Written by Nick Lesniewski-Laas, Director of Electrical Engineering
Misconception 1: Smaller is Better
The world seems to be preoccupied with miniaturization. We make company logos out of a handful of stray atoms, we print books in micrograms of DNA, and we fight over the title of "smallest computer". Every device company wants their products to be smaller than the competitions’ offerings and smaller than previous generations of product. This holds true across all device spaces, from handheld devices to benchtop equipment and beyond. Reducing the size and weight of handheld devices makes the devices more portable and attractive to tech-savvy customers. Reducing the footprint of table-top equipment enables better utilization of laboratory or manufacturing space. Miniaturization has been dubbed ‘a powerful tool of innovation’ and a source of competitive advantage. Every device can be made smaller, and smaller is always better.
Except when it's not.
When asked, most users will say that they want a smaller device. This is true of lab equipment, where the users want to conserve bench space, as well as consumer goods, like smartphones. Internet polls of the most desired smartphone features often ask the users whether they want larger phones or more compact phones; these polls often show that users vote against increasing the phone size and vote more in factor of a compact form factor. On the other hand, sales figures and satisfaction surveys point to better sales and better customer satisfaction with larger smartphones. Apparently the improved usability of a larger screen outweighs the burden of carrying a bulkier device.
As another example, one of my projects at Sunrise involved designing a handheld surgical tool that integrated all the electronics from their existing benchtop solution into their existing pen-shaped handpiece. Miniaturization was the customer’s biggest concern. Their existing handpiece was long and cylindrical; the form factor was frequently compared to a common ballpoint “stick” pen. After some initial usability work, we discovered that the thin cylindrical form factor was far from ideal; the cylinder body was too thin, and the smooth form factor gave no touch-cues to the orientation of the surgical tool in the hand. Repackaging the handpiece to be slightly larger in diameter dramatically improved grip comfort and reshaping the handpiece with a contoured section enabled the user to orient the tool in the hand by feel rather than by sight. This provided a much better user experience with less opportunity for misuse. This also had the side effect of dramatically reducing the design effort required to miniaturize the electronics. BOM cost and manufacturing complexity were reduced. Battery life was increased because a larger battery could fit within the larger handpiece. In the end, increasing the handpiece size improved the device in every meaningful way.
Product developers need to understand the technical challenges in device miniaturization but should be careful not to go beyond what is needed for the product. Sometimes further miniaturization is critical to the success of a product, sometimes it is superfluous, and sometimes it is even detrimental. This determination should be made through human factors engineering efforts to identify the form factor that maximizes usability.
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