Archive for the ‘Engineering Design’ Category

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MicroManufacturing Conference

March 16, 2009

Standard machining and injection molding techniques are not adequate for manufacturing parts so small that they are barely visible to the naked eye. An entire industry has formed around the requirements to create very small, very precise parts.

Recent work in microfluidics has focused on new rapid prototyping and manufacturing techniques on the micro-scale. While plenty of techniques exist for fabricating small-channels within multi-layered glass, such as etching or even laser drilling, the material and process costs are high, so I’ve been on the lookout for plastic and alternative materials more suitable for high-quantity production.

In just two weeks, I’m headed to Minneapolis to attend the 2009 MicroManufacturing Conference sponsored by the Society of Manufacturing Engineers. Although I’m not a manufacturing engineer, I have found that it’s extremely difficult and expensive to design good parts without a detailed understanding of the manufacturing methods. By attending, I’m hoping to talk to vendors and learn more about the state of current technology than I can learn with online searches. If you’re going to be at the conference, or just in Minneapolis, feel free to stop me and say hi or even touch base ahead of time to arrange a meeting. I’m looking forward to an interesting few days.

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A Simple Product With All the Features

March 11, 2009

I’ve been writing about keeping products simple. It makes your product easier to use for the majority of users. However, what about the users that don’t want simple? How do you keep them excited about your product?

I want to talk about cameras for a moment, as I’ve found them to be a good example of products that might have a good balance of everything. There’s no question that digital SLR’s (single lens reflex) cameras take better pictures than their point-and-shoot counterparts. They have larger, better quality CCD’s and better lenses. For the advanced users, it’s also easier to quickly adjust such features as shutter speeds and F-stops. Point-and-shoots are meant for convenience; they fit neatly in your pocket so you always have it handy. 

However, if you delve into the manual settings for a point-and-shoot (I have had good experiences with a few of the products in the Canon Powershot lineup) you might find ways to tweak your photos for better results and get more functionality from your camera. I like to play with the depth of field, using focus to highlight my target instead of location within the frame or lighting. I’ve also been experimenting with white-balance. I’ve found those two features alone have dramatically improved my ability to capture the moment. My Canon SD750 even has the ability to setup hotkeys, so I can get into the white-balance menu with one key-press instead of navigating the function-tree. 

Even though I’ve been stressing the importance of keeping products simple, they should only be as simple as they need to be. In the case of my camera, sometimes I want to just grab a quick picture of my kids doing something goofy, and I don’t want to worry about setting up a shot. Other times, I’d really like to get an image with more character, and I’m glad I have a camera that has a multitude of manual features. 

What products are you using that work well for both the novice user and the advanced hobbiest?

An appetizer: Figs topped with chevre and wrapped in prosciutto. Photo taken on the Automatic settings.

An appetizer: Figs topped with chevre and wrapped in prosciutto. Photo taken with the Automatic settings - auto focus, flash, 77mm focal length (35mm equiv.), f-stop (f/4.0) and exposure (1/60).

 

 

The same appetizer taken with Manual settings. No flash, ISO 80, Macro focal adjustment.

The same appetizer taken with Manual settings. No flash, f/2.8, exposure (1/40), 37mm focal length (35mm equiv.).

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Unknown Stakeholders

March 5, 2009

RemotesAre you overlooking someone in your user research?

It may not have the romance of flowers or diamonds, but a good universal remote control can do good things for a gadget-lover’s marriage. Before we got a high quality universal remote, there were remotes all over and a page of instructions for guests. My wife grew to understand it, but she hated that I’d complicated such a simple task as watching a movie. More often than not, she’d just turn the TV on by hand and listen to it through the native speakers. Now, she just hits the DVD button on the remote and everything turns on (well, most of the time!) so she can watch a show in 5.1 Dolby Digital surround even if she doesn’t care much about it.

So, if you were writing the product specification for a universal remote control, would you have thought to include your user’s significant others, house guests, and friends? You would surely have included the owners of home theater systems as a significant stakeholder in the design. They want equipment with a ton of features, high performance, and customization. Unfortunately, those requirements might not be as well accepted by the rest of the household if the system is difficult to use. Could you have unknown stakeholders that are preventing a purchase? Should they even be your primary target for the user interface?

Are there stakeholders that have been ignored during the design of your product? Are they holding back the success of your product? How do you find them?

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Creating simple, intuitive products

March 2, 2009

frustrated

My kids’ grandparents all live out-of-town, so they wanted to set up webcams instead of just using the phone. So, I setup GTalk video on my PC right in Gmail.  Then I sent my mother-in-law instructions to setup iChat on her Mac to work with GTalk. Of course, it doesn’t work. She’s not computer savvy enough to troubleshoot the problem and I don’t know enough about Macs to know what to tell her. After an hour of searching forums and trying to talk her through it, we gave up for another day. But once my mother-in-law shut down iChat, we were immediately able to use video through Gmail. What? Is this a missing step in the instructions? I don’t think we were alone in our frustration since the forum was full of posts about having trouble getting them to talk to each other. 

Was the process intuitive? To some engineers at Google and Apple, it must have been. I’m sure they configured the software and were mooning each other over video in no time. Ideally, they would have also consulted my mother-in-law, or at least other users with her level of experience and understanding, to see if she had any trouble understanding the instructions.

What does it mean to create a simple, intuitive product? Certainly, there are technical challenges to making something simple. But, shouldn’t it be easy to create something that’s intuitive? I think it can be, but it involves a bit of work by the designers.

One challenge is that “intuitive” is a subjective term. Product users don’t all use the same vocabularly or may not understand the subtle intricacies between two options, and they may not have the need, desire, or patience to learn. It doesn’t help them complete their task, which is all they’re trying to do. Therefore, what I may think is clear and obvious in a user interface is anything but. The good news is that understanding your user is not a mystic art. You could just ask them.

If it’s possible to consult with your end-users, get their feedback early and often. Talk to tech wizards, grandmas, and anyone else that might use your product. Can you use the misunderstandings of a few early users to overcome the confusion, apprehension, and fear that will keep your most un-savvy users from loving your product?

Photo credit: John De Boer

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You don’t need to buy a Hybrid car for better mileage

February 26, 2009

pumpinggas I’ve been driving a Toyota Prius for over a year now.  Gas prices have been jumping up and down, but I’ve definitely been pleased with the car overall. However, if you’re not already in the market for a new car, maybe you can get better mileage with the car you have. 

Yes, the Prius gets great mileage. I generally get between 44mpg and 54mpg depending on the time of year and the type of driving. However, when I first bought the car, it was closer to 38mpg to 42mpg. The improvement came because the car has an on-board smart-meter that provides immediate feedback about the relationship between your driving behavior and gas mileage. By the way, that’s an improvement of 10% – 20% just based on my driving habits. 

So, what would happen if you could tame the jack-rabbit starts, go easy on the gas-pedal, and keep it under 70mph? Could you effectively knock $0.20 to $0.40 off each gallon of gas you buy this month? In combination with other common practices (properly inflated tires, a clean air filter, and a tune up), maybe.

Have other Prius drivers found the same to be true? Do other hybrid vehicles have similar smart-meters? What’s your take?

Photo credit: Futureatlas.com

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What makes a great teacher?

February 22, 2009
binaryclues

Is there a message in there?

Who are your teachers? Whom do you learn from?

Whenever I talk to someone, or read an article, or finish a project, isn’t the goal that I come away having learned something? Isn’t that what makes Seth Godin’s stream of content so interesting?  He seems to find insight where others walk on by. Is that because he is a great teacher? He clearly has a lot to teach us. But, perhaps it’s that he is a great student. He’s more receptive to learning something new. Can we be as receptive?

My list of “teachers” is pretty long, but I’d guess none of them are aware of it. I don’t pay tuition, I don’t have tests, but if I don’t pay attention, I may get left behind. 

Are you looking for a teacher, or perhaps you have experience to offer someone else? The American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) has an eMentoring program that pairs young engineers with experienced ones. Do other societies have similar programs?

You don’t have to be in a classroom to have teachers. These are simply people you learn from, and they can be everywhere, if you’re listening.

Photo Credit: Rodolfo Clix

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Notes from “Plug into the SmartGrid”

February 17, 2009
Andy Karsner

Andy Karsner - Policy Panel

Washington, DC Feb 17, 2009 –  Every seat in the auditorium at Google’s DC office was filled with people passionate about bringing about change in the way power is distributed. People even lined the back wall and the overflow room. A total of 500 people in attendance. The event format was split into two industry panels, the first discussing the technology requirements for a SmartGrid and the second focused more on the Federal and State policy initiatives required to properly implement such a sweeping technological plan.

Tomorrow afternoon, the ~2-1/2 hour video footage of the panels will be available on both Google’s DotOrg channel as well as GE’s YouTube channel. If you don’t have time to watch, here are my notes from the event. I’m sure I missed some details, so please correct me or submit your comments.

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