Spicy Blog

Engineering vs. Design

It feels like eons since we last heard Apple's long-forgotten tagline "It just works." Sadly, few, not even Apple, are practicing that philosophy anymore. You know something is wrong when you see a man-sized poster hung at the front door of an authorized Apple dealer that says "Buy an iPhone 8 today, and it comes with our professional setup service for free!" Since when did an iPhone require professional help just to set it up to the user's liking? Well, pretty much since the world lost Steve Jobs for good. We simply can't take anything for granted, can we? Just when you thought that someone has finally got it right, it went backward right before your eyes. You would think that, in this day and age, human factors and ergonomics should be the first language for most, if not all, consumer product designers. Not so. If you look around your household, you'll be surprised by the number of daily items that require either a steep learning curve or a change in your natural behavior just to put them to their intended use. User manuals are supposed to be the last resort, reserved for the last 10% of the most obscure functionality of the product. However, it seems way too obvious that today's design engineers still spend too much time engineering but not nearly enough time designing. Note that this is not to say that engineering is not important. Quite the contrary, engineering is so fundamental that it's already taken as a given. Hello, things have to work in the first place! However, save few exceptions, consumer products today are mostly adequately engineered, and they roughly function similarly to their competitors in the same category. Those that grossly under-perform would have a much inferior spec sheet and either they can't compete in the intended market segment or they would become the low price leader and attract an entirely different demographic. That being said, plenty of engineering errors and flaws are still present in the products we use every day, but they are likely to cause failures (and subsequent recalls) or worse, injuries, and they often get fixed quickly because they have significant financial and legal consequences. Human factor and usability issues, on the other hand, won't cause any hard failures so they are considered less crucial and are less likely to be identified quickly. Are usability issues really that difficult to identify? Not at all. It usually takes a layperson a few minutes using the product for most of these issues to surface. Some of those flaws are just too obvious that one would wonder how they managed to slip through all the design reviews before the product was released on the market. The problem lies in when these issues are identified and how much cost could have been involved in addressing them before production. In early stages of the design cycle, most engineering teams would focus on the functionality and the performance of a product because they have a spec sheet to meet. It is not until it is late in the design cycle that the prototype is evaluated by a focus group or the management. By that time a lot of design parameters are always frozen, so much so that as long as the usability issues are not severe enough to become showstoppers, the management would be very tempted to live with them to avoid the costly redesign process or risk missing the time-to-market window altogether. Sometimes it takes the willpower of the management to insist that a product goes back to the drawing board because of a minor ergonomics issue. Again, think Steve Jobs. But shouldn't the consumers deserve better without requiring every manufacturer to have a stubborn and picky perfectionist boss? All it takes is a change of mindset of the product development team. A change of mindset of the management. Each engineer and designer needs to grow a habit to include usability concerns at every stage of the design cycle, as early as possible. Put that usability thought in their DNA. Seriously, asking someone, especially someone not on the team, to review the product concept or early prototypes does wonders. Have an open mind. Sure, we don't live in a perfect world, so cost is always a concern. There will be compromises to make and deadlines to meet. Besides, different product design teams would practice different Standard Operating Procedures, so it's difficult to suggest a guideline for when and how much priority should be committed to human factor and usability of a particular product. That would be the product manager's privilege. What is being proposed here is that, given all technical and financial constraints, usability and engineering should at least share the same amount of consideration, every step of the way. The team has to truly believe that ease-of-use is every bit as important as a product's spec sheet, and understand that when someone does not know how to use your product, probably it's not because the person is stupid, it could be because your product sucks.

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