Posts Tagged ‘Customer’

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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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Winter backpacking and product design

February 9, 2009
Sunset at Lost Lake

Photo Credit: Josh Keller

I went on a winter backpacking trip last weekend with an old friend. I’d been looking forward to some snow camping most of the year. It’s a great way to get away from the electronic ties I can’t seem to shed on my own. It’s also a great way to get away from the crowds, as not many other people are out camping when the weather is well below freezing, even in Colorado.

Backpacking in the winter involves a lot of extra gear, much of it heavy. So, I’d been training by running and lifting weights. I thought I’d be ready for the mountains, but I live at sea level, and I’d never camped above 4,000′ or so. I wasn’t prepared for the effect 10,400′ of elevation would have on my body even though I’d expected some weakness. I was moving at a very slow pace and fighting the symptoms of minor altitude sickness – headaches and slight nausea. There was just more factors to this adventure than I could consider without actually getting out there. With each trip, I learn something (many things) about staying comfortable in adverse conditions that no matter how long I plan, I just won’t anticipate them from home.

How many times have you (as a consumer) had trouble with a product and thought it seemed like the designers never used it themselves? They thought they had all the angles covered, but maybe they never took it “up to altitude” to really examine how it might behave under real-world conditions with real users. Sometimes it’s not easy to predict all conditions, especially when you don’t have the right perspective. As the design engineer, you understand what this button does and what that double-beep means, and you might even think it’s intuitive. However, you can’t be completely objective, but it’s not your fault. It IS your fault if you just stop there and don’t consider your options.

Give your prototype to user focus groups. Give it your coworkers. Give it to your family. Watch people interact with it and try to figure out how it works. If it’s an avalanche beacon, users will interact with it while wearing winter gloves and shaking from the fear that they have 15 minutes to find their friend or HE WILL DIE! Can they remember your 10 minute training session to follow the prescribed scanning procedure along the lines of magnetic flux? Can they hear the indicator beeps over the howling wind or their own heartbeat? Can they even get the device into Search Mode? A good designer must consider every possible use case. Don’t give up, yet. Even a highly specialized device can be intuitive when designed well.

I can understand if you don’t want to test drive your product on a winter camping trip, but you can find real users to provide perspective for almost any situation. (astronauts rarely design the spacecraft that they travel in, but they’re likely consulted on the design) No matter how much you ponder your users from behind a desk, there will always be something you forgot to consider. Get out there. Experience the world of your customers. You might just make a better product.

winterbp_snow

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The Dreaded Product Recall

January 28, 2009

danger_wrongway1Today, peanut butter manufacturers have a problem: salmonella contaminated a huge batch, and hundreds of people have gotten really sick, six have even died. The tainted peanut butter was packaged for industry, not retail, and distributed around the country. Since it was sold to industry to be added to other products, the outbreak was stalled while the product was processed into everything from crackers to dog treats. The FDA and food industry can’t identify everywhere it went, so it could be virtually anywhere. That effectively makes everyone responsible and every candy bar and plate of Pad Thai a potential outbreak. The FDA appears to have tracked the salmonella to its source, but containing the problem is slow-going and far-reaching. The real question is why wasn’t this problem caught by the manufacturers or even via one of the distribution chains? Are food safety precautions not stringent enough or too slow, or was somebody trying to avoid consequences for something they hoped wouldn’t become serious.

I went through a product recall once in a past job many years ago. It was a small-batch production, but enough products had the same problem that a recall was issued. At the time, I was preoccupied with other projects, and my responsibility to adequately supervise assembly was sacrificed. The hardest part was accepting and admitting the mistake both with my colleagues and with my customers. Luckily, this was a low-quantity product, the problem was caught early, we had a personal relationship with every customer, and the potential consequences were minimal (aside from the damage to my ego). Our actions seemed straightforward, but customers appeared to really appreciate our proactive approach to retrieving the items, inspecting and fixing them, and returning them quickly. It certainly wasn’t the easiest thing to initiate, but it was the right thing to do and our customers were happy we did it. As a result of this experience, I still strive to remember that the delicate balance of properly supervising someone – somewhere between micro-managing and saying hello at the annual review – should be based on the needs of the employee, not my availability.

Kryptonite Locks once conducted an excellent example of what every customer hopes would happen when bad products make it onto the shelves. Kryptonite makes super strong locks for bikes and motorcycles. The locks are well known for their ability to stifle a thief. In 2004, after being the market leader for years, a video surfaced on YouTube showing a guy breaking into a tubular-cylinder lock in seconds with just the end of a $0.10 BIC pen. Not good for the lock business. Kryptonite initially offered a qualified recall for locks under 2 years old, but then they did the unthinkable – they issued a full and free recall of ANY of their locks using tubular cylinders and ran their manufacturing line around the clock to meet demand. “ANY lock” meant every over-used, 10-year-old, clunker well past its warranty. The Voluntary Lock Exchange Program ran for more than a year and freely replaced over 400,000 Kryptonite locks worldwide. They weren’t the only locks affected, but they were the only company to react so swiftly. It was a brilliant move that kept their reputation intact, although they might still be paying off the free locks and manufacturing overtime for years to come.

Bad things happen to the best companies. How long have you remembered the companies that got it right? How about those that got it wrong?

Photo credit: Enrico Corno

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Cross-train your brain

January 18, 2009

datastreamIf you’re going to run a marathon, or participate in any sporting activity, most experts agree that cross-training is important to improve your overall fitness. Focusing too hard on one set of muscles leaves other muscles weak and prime candidates for injury. As an engineer, focusing too hard on a small skill-set may leave other parts of your brain starving for stimulation.

The internet is FULL of great content. Let your brain do some cross-training by expanding your input stream. Instead of listening to another webinar on the features of the next Solidworks release, maybe you want to stretch out and listen to an interview with Seth Godin on marketing your small business or check up on the state of innovation in the medical device industry for 2009. Not only will you have new things to talk about at dinner parties, but you might learn something related to your everyday.

Who/what are you paying attention to? Please share in the comments.

Photo credit: Rodolfo Clix