked for DNA. Of course, my mom could have been full of shit.

I'm not sure about ergonomic handles being a "duh!" thing. You can't just cut a handle into willy-nilly and have it ergonomic. It's cheaper to just roll a simple tube and call that a handle.
posted by curagea at 12:38 PM on August 6, 2008

The Aussie 3-minute miracle conditioner bottles are amazing. The conditioner comes out the bottom, but there is no lid to close or open. Pick it up, squeeze into hand. Done.
I also love how the MacBook chargers have a place to wrap the cord so it doesn't turn into a rat's nest in the laptop bag.
posted by idiotfactory at 1:08 PM on August 6, 2008 [1 favorite]

The "moat" around liquid detergent spouts so the liquid doesn't drip down the cap when you put it back on.

The escalators at IKEA that take carts

Dog collars with quick release instead of a buckle

Narrow containers for refrigerators (ie the Britta narrow water pitcher)

~Am I the only person who likes how old stamps taste? I hate sticker stamps!
posted by Bunglegirl at 1:13 PM on August 6, 2008

Trash bags with built-in draw strings.
posted by Knappster at 1:19 PM on August 6, 2008 [1 favorite]

The magnetic cord connection on apple laptops, so you don't yank your computer off the table when you trip over the cord. (For that matter, most anything apple has done in the last 5+ years, though I'm not usually a ranting fan.)

Lock and dam systems are pretty amazing to me, too. They don't have to pump any water, just open and close various doors and let the water run in. Presto, boat elevator. It's brilliant.
posted by vytae at 1:35 PM on August 6, 2008 [1 favorite]

A single device that incorporates all of your possible technological needs (camera, phone, calculator, internet access, email, video camera, etc.). I think maybe the Sidekick was one of the first, but iPhone, Blackberry, and others have picked up the gauntlet. No more carrying around three and four devices at one time!
posted by UnclePlayground at 1:36 PM on August 6, 2008

blow dryers. you can't even imagine life before blow dryers.
posted by msconduct at 1:37 PM on August 6, 2008

Right after the wheel I'd suggest the medicine bottles now offered at target. They are designed for easy dispensing or kidproofing, with instructions printed in the largest possible type. I have to think they've saved lives as well as reduced frustration. Now if they could figure out a way to keep scrips from being filled incorrectly.

And I love my weed wacker. Just love the damn thing.
posted by Arch1 at 1:40 PM on August 6, 2008

Cordless ________ .
posted by UnclePlayground at 1:55 PM on August 6, 2008

I always love having the pour top things for bottles of booze. Can you imagine how long it would take to get a drink without those things. Of course that lead to the measured pouring tops which I can't stand.
posted by hexxed at 1:57 PM on August 6, 2008

My new dishwasher has a water jet that shoots from the back side as well as the top and bottom! Amazing! Now I can put big mixing bowls and pots in there facing backwards, and they get clean and also don't block the water from getting to everything on the top rack.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 2:01 PM on August 6, 2008

Gas pumps that take cash, like a vending machine. Now I can get gas at all hours of the night!
posted by niles at 2:15 PM on August 6, 2008

Remote-starting cars

Digipak CD cases (which, in general, aren't the greatest, but they don't require that sticky strip across the top of the case).
posted by punchdrunkhistory at 2:49 PM on August 6, 2008

I have the spountain. When I brush my teeth, I never have to cup my dirty hands again! It's a faucet! it's a water fountain! SCIENCE!

Microwaves. I remember when you had to guesstimate when you'd be hungry if you wanted a baked potato. My sisters in their mid-20's don't believe me that it sucked before microwaves.

VCR players and tapes (for porn, obviously).

Cans of fix-a-flat.
posted by Unicorn on the cob at 2:50 PM on August 6, 2008 [1 favorite]

EZ-Pass and other drivethrough systems on toll roads.

(points off to FL SunPass for eliminating the displays on newer units to make room for suction cups)
posted by casarkos at 3:20 PM on August 6, 2008

Fastex buckles.

Also, oh my god I need a spountain.
posted by SampleSize at 3:43 PM on August 6, 2008 [1 favorite]

As a side note: The Design of Everyday Things by Donald Norman is right up your alley.

As for your question, the automatic pre-filled tax return immediately comes to mind. Also, from the same site: this urinal.
posted by AceRock at 3:52 PM on August 6, 2008

curagea: the unibomber was found because his brother recognized his writing in his manifesto, not from DNA on stamps.

most of you have missed the part of the question about "why didn't i think of that"-type solutions. A VCR is not an obvious solution to recording video. jeesh.

Some brilliant low-tech ideas:

* bike lanes that are a little bit higher than the road and a little bit lower than the sidewalk

* tent doors with a single standard zipper that don't go all the way around, so you know where the zipper is in the middle of the night. (instead of feeling all the way around the door)

* Seen in the netherlands: a fake fly in the urinal to give guys a target to shoot for (and reduce cleaning costs)

How about things that are so obvious, but haven't yet been done?

* a compressor on car stereos to keep sound at a constant level. (e.g. Increase volume on the highway, decrease at a stop sign)

* a car alarm that makes a quiet sound for a few seconds before the big freakout alarm. (so if you set it off accidentally, which is 99% of the time, you can turn it off without looking like an idiot.)

* a cell phone that automatically powers down when you have a few minutes of talk time left, instead of when you have zero talk time left.

I could go on, but i guess that's what halfbakery is for.
posted by kamelhoecker at 4:06 PM on August 6, 2008

a compressor on car stereos to keep sound at a constant level. (e.g. Increase volume on the highway, decrease at a stop sign)

A lot of cars have this.
posted by SampleSize at 4:21 PM on August 6, 2008

* a car alarm that makes a quiet sound for a few seconds before the big freakout alarm. (so if you set it off accidentally, which is 99% of the time, you can turn it off without looking like an idiot.)

Some car alarms do this.
posted by SampleSize at 4:21 PM on August 6, 2008

My smooth-type range is awesome.

Side-by-side refrigerators, which I thought were stupid until I got one and it is awesome. Gallon-size holders on the door of said fridge.

Clumping cat litter.

From my Mom's generation: liquid paper (white-out). Before then, typists had to be perfect!

Oh, and copier machines rather than messy carbon paper.
posted by misha at 5:09 PM on August 6, 2008

Knurled shafts on socket extensions.

"And here's one that I think someone should sell, take the pour from the bottom of the bottle one step further and use a syringe for thick liquids (ketchup, mustard, honey, etc.) "

Impractical as the full containers use up twice the shipping space as the empty container. Now if you could get condiments in tubes that you could load in caulking guns that would be awesome.
posted by Mitheral at 9:35 PM on August 6, 2008 [1 favorite]

There was a great example on the blue the other day, in a thread about "eureka!" style flashes of problem-solving insight:

A bunch of firefighters were caught uphill of a rapidly approaching fire. They had no hope of outrunning it, and all died except for one guy who set fire to the slope *above* him, then moved into that area after it had quickly burnt out & the flames downhill couldn't touch him - obviously, having nothing left to burn.

Reading that, I was dumbfounded. That was in the 1940s or something, and I thought "How on earth is it that this wasn't a standard part of forest fire training since ancient times?!??"
posted by UbuRoivas at 10:05 PM on August 6, 2008

I'm a little confused by this question - isn't what you asked for the very definition of an innovation? You've asked it in such an open-ended way that pretty much anything could fulfill your criteria.
posted by O9scar at 10:56 PM on August 6, 2008

I'm impressed by the groove pattern on the side of highways that makes that loud growling noise when you drive on them to wake up drivers who are veering off the road. It's such a small thing and it must have saved so many lives. I wanted to find out who came up with it but wasn't able to trace it to a particular person.

Also: the C-shaped toilet paper holder we now have in our bathroom, so you don't have to fiddle with the springy tube bit anymore, you just slip it onto the hook. I always hated the springy tube thing. It's really revolutionized toilet paper changes in our house. Sometimes previously some people didn't jump on toilet paper changes very efficiently and occasionally you'd be without toilet paper at a critical moment, because some unnamed person--mostly named Me--had avoided the putting on a new roll due to the aforementioned springy component.

Also: the clipping mechanism on my dog's collar is different than old style buckles--you can get it off with one hand in one pinching motion, and it's so easy she never wears her collar indoors and I imagine that's more comfortable, like taking off your shoes. The dog we had when I was a kid was never without her collar. When we gave her a bath it was like the doggy equivalent of bed head.

Also: all resealable food packaging, particularly for weirdly shaped items like Oreo packages, where due to the stiff plastic infrastructure you can't fold the softer external packaging down enough to keep out air. Now they come with a central opening on the top of the package, like a box of Kleenex, that combines the best of band-aid and Post It technologies into one cookie-preserving ecosystem.

Oh, and Tampax now being sold in multiple sizes? absorbancies? within the same box.

I will go on record though as saying I hate new packaging involving toothpaste. Toothpaste should come in a tube.

I could do this all day but I'll stop now. I really think I hit the high water mark up there with the rumble strip thing and now I'm just devolving with "toothpaste should come in a tube."
posted by A Terrible Llama at 12:40 AM on August 7, 2008 [2 favorites]

To piggyback on Llama's mention of toothpaste...I think it's Colgate that has a flip-top cap instead of a screw on. I came from a Crest family, but I'm never going back. No more dropping the cap into my spit-water!
posted by phunniemee at 9:22 PM on August 7, 2008

I was putting on a band-aid today and I had a flashback back to the not-so-distant past when, to open one, you had to rip a notch and grab the little string and awkwardly open the packaging...now all you have to do is grab the two flaps and pull and voila, your band-aid is free. Brilliant.
posted by radioamy at 10:11 PM on August 7, 2008

Phillips screws. Made rapid assembly with machines possible.
posted by fixedgear at 4:37 AM on August 8, 2008

Round bottomed yoghurt pottles, fits perfectly with teaspoon so you don't have to fight to get the last bit of yoghurt out of the corners.
posted by BAKERSFIELD! at 4:47 AM on August 8, 2008

Just found another one. This is the plug on an electric kettle. Why isn't every plug like that? It looks so easy!
posted by phunniemee at 7:55 AM on August 8, 2008 [1 favorite]

Condiments in squeeze bottles - why would anyone want to use the old style glass ketchup bottles anymore?
posted by The Light Fantastic at 10:51 AM on August 8, 2008

Phillips screws.

I believe you mean Robertson screws. America, why are you so far ahead yet so far behind?

Why isn't every plug like that? It looks so easy!

1) Patents
2) Cost
3) Lazy designers

These three reasons cover pretty much every case where something seems "obviously" better and yet goes unused.
posted by GuyZero at 11:43 AM on August 8, 2008

Heh, those crazy Canuckistans. [sings]And here's to you, Mr. Robertson, your invention did not take off until the USA adopted it......
posted by fixedgear at 12:21 PM on August 8, 2008

It took the automobile industry about 100 years to figure out that the gas cap should be attached to the car.
posted by Kraftmatic Adjustable Cheese at 11:36 PM on August 9, 2008 [1 favorite]

I wouldn't be surprised if attached gas caps predate the automobile (IE: on stationary equipment). A chain with either omega shaped retaining loop or cross bar in the filler neck were not uncommon at least as far back as the forties, my father's 46 sedan delivery had one.
posted by Mitheral at 11:31 AM on August 10, 2008

Perhaps the classic example of a eureka moment applied to an "obvious" (post-hoc obvious) invention is the simple wheelbarrow. Two of the oldest mechanical devices the wheel, and the lever. Known separately for millennia, but not put together until medieval times.
posted by Rumple at 1:33 PM on August 16, 2008

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