Minaturization misconceptions

Misconception 1: Smaller is Better

Written by Nicholas Lesniewski-Laas, Sr. Director of Sunrise Systems

First in a Series of 3

The world seems to be preoccupied with miniaturization.

We make company logos out of a handful of stray atoms[1], we print books in micrograms of DNA[2], and we fight over the title of “smallest computer”[3]. Every device company wants its products to be smaller than the competition’s offerings and smaller than previous generations of products. This holds true across all device spaces, from handheld devices to benchtop equipment and beyond. Reducing the size and weight of handheld devices makes the devices more portable and attractive to tech-savvy customers. Reducing the footprint of table-top equipment enables better utilization of laboratory or manufacturing space. Miniaturization has been dubbed ‘a powerful tool of innovation‘ and a source of competitive advantage. Every device can be made smaller, and smaller is better.

Except when it’s not

When asked, most users will say that they want a smaller device. This is true of lab equipment, where the users want to conserve bench space, as well as consumer goods, like smartphones. Internet polls of the most desired smartphone features often ask the users whether they want larger phones or more compact phones; these polls often show that users vote against increasing the phone size and vote more in factor of a compact form factor. On the other hand, sales figures and satisfaction surveys point to better sales and better customer satisfaction with larger smartphones.[4] Apparently, the improved usability of a larger screen outweighs the burden of carrying a bulkier device.[5]

As another example, one of my projects at Sunrise involved designing a handheld surgical tool that integrated all the electronics from their existing benchtop solution into their existing pen-shaped handpiece. Miniaturization was the customer’s biggest concern. Their existing handpiece was long and cylindrical; the form factor was frequently compared to a common ballpoint “stick” pen. After some initial usability work, we discovered that the thin cylindrical form factor was far from ideal; the cylinder body was too thin, and the smooth form factor gave no touch-cues to the orientation of the surgical tool in the hand. Repackaging the handpiece to be slightly larger in diameter dramatically improved grip comfort and reshaping the handpiece with a contoured section enabled the user to orient the tool in the hand by feel rather than by sight. This provided a much better user experience with less opportunity for misuse. This also had the side effect of dramatically reducing the design effort required to miniaturize the electronics. BOM cost and manufacturing complexity were reduced. Battery life was increased because a larger battery could fit within the larger handpiece. In the end, increasing the handpiece size improved the device in every meaningful way.

Product developers need to understand the technical challenges in device miniaturization but should be careful not to go beyond what is needed for the product. Sometimes further miniaturization is critical to the success of a product, sometimes it is superfluous, and sometimes it is even detrimental. This determination should be made through human factors engineering efforts to identify the form factor that maximizes usability.

Sunrise Labs helps our clients optimize their products for usability and knows how to design for any size scale, from ultra-miniature wearables to large freestanding processing equipment.

Check Out Misconceptions of Miniaturization: Part 2

Frequently Asked Questions About Miniaturization

Why are people so focused on miniaturization?

There are several reasons why people are focused on miniaturization:

  • Smaller devices are seen as more portable and convenient.
  • Smaller devices can be more attractive to customers.
  • Miniaturization is often seen as a source of innovation and competitive advantage.

Is smaller always better?

No, smaller is not always better. In some cases, a larger device may be more usable or have other advantages.

How can companies determine the optimal size for a device?

Companies can use human factors engineering to determine the form factor that will maximize usability. This may involve conducting user studies to see how people interact with devices of different sizes.

What are some of the challenges of miniaturization?

  • Miniaturization can make it more difficult to design a device that is easy to use.
  • Miniaturized components can be more expensive to manufacture.
  • Smaller devices may have shorter battery life.

What are the benefits of working with Sunrise Labs for device design?

Sunrise Labs can help companies design devices that are optimized for usability, regardless of size. We have experience designing devices of all sizes, from wearables to large processing equipment.

[1] https://www.nytimes.com/1990/04/05/us/2-researchers-spell-ibm-atom-by-atom.html
[2] https://wyss.harvard.edu/writing-the-book-in-dna/
[3] https://www.businessinsider.com/worlds-smallest-computer-is-so-tiny-it-makes-a-rice-grain-look-huge-2018-6
[4] https://techcrunch.com/2017/05/31/phables-are-the-phuture/?_ga=2.94141277.1932456176.1554836235-575203937.1554836235
[5] https://www.wsj.com/articles/how-to-find-the-phone-that-fits-your-hand-1395795606

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