The profit in designing great

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I’ve been tinkering with a Ramsey 555 timer kit, refreshing my long-dormant soldering skills (not bad; first attempt passed our lab guy’s inspection) as a practice project before embarking on something more sophisticated at work.

In trying to decide how I would design the package and the UI, I realized it was also a good exercise in designing something that will be elegant and might not even need an instruction manual. My goal is to get to that point without using any text labels at all.

I know I will spend more time designing this than the project justifies, but I fully expect to develop or refine concepts that I can re-use later (and share with others), so it will be worth the perfectionist penalty.

I have already learned a few things, even before wiring in any switches or drilling holes in the case.

The first is how hard it is to find and source the right parts, even when you know what you want and can see it on display.

“Sorry, that switch is out of stock. No, I don’t know when we’ll order more. No, I don’t know the manufacturer.”

Even a Google search only got me close.

Part of the problem is the dearth of real electronics stores, even here in Silicon Valley. They’re essentially all gone. Without easy and ready access to actual parts, and the ability to touch and feel them before completing the design of a product, designers are hamstrung with a bunch of bad choices. Search online, and guess if the part will feel and work right. Design an appropriate part from scratch (which might be the best option). Or pick something close at hand and pray that it will be good enough.

But “good enough” is not how you define great, and the product will likely suffer. Especially as multiple design decisions like this compound.

The specific design decision I’m making at the moment will be interesting, because the result is likely to include a symbol, color, and shape that all reinforce the purpose of the switch. But that’s another post.

In the middle of this, I came across a great article on the benefits of taking this high and expensive road. In Design vs. Cost: Who Wins?, the CEO of Dero Bike Racks describes the tough choice the company had to make when a competitor ripped off one of its designs and undercut their price. The result of taking the expensive path was amazing, and it gives me hope that the genius philosophy of Steve Jobs is starting to spread.

Author: Peter Sheerin

Peter Sheerin is best known for the decade he spent as the Technical Editor of CADENCE magazine, where he was the acknowledged expert in Computer-Aided Design hardware and software. He has a long-standing passion for improving usability of software, hardware, and everyday objects that is always interwoven in his articles. Peter is available for freelance technical writing and product reviews, and is exploring career opportunities in interaction design. His pet personal project is exploring the best ways to harmonize visual, tactile, and audible symbols for improving the effectiveness of alerting systems.

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