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Summary:

Few design trends for electronic devices have had such a seismic impact as the revolution of smallness. It’s not just that the sizes of devices have shrunk; the mindsets of designers and the whole culture of design have shifted toward all things Lilliputian.

Sling Media’s Sling Touch Control 100

In the past decade, few design trends for electronic devices have had such a seismic impact as the revolution of smallness. It’s not just that the sizes of devices have shrunk; the mindsets of designers and the whole culture of design have shifted toward all things Lilliputian.

I’ve been an industrial designer for many years, and recently, while I was attending a medical device conference, I began to think about downsized designs and the effect that they’ve had on designers and device users. While medical device developers, as well as some others, have largely continued to observe the “form-follows-function” mantra of yesterday, I am spending most of my time focused on the mantra of smallness. Many of us designers are now dealing with problems that scale down to one-tenth of a millimeter, and our clients are, too.

Great skill at design and development of diminutive things is seen as a novelty by some, but is in fact rare — and in high demand. The types of decision-making and talents required to do effective design of small things differ quite widely from norms in the overall design field. Increasingly, these talents are differentiating the design leaders from the losers.

To get a sense of how companies and designers alike are affected by this trend, consider, for example, a design problem involving integrating electronics, batteries, an antenna and other components into the slimmest possible product possible. Is this just an engineering task? No, it’s a company-wide problem to solve, affecting product branding and more. Designers must develop the best possible relationships with clients and employers to solve such problems in a holistic way.

Here are some bottom-up ideas for designers and those who work with them to consider, especially when optimizing work done at the small scale:

  • Management of vendors and manufacturers that you work with is critical. These are collaborative relationships where it may be very important for, say, a part provider to actually deliver products at below tenth-of-a-millimeter accuracy. Accuracy and skill at these kinds of tasks are rare. These days, a supplier who delivers “OK” quality can actually be a strategic impediment to an entire organization.
  • Off-the-shelf part selection is essentially over. If you’re in need of a strategic part, you’d better secure a good source for it and work collaboratively with that source. Customization is in high demand. Components in devices now need to be nested optimally alongside others, which almost always rules out the use of off-the-shelf parts.
  • Establishing a collaborative product design process means new kinds of interdependencies within organizations. No longer is it fine to just say, “First, let’s define the core of our technology, then let’s productize it with some secondary technology and then we’ll package it and ship it.” Customizing and optimizing parts and designs that are tiny and perfect requires that core technology and design teams work effectively with marketing, sales, and operations teams on branding and many more issues.
  • Management has to adjust to new design paradigms that go on at the small scale. Executives overseeing the production of devices and components implemented at the small scale can’t get by with half-hearted, uninvolved managerial gestures. They may need to know exactly how a piece of detail done at the sub-millimeter level affects an overall product, or know when an engineering team has reached physical limits.

These days, device designers are used to hearing the annoying refrain that “This device is going to be bigger than the iPhone.” More likely than not, if a product really is going to be that big, it’s because shrewd people were thinking about small things.

Gadi Amit is president of NewDealDesign.

In-post image courtesy of Sling Media, thumbnail of Glide TV.

  1. the world is getting so small that will eventualy disappear:)

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  2. I agree that the smallness is calling for different skills. And the shortage of good designers is nowhere as glaring as in India where the functionality precedes over design logic. How do I know? My company manufactures mobile computing devices.

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  3. small is exclusive, in more ways than one.

    small interfaces prevent the elderly and people with limited dexterity from using the technologies; but we do know a thing or two about discrimination, don’t we?

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    1. ISn’t that a problem with visual interfaces and aren’t we about to hit that problem in general? You couldn’t make an interface large enough for my grandfather to locate his medications and present them to 90 year-old eyes! But, he had an interesting solution. Bottles were placed in locations rather than a single location.

      That “I’ve fallen and can’t get up” thing could be an important device strategy. Combining personal technology with ambient computing is the future. This is very much why I believe that inter-device collaboration is critical.

      Displays are more than visual!

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      1. there’s more to interfacing than a display.

        some reading, in case you care:
        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User_interface
        http://www.usernomics.com/human-factors.html
        http://www.db.dk/bh/core%20concepts%20in%20lis/articles%20a-z/Human-computer-interaction%20and%20ergonomics.htm

        but I very much agree that ‘inter-device collaboration’ will assume a critical role.

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  4. So true. Totally agree that off the shelf is behind us to stay competitive. Now how to convince that higher cost and time to market delay is worth it?

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  5. The cynic in me thinks that the obsession with getting the products ever smaller is so that when the users realise that they have been sold a piece of crap where style has replaced function, and tell the manufacturers where they can shove the product, it will be that less painful!

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