Companies in need of hardware product design—particularly hardware startups looking to launch new products—have a lot riding on how they choose to bring their products to market. To ensure manufacturable design concepts, it’s crucial that companies get specialized expertise in both electronics and materials from their design, prototype and manufacturing partners.
Why is it so important?
Poorly designed and engineered products can sink not only product launches but also careers … and companies. In this blog post, Kevin Bailey, President of Ottawa-based Design 1st, discusses three of the biggest hardware product design mistakes—and how to avoid them.
When you’ve been in the hardware product development business for as long as I have—over three decades, with a hand in seeing 700-plus products developed—you’re bound to see mistakes being made.
Mistakes are not simply relics of an outmoded past. With today’s rush to exploit exciting opportunities—many in the realm of the Internet of Things—there’s a desire and a need to integrate sophisticated electronics into all kinds of products. These products are more complex. And this complexity can result in mistakes. Lots of mistakes.
Mistakes can be plentiful in complex hardware product design
Over the years, design mistakes I’ve come across have been characterized by some in the industry as logical mistakes. Natural mistakes. Common mistakes.
I see them as avoidable mistakes. Sometimes plain stupid mistakes. And often tragic mistakes.
They are mistakes resulting in failed products that have cost companies millions of dollars. They’ve cut short careers. They’ve even sunk companies. And, yes, all these mistakes were avoidable.
Allow me to explore and explain what I believe are the three biggest mistakes in hardware product design.
Mistake #1: Faulty sealing
It’s killed many a well-intentioned, otherwise well-designed product built to withstand moisture. When moisture gets into your basement, sometimes it’s as easy as buying a dehumidifier. When moisture gets into your hardware product, the results can be catastrophic.
So what’s to be done to keep water out?
Plan simple, predictable sealing points to keep water from getting in. Recognize that the larger your product, the more likely you are going to have to let it breathe.
If you have a large internal air volume in a product, a change in air pressure outside will change pressure on the seal. Dramatically. And quickly. For example, during shipping, a product going into the belly of an airplane can experience pressures so intense it can literally rip O-rings out of their grooves.
Remember that the larger your product, the bigger the potential problem. Temperature change will cause stress on products. Pressure change exerts force per square inch on all surfaces inside a product—like blowing up a football. The greater the volume of air inside a product, the larger the surface areas inside the product, the more force that is going to push on all the seams and joints and parting lines.
For products the size of a football, there are huge forces exerted on the product from the inside. When an airplane changes altitude (with pressure drops and rises) and when the temperature swings by 50+ degrees during the flight, products get torture-tested.
Different Types of Surfaces
And make sure you know the intricate details about the little surfaces on a product that water—under pressure or not, including precipitation—will come up against or get trapped by. Every surface must be perfect and consistent on a seal. Every nook that can collect water becomes an ice-expansion problem when it gets cold. Leaks happen at the weakest points. These are easy to identify with experienced eyes.
You need to know how much pressure a label with adhesive can resist if it covers a hole. How much pressure an O-ring in a custom-designed groove can resist. Why T-joint sealing is a “do-not-go-there” rule. Plus, many other engineering details dependent on the shape of a sealing joint, the materials involved, the type of environmental seal you have chosen, and the design plan for water ingress management.
How to avoid mistake #1—a brief case study: Now the fastest-selling adult personal massager in history, the We-Vibe began as a concept requiring a novel design and manufacturing strategy. It features a fully enclosed waterproof silicon skin that seals all internal components, including its charging connections.
Let it breathe?
For larger products, you may decide to let your product breathe (allowing moisture in and out), so it’s important to determine what internal components need protection. You need to avoid droplets of water forming internally on circuits. And you need to know what can happen if moisture is allowed to freeze inside your product. Which, of course, we recommend you avoid, as unpredictable situations lead to unnecessary risk.
Design a product so it does not fail and you give business teams the opportunity to sell the real value: the features a product is intended to provide.
OK, so that’s mistake #1. What’s next?
Mistake #2: Poorly engineered products that heat up
We’ve all experienced products that give off heat and have poorly engineered thermodynamics.
The laptop that feels so hot, you could fry an egg on it.
A product with a sickly sounding fan that whirs incessantly—until it stops. And the product stops working not long afterward.
Many product designers fail to properly engineer the correct thermodynamic solution into a product. They see three simple options:
- Vent the heat
- Install a fan
- Incorporate a heatsink
Not so fast.
Such designers fail to take into account the heat being generated. They fail to design a reliable continuous path to remove the heat. And the consequences are sometimes more than an overworked fan that stops. Products that create fires are not good for business. Any business.
So what are designers to do?
The heat is on
Designers need to get specialized expertise in thermodynamics from engineers who are well-experienced in designing the type of product being built.
Once the size of the product, the amount of heat being generated inside, and the exposure to all environments in which the product will be used are determined, then it’s not difficult to assess risk and determine a path for the heat to get out of the product.
As a designer, you can decide to use fans. That’s easy. But what if your product is tiny and must be sealed? Fans are out.
Yes, you can heatsink a source of the heat, to spread out the heat locally. (Generally, microchips and electronic components on printed circuit boards are the sources of this heat). Heatsinks inside a product spread the heat away from the chips. But with the heat still inside the product, you still have a potential problem.
Solution for Thermal Issues
The solution? A system architect who understands heat flows and can take the heat from the source to the outside—without heating everything on the way.
As an architect of heat flow, think about steady state and to what temperature all parts can rise. A common example: a laptop sits on a bed, then has the bed covers thrown over it. Tough environment. Very little air flow.
After three hours, what’s the surface temperature of the product? What about the chips inside? As designers, we need to ask if that temperature is safe for the materials around it.
Can it stay like this for three years and have the electronics still run properly? If not, we need to reduce heat or find a better heat path architecture.
How to avoid mistake #2—a brief case study: Having entered the market as the only DVR with a silent passive heatsink—plus industry-leading low defect rates—the Tablo TV OTA digital video recorder has continued gaining mass-market acceptance. (With human touch pain tolerance in the 40° C range for outside surfaces, this heatsink technique has now become common on most TV network boxes.)
With the use of finite element simulation tools, plus experience in materials, natural convection, and the kinds of situations in which products must thrive and survive, you can—in most cases—find an acceptable solution the first time around.
Too often, people start the thermal planning after the product design is complete—and a full re-design is necessary.
Now onto the final big mistake.
Mistake #3: Confusing User Interfaces
What elements of product design do users interact with most? If you’re familiar with the gadgetry of Dick Tracy, you may want to think of this handy DICK mnemonic: Displays, Indicators, Controls and Keys.
Mistake #3 revolves around badly designed, badly performing responsive elements: the parts of product design that constitute the “use” in how a user interacts with a product.
A user who says “I hate the product!” is a designer’s worst nightmare.
And users will typically have two reasons why they get mad and give up in frustration:
- “Don’t make me wait.”
- “Don’t make me guess—because I feel stupid when I cannot get it to work.”
Interface design mistakes can take many forms. Like the sleek household iron whose handle-located heating controls change without the user’s intent. Or the countertop coffee machine with a video display that needs to be pressed again and again and again before it decides to work. Or any number of other product design and manufacturing quality flaws.
Best way to solve interface design issues.
How do you avoid the mistake of badly designed user interfaces—apart from suggesting, “Just do a better design”?
Start with defining the users who will be engaging with the product: where they live, how they think, what they expect the product to do.
Then design two concept ideas, create user experience (UX) models, and test your interface, keys, displays, and control locations with at least five volunteer users. In many cases, volunteers can be anyone. They will often tell you immediately what’s confusing, in the wrong place, frustrating—and also what is working fine.
How to avoid mistake #3—a brief case study: Through a total redesign of the Nuraleve neurotherapy device, the solution incorporates a user-friendly housing design. The result is a product for clinical environments that, in the client’s words, “looks fantastic and is easy to use”—and reduces patient setup time from 10 to two minutes.
As a seasoned professional designer, you can’t just pick and choose which parts of the design process you want to put your time and effort into, and ignore the things that aren’t of interest to you, or you feel are beyond your control. You need to own the whole user experience. And that goes way beyond just the end component keys and displays.
It takes a consideration of ergonomics, social bias, accommodation of disabilities, and many more factors to pull off a product that is both perfect for a user and delivers that emotionally engaging wow! factor.
It also takes a software and hardware engineering team working with you to determine what cool things are possible—and what’s not going to work. The chipsets selected, display technology type chosen, and a hundred other aspects involving careful, tradeoff decisions based on previous experience go a long way to getting it right the first time.
What’s more, succeeding at UI for hardware takes a willingness to spend the time to find that perfect design partner for your product.
One throat to choke, one firm to count on
When CEOs (and CTOs and CMOs) of hardware product companies experience the kind of mistakes I’ve explored—and get tired of different players in the design process playing the blame game and passing off mistakes to someone else—they sometimes find us.
They come to me, and our firm, looking for one throat to choke. They want one company, one person where the buck stops.
And I’m always happy to be that one throat. I know that our team will take ownership of the entire design process. Not just the fun front end, but every step of the process—right through to manufacturing set-up to work out all the little details that kill many products.
Despite its complexities, ours is a simple business. Hardware startups with product development challenges seek smart, fast, fault-free design services. They want to receive predictability and value. They want to avoid the frustrating, the costly, the catastrophic mistakes.
Getting what they want—and avoiding what they don’t want—can be as easy as 1-2-3.