focusing on key users experience

A Ted Talk about an engineer who revolutionized the way we look at subway maps hits us between the eyes as we nearly forget an obvious feature on a new product.

Speaker: Terry West  

read podcast TRANSCRIPT:

Serious is lucky to have a bunch of really, really sharp salespeople. One of them, a fellow named Justin Gursslin out in Wisconsin, sent me a TED talk link this week: The Genius of the London Tube Map. They call it the tube; where I grew up, we called it the subway (in Toronto).

While I'm not big on watching all these different TED Talk videos, this one I kind of tweak my interest. It was on the subject of the London tube and how this engineer had had a bit of a brainstorm on how to redraw the map of this spaghetti-like subway system map. He redrew it into something very simple that everybody could read. It revolutionized, almost overnight, the way that subway maps were printed, represented, and distributed into people's consciousness of how you looked at and how you navigated a subway.

When Tom Miller, a good friend of mine, and I were in Tokyo (gosh it must be what, Tom, five years ago?). Neither of us spoke much Japanese. I spoke none. He spoke some. Yet we somehow managed to navigate the subway system, the train system, unbelievably easy.

I think it all comes back to this engineer that had a brainstorm around how to redraw the London Underground map. This TED talk is interesting in that it says: you really have to think about who your target audience is and what they think about in order to represent something to them.

And I know that's kind of a fundamental truism, right? When you're building a PowerPoint or a presentation you have to think what your audience. You have to present towards your audience. If you're giving a talk, like a podcast, I have to think about my audience; embedded design engineers, supply chain managers, and people who build embedded products as my target audience.

I thought this topic was particularly useful because there were a couple of things that the fellow who did the podcast mentioned that really stood out for me.

One was obvious, you have to make what you present relevant and "focused" on the target audience. In this case, the example he used was that when you're on a subway you really don't care what's above ground. You don't care that the street turned this way, turned that way, or navigated around a fountain. You're just going from this station to that station. And in the underground world, it's a point to point. It's a straight line pretty much. So you really don't care about all the complexities of the streams, rivers, roads, buildings, and all that stuff on top of you. Because you, the user, are in a linear underground world (point to point). So if I want to create a map to target you, that user, I have to think point-to-point linear - not the complexities of the above ground. I think that's pretty startling when you think about user experience (UX) and HMI design. I think it's also kind of startling when you think about product design what are you building for. Who are you building it for?

There's a dramatic contrast here between the way Serious designs products and the way our customers use our products. And I'm I'm trying to internalize this TED talk. How can I take this and say how do we do our product differently if I take this mantra of focus on the target audience, keep it simple, and represent it in a way they understand.

I'll tell you why I'm struggling with this. I spent what 16 years in the chip industry. So I've always lived in a fairly complex world. My wife is always telling me, "why didn't you start a business doing post-it notes or pet rocks or cabbage patch dolls or fidget spinner's." She kicked me when I when she saw fidget spinner for the first time on the shelf and said, "you could've done that. That would have been a lot easier than all this hardware and software stuff that you're doing. All these products and platforms you do," she said, "why don't you just do a fidget spinner instead. Invent that." I think some of us are drawn to tilted windmills; we create complex products to solve complex problems.

It does make me self-reflect on why is Serious, and in my day to day life as a pretty product-centric CEO, why is that so complex. And how is that different than my customers. Most of my experience, including my time at Intel (creating ARM processors) and working with the folks at Renesas (as my strategic partners) for the last ten years (except the early experience back at RIM BlackBerry), has been in a product space where our products could be used in many, many ways. Whereas our customers are in spaces that use products/machines/devices one way. Maybe I'm oversimplifying because my customers also make products whose customers can use it in a specific way. But you want your product to be as flexible as possible.

A while back, I heard that one of the great strengths and weaknesses of the American mindset (and I'll take that on because I've been in the States now for over 20 years) is that we like to hedge their bets a lot. We are not afraid of making decisions and boldly going and doing things. But we still like to hedge our bets. I see that in the way we think about our products.

So at Serious, we're in the middle of launching three big new platforms: the SCM 318 comms control platform, and two new HMI platforms, the high-performance line and the value line. Three big, new product lines. We've learned a lot over the last ten years from all our customers. We're trying to build all that knowledge in and pack every ounce of it into these new platforms and all the ways that customers use it.

So David Paul and I, my right-hand man and I, sit down in a room we think about all the things that customers have told us over the last 10 years: Man you should have two CAN ports because if you have to CAN ports we can do this, this, and this. Or if you had 485 full duplex and you did this with it and allowed it to be turned, you could do this. And it's amazing how complex it is, even though it looks deceivingly simple. When you look at a schematic or a bill of materials, some of our new products especially the SCM318 comms control module you look at it and go, "okay, it's got a processor, Ethernet, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, CAN, 485, power supply, some storage, and flash storage." Then you see software layers the Segger file system OS and all the different bits and pieces. And you said, "oh, yeah I could design that too." And you probably could.

It's absolutely phenomenal to me how much complexity in terms of the usage models we're thinking through in that platform design. We spend hours, I would say probably we've spent a thousand hours at least since last October to this May, really going through usage models and how our customers could use it. That's an enormous amount of time. The funny thing is that any one customer may only use it in a very straightforward way. I mean, we've had conversations like, "if we wired it this way, 80 - 90 percent of the customers could use it that way and it would seem obvious. But you could also use this circuit like this, even though nobody might think of it that way and look what you could do with it. etc. etc.

We're thinking about all kinds of usage models:

- Like if you added a 4G radio module to a little card; a PCB, a connector, and a module - three components literally. You dock it into the back of the SCM318 and all of a sudden you have a Wi-Fi Gateway, a Bluetooth Gateway.

- Then, of course, our mind goes to Bluetooth thread. So you can have a Bluetooth mesh network off of this thing with an uplink to 4G. As you can imagine, this starts to get our brain going about all the ways you could use Bluetooth thread in conference rooms and all that. And then what would you control from that.

So we get really excited and we spent a lot of time brainstorming all the different usage models for the new products (whether it's the HMI products or the comms control products). And at the same time, we somehow, sometimes miss the obvious. Our high-end, new HMI product line has the I2S audio lines coming out. So you can attach a Kodak and an amplifier off the board and do all kinds of cool audio. We thought, okay that makes sense - we don't want lame audio. We want to be able to do some decent stereo audio. So we planned that all out.

Then, for those of you remember that commercial where the fellow smack's his head and says," I could have had a V8." We had a "could have had a V8" moment when we realized that one of the main reasons that customers buy our high-end line the x62 family is because it will support full-motion, 24-frames per second, WebM, YouTube video, type content. You can play videos on the HMI; full gorgeous 480p type videos. Of course, if you're playing videos, you probably want audio. If you want audio and you want it out of the box, we're giving you this great video experience with the LCD, the engine, all this software. But then you have to go somehow build your own card to do the audio? It doesn't seem to make sense. It's too complicated. So we actually did a last minute flying change. This thing is about a week away from going to fab and we realized, "oh my gosh! We need to have a Kodak, an amplifier, and a line out capability so that the 90 percent of customers who need this capability can just plug in a speaker and away they go."

It really hit me when I watched this TED talk video that we spend so much time mired in the complexity of product design, that even after six months of really wringing this product portfolio out in terms of how it can be used. Here we are one week away from sending it to the Fab for the first article, and we have this could've had a V8. That's pretty big. My hardware design team went, " Seriously Terry. I mean this is a wire change problem, this is a whole new feature you're adding at the 11th hour or the 11.9999th hour in this case.

So I thought this was fascinating, this concept, back to keep it simple stupid concept (that kiss principle). But I do think it's interesting that when we think about our target audiences and the users, that you really have to be focused. We have to think, "Who is the number one user of my product? What does that persona (if we use web and UX design language)? what is the personality? What are the usage model and the way that they're going to plug it into their system and use?"

That's why, for instance, all of our new products we moved away from having 5V-powered modules to modules that are powered from 10.8 volts to 35 volts. Why? Because we discovered that customers were having to add power supplies into their unit, 5V power supplies, to power our boards. They all had 12-volt, 15-volt, 18-volts, or 24-volt power supplies already there. If they could just run those directly to our board, it would have saved them extra money, time, and complexity.

Similarly, we have a whole bunch of customers using our HMI modules and they need 485 differential. Whether it's half duplex or full duplex Modbus to talk to their system. It's noise immune and great. And we provided a UART coming out of our prior units. So they had to add a card for another $25 to put the differential transceivers on there. We'll put it on there. So we even though we live and breathe this stuff, we forget audio at the last minute.


I was so I took this TED talk as with a couple of takeaways because it was really relevant where we are with our product design right now. One takeaway is that it's never too late to stand back from your product even though you're deep in the trenches or right towards the end. Ask yourself the question, "Am I focused enough on the key singular user of my product?" Whether you're designing a user experience, a piece of hardware, or software platform. "Am I really focused on the user? Because if I get lost in the weeds of the implementation, I'm going to draw a subway map that looks like a bowl of spaghetti and has every river, road, and building on the surface. Even though the most important user model of all is the one that doesn't care about what's above ground." In our in our world, you'd forget the audio amplifier.

So hopefully after listening, this affects your next product in a good way.


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