Less Specs, More Feedback

Engineers need specifications, but the consumer experience must be quantified if designs are to be successful.

By John Blyler, Editorial Director

Engineered systems succeed or fail based upon the clarity and timeliness of detailed specification. Not surprisingly, consumers of highly engineered products like cell phones and game handsets seem ambivalent to technical specs. To them, having the fastest processor or the most cores in a system-on-chip is meaningless if the experience using the device is poor.

Some would say that this is why software – not hardware – makes a difference. But with Android looking more and more like the iOS phones, software seems to be less important than before. Again, what matters to consumers is the experience – the total experience – of the device. That is why John Wang, chief marketing officer at mobile phone giant HTC, recently stated that consumers don’t care about numbers, but rather something more emotional.

How do chip and intellectual property (IP) developers – even at a system architectural level – design emotionally? The answer is at the interface, between the user and the device – between the analog and digital world. This means that sensor, image and interface connections will become critical hardware IP components. Already, the IP community is experiencing this trend with the shift from component IP to subsystem blocks.

The importance of quantifying the consumer experience will also mean that software rapid prototyping at the interface will take on new relevance.

I asked this question of Tobi Saulnier, CEO of 1st Playable Productions – a game and entertainment company. Tobi is one of the few engineers in the gaming industry that has successfully led the development of consumer end products. When asked to explain, from an engineering perspective, what it’s like to design for an industry that covers both entertainment and engineering, she replied:

“The part that stands out to me is how inadequate up-front specification is when designing something primarily judged on aesthetics such as “fun” and art style. A game player’s experience is based on a synthesized experience, very little of which can be quantified and predicted. So as an engineer you need to start relying on user feedback much earlier and develop systems that you can adapt to a changing specification.”

Her observations mirror those of semiconductor firms like Intel. Justin Rattner, Intel’s CTO, shared these observations at last year’s IMEC Technology Forum: “User experience design makes engineers nervous, since it relies on one’s perspective for what makes for a good experience. But this is now becoming a formal, qualitative experience.”

This experience-based approach involves more than just getting the user interface correct. It requires a great deal of user input and feedback throughout the product development process. The key to user experience- (UX) based hardware design seems to be determining the basic level of the needed experience.

Could such user experiences be captured as semiconductor IP? Why not, especially if such experiences could be replicated in algorithms? It may require that hardware IP designers work more closely with their software IP (library and applications) brethren.

A closer working relationship between hardware and software engineers might well lead to better feedback – a key spec for future successful designs.



John Blyler is the editorial director of Extension Media, which publishes Chip Design and Embedded Intel® Solutions magazine, plus over 36 EECatalog Resource Catalogs in vertical market areas.