Be Different: Hire an Industrial Designer

Good grief! Every time I tune into CNET, there is another version of a mobile phone being introduced. I could list multiple manufacturers cranking out newer versions of their products before the batteries on a previous version need their first recharge. All these rapid release versions are generating an aversion to the high-tech market in general on my part.

Last year, I bought a {complink 4751|Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd.} Galaxy II phone the day it came to market at my local AT&T store. Now, the Galaxy III, with all the latest wiz bangs, has eclipsed my phone features. I am not going to upgrade and initiate a consumption spiral that would be possible with this or at least a dozen other electronic gadgets in my “must have” arsenal. Not too long ago, the R&D cycle took two years from conception to release. Now it is less than a year, and I think I know how it is being done.

The electronics industry is designing and producing more and more hybridization and integration at the semiconductor chip level, so that we can now have entire subsystems, including multiple input/outputs, on a die less than one-third the size of a dime. These are the same functional circuits that formally required entire printed circuit boards with hundreds of components, if not thousands. Now manufacturers can circumvent the discrete circuit's design costs and development time by using a single chip costing much less than a dollar and incorporating it into any number of product designs.

Add to this chip memory, power, displays, processors, GPS, FPGAs, wireless transmit and receive chips, other single-chip hybridized circuits, passives, perhaps an ASIC, and interconnects, and now you have all the essential ingredients for thousands of mobile and other products popping up in retail stores throughout the world.

Features, appearance, and price are still key factors in what people will buy, but I contend that in the coming years, the three things that will determine which product a buyer will select will be product appearance, support, and reliability. To that end, service reputation and upgrade costs will become key to the competitive marketplace. There will no longer be feature-to-feature or display-to-display comparisons, because the price for all these components will be flattened by universally adopted processing technologies, material optimization, lower power modules, and even higher levels of integration.

It is not that hard to imagine an entire smartphone on a single chip costing less than a buck. Maybe it will take two or three years to get there, but we will get there. Look at the introductory pricing for handheld GPS units, and now understand that the entire technology is being put on half-inch RFID bricks with 64Kb of memory inclusive.

The winners of the competition in the near term will be the companies that can build the most functionality via software feature enablement at the lowest cost with the highest reliability and the best tech support for all the new features. The “it-also-looks-really-cool” factor will always be a part of the buyer's decision, so let's all give a big hand to Apple's hardware designers. They are the innovators of today and most likely for some time to come.

Ultimately, appearance will win the market. When all features cost the same and all day-to-day consumer devices become incredibly affordable, then appearance (with ergonomic considerations in mind) will become the last key differentiator among products offering identical functionality.

Industrial designers will be much more in demand as this trend continues. If I was starting over in engineering, I would go for an industrial design degree to assure my professional future. Software advancements and automation will not take the place of a creative mind with CAD and 3D modeling skills and a proficiency for finite element analysis.

All other things being equal, people will buy the best-looking item on the shelf. Now the competition among products boasting identical functionality will be for eye-level shelving.

27 comments on “Be Different: Hire an Industrial Designer

  1. dalexander
    July 30, 2012

    @Rich, Good to hear from you. Can you say more why you think Industrial Design will not be here? We have all the 3D Cad tools for part modeling and when I was at MS, everyone in our building got to play with the various prospective remote controls and give feedback before a design was settled upon.

  2. Cryptoman
    July 31, 2012

    While I do agree that the looks of a product plays a key part in purchasing decisions, how that product works and interacts with the user is also very very important especially in high-tech products.

    iPad is a very attractive product on the outside; it's slim, has a large screen, it is equipped with dual cameras and has a great battery life. However, these are not the only reasons why people buy an iPad. What goes on under the 18.5 x 24 glass is also important for the buyers.

    Software user interface is as simple and intuitive as it gets: I have seen a 1.5 year old using an iPad! For people who are used to Windows interface, the initial experience can be a bit awkward but it does not take long to get used to the new iPad. The software applications are captivating. It is amazing to see there is an iPad application for almost any possible practical problem including an oscilloscope and a simple metal detector! There is a HUGE selection of games, weird and wacky applications that are very popular among teenagers. (The application developers do not necessarily need to like or use the application they design in order to make money, right?)

    Therefore, in the application domain, iPad has it all covered. The success of the application domain is down to the business model Apple has in place that makes sure the application developers get paid for their hard efforts. I think this strategy is one of the key reasons why iPad has been so successful.

    Besides hiring an Industrial Designer, I also think hiring good embedded software developers, architects and product managers is still important.


    July 31, 2012

    What exactly is an industrial engineer?

  4. Taimoor Zubar
    July 31, 2012

    “the three things that will determine which product a buyer will select will be product appearance, support, and reliability”

    Interesting post, Doughlas. I think apart from these factors, one other thing that also matters a lot is the ease of use of the smartphone or gadget. Quite often you run into devices that are pretty sturdy and have elegant looks but it becomes a nightmare to use them and navigate through their options. I feel usability is very essential and the user interface has to be made as user-friendly as possible. This is something that can become an edge for the manufacturer.

  5. Taimoor Zubar
    July 31, 2012

    Besides hiring an Industrial Designer, I also think hiring good embedded software developers, architects and product managers is still important.”

    @Cryptoman: That's a very valid point. More often than not you see devices that are pretty strong on the hardware design side where the appearance is sleek and the design is rigid, but the software is either slow or doesn't offer a lot of features. This may fail the entire device. I think having a good software design is equally important as having a sound hardware design. And that's where the role of good software engineers and architects comes in.

  6. dalexander
    July 31, 2012

    @All, I completely agree with the usability and software being key in product designs of the future. Although iPad has tons of applications, Android is cranking them out too. If, over time, both have the same applications, what will be the key decision points people will use to select one over the other? It is easy to spend more on the applications than on the hardware. I have a complete reference library for one subject area alone that has cost me about $500 so far. All the books are available on all of the tablet platforms and the UI is pretty much identicle.

  7. ahdand
    July 31, 2012

    How about the demands they will make for their services ? You should be eady for that as well.

  8. Barbara Jorgensen
    July 31, 2012

    And I thought it was just me…I “unfriended” the cell phone market a long time ago. There just isn't a lot of differentiation in the market anymore (with a few exceptions, such as the iPhone) and I don't even use 80 percet fo the features my current phone offers. I just don't NEED the stuff. I will admit the cell phone camera is a great idea and I use it more than I expected. But by the time you get your current phone customized, a new version comes out. Enough ranting…an industrial designer is a good idea, but I think I need clarification on how that could be a game changer. Is it purely a look/feel type thing (assuming everything 'under the hood') is pretty much the same?

  9. dalexander
    July 31, 2012

    @Barbara, yep, it is a look/feel and higher and higher levels of integration with other products like agnostic chargers, docking stations, wireless modes, entertainment center integration, and service and maintenance cost. What products are available in the after market, and how convenient are the upgrades and service locations.

  10. Nemos
    July 31, 2012

    Not only hire an industrial designer but I would say also give value to your service department and reschedule your after sale marketing. 

    To that end, service reputation and upgrade costs will become key to the competitive marketplace .” 


  11. Susan Fourtané
    July 31, 2012


    You “unfriended” the cell phone market? Have you ever wondered if you really need a phone at all these days? 


  12. t.alex
    August 1, 2012

    An ID designer usually determines the aesthetic look of the products. But going by Apple success, they need to have more control and respect in the company for a great product. Quite often designer ideas are put aside due to cost issue, difficulty in implementing with hardware or software etc.

  13. Barbara Jorgensen
    August 1, 2012

    Susan: all the time, actually. If other people did not have to reach me in an emergency, I would not carry one at all. Smartphone…not sure yet

  14. Barbara Jorgensen
    August 1, 2012

    I've always been fascinated the iPod's exterior. Honestly, at first I was flummoxed by the dearth of buttons. And the Nano is sometimes too sensitive, bu it hasn't broken yet!

  15. Susan Fourtané
    August 1, 2012


    Something similar has been happening to me. The phone is off all the time if I am at home/working. Rarely I carry it with me. If I do, it's off. It bothers me if someone call when I am in the middle of something, reason why I started keeping it off. It became a habit that actually I enjoy. Lately I have been wondering if I need a phone at all when, in fact, everything I need to do it's possible with a tablet. I went as far as thinking if smartphones and tablets will eventually merge. 


  16. Barbara Jorgensen
    August 1, 2012

    Susan: I think your instincts are correct–I have been reading a lot about the tablet/smartphone convergence. In fact, the Galaxy III has been referred to as a small tablet vs. big smartphone.

  17. Susan Fourtané
    August 2, 2012


    Yes, I believe that's the way we are going, a tablet-smartphone integration. Not sure if this is what manufacturers envision businesswise, though. 



  18. Barbara Jorgensen
    August 2, 2012

    Susan: well, it would cut the market in half for some vendors, wouldn't it? But I think it might come sooner rather than later in light of the Apple/Samsung wars. The first company to bridge the phone/tablet gap might wind up with the lion's share of the market…or crash and burn if the product isn't good enough. I think it is a risky proposition but a fascinating idea

  19. Susan Fourtané
    August 2, 2012


    Indeed, a fascinating idea. If I am thinking of this non-existent device, most likely some designers are already doing the same. Yes, the Apple/Samsung wars is going to open doors for what I expect would be innovation, and a new device. There is a need for such device. 


  20. t.alex
    August 3, 2012

    I guess Apple is coming up with the iPad mini to target this market segment – those who want tablet and phone at the same time.

  21. Barbara Jorgensen
    August 3, 2012

    I am getting out of my depth here, but one of the reasons we haven't seen a tablet/phone hybrid has something to do with cellular vs. internet technologies. I believe they can coexist, but it would be expensive and unwieldy to do so. Does anyone with mroe intelligence than I understand this? Or is there a differetn reason (other than selling two devices instead of just one?)

  22. dalexander
    August 4, 2012

    @Barbara, if you have Skype installed on the tablet, you can call non cell phone numbers and talk or chat. For the US, it is 3$/month. I can already Skype to anyone with a Skype address for free. I have an iPad with 4G and wireless. I can also tether it to my Samsung Galaxy II to become my own hotspot where I can get cell service. I tried it a couple of times and it works just fine. I have a microcell at my house because I live up in the mountains. Even with all of that, I lose it all during a power failure. Fortunately my candles have battery backup GPS locators so I can find them in the dark……just kidding. I am not that geeked out yet.

  23. Wale Bakare
    August 4, 2012

    “Industrial designers will be much more in demand as this trend continues” I also think usability and interface engineering fields are evolving and would perhaps join the trend.

  24. dalexander
    August 4, 2012

    @Wale, What are your thoughts with regards to ID as a function of usability? I know when we passed around the remote controls for WebTV, many comments came back about the button sizes and placement location by specific function.

  25. Anand
    August 4, 2012

    @Barbara, there is an App called whatsappWhatsApp Messenger is a cross-platform mobile messaging app which allows you to exchange messages without having to pay for SMS.

  26. Wale Bakare
    August 5, 2012

    That may be dependent on important factors, which i think users carry higher priority. In that case, there's need to understudy – direct/indirect interviews and/or observations of consumers' behaviours and usable of the device vis-a-viz its functionality.

  27. Susan Fourtané
    August 6, 2012


    Indeed, and it seems like such device can rule the market sooner than we think, according to research I have read. 


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