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The dangers of over engineering

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LX Group discusses the danger of over-engineering in its series of articles on the Internet-of-Things.

Making the decision to create a new product or the next generation of an existing product is always an exciting time for design engineers, especially when new features, options and technologies can be integrated for the perceived benefit of the end user.

However as technology marches on, there is always the possibility of products getting too complex for the end user, and even the sales staff. This phenomenon is also prevalent in the Internet-of-things arena, where ‘features’ and usability can get out of hand.

Let’s consider the potential dangers of over-engineering and feature over-complexity when bringing an Internet-of-Things automation or embedded sensor appliance to the market. With advancements in available technology, increasing miniaturisation and decreasing costs of sensors and components, it’s tempting to add more and more features and capabilities to the device or product design to establish product superiority in the market or to motivate the engineering team.

However, it is important to keep this kind of over-engineering or ‘feature creep’ under control in order to deliver a product that is easy for consumers and salespeople to understand by offering simple, sensible, intuitive user experience with a sensible amount of functionality from a hardware system small and simple enough to be practically manufactured and offered to the market at an acceptable price for good consumer uptake.

It’s pointless to try and invent more and more features just because it is technologically possible to do so if those features don’t actually accomplish anything that is actually valuable to consumers. For example, providing a washing machine with Internet-of-Things connectivity and remote access and control via email or a smartphone application is quite pointless since a human operator actually needs to be there to load and unload the clothes from the machine.

The features and user experience should be kept intuitive and usable, without dragging the user down into an insane range of different options that most people are probably never going to use most of the time anyway.

Internet-of-Things sensor networks and appliances targeted at home and building automation should be easy to set up and configure, they should be compatible with existing typical household network infrastructure such as single-band 2.4 GHz 802.11b/g Wi-Fi access points, and they need to be compact, visually unobtrusive and as simple as possible in order to keep the hardware cost at a level that is sufficiently low for market acceptance.

This is particularly true for appliances that are designed for use as a network of many distributed devices; the cost of the total set of all the hardware devices required for a typical network deployment needs to be kept at a reasonable level so that the entire usable system is available to consumers at an overall price point that they’re willing to pay. For Internet-of-Things networks consisting of meshes of multiple wireless devices to become ubiquitous, each node device needs to be as cheap and as small as possible.

For example, if one were to release a smart email-controlled Internet-of-Things light bulb onto the market and it costs $100, would customers replace their existing light bulb, which costs about $5 with the new $100 light bulb offering the added convenience of control from a PC? 

Some consumers might try a single light bulb or two just to experience the novelty of a consumer-focussed household Internet-of-Things appliance. However, very few customers are likely to consider it worthwhile to set up a network of a dozen 100-dollar bulbs to replace every bulb in the home. Such a system might pick up a few customers from the relatively wealthy technology fans who want to be early adopters of advanced home automation and Internet-of-Things technologies, even if the price is high. But isn’t it better to have a product that is desirable for a broader market beyond just those who are willing to pay lots of money for the most powerful, advanced technology on the market?

Realistic testing of a product’s usability and user experience is vital during the development process. Adding too many features can befuddle customers as well as salespeople whose job it is to help convince customers to buy the product and to demonstrate its user experience with consumers. Over-engineering and feature creep, even if it’s possible to integrate lots and lots of features from a technical engineering standpoint, can negatively affect sales as well as brand reputation.

The best user interface is ‘no user interface’, or a user interface design that approaches the theoretical ideal of being completely transparent and natural in its interaction with the user. Similarly, the best documentation design is ‘no documentation’ where the product ideally is so intuitive and natural in its user experience that it just kind of ‘documents itself’. This means that the amount of documentation that the customer needs to read is minimised while also minimising the amount and cost of documentation that the manufacturer needs to print for every unit shipped.

One can examine their existing products and that of their competitor’s, and with a fresh perspective perhaps consider how things can be made simpler for the end user without sacrificing usability. This is a simple step to initiate, however it can require a total redesign or approach from a fresh set of minds.

As part of their complete product design service, LX Group can partner with product manufacturers to work on revisions of existing products or bring new ideas to life. Clients seeking a reliable implementation can partner with LX Group, which is equipped to create or tailor just about anything from a wireless temperature sensor to a complete Internet-enabled system within the required timeframe and budget. 

An award-winning electronics design company based in Sydney, Australia, LX Group specialises in embedded systems design and wireless technologies.

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