Whether your company creates airplanes, cars, widgets, or software, product planning is an essential part of the development process. And if your group is like mine, product planning meetings are seldom boring. I am privileged to work with some pretty sharp folks who are very capable engineers, and very passionate about what they do. Our planning discussions are always interesting, and often animated. Though passion and expertise frequently combine to improve our existing products and create new tools, we often view new features and capabilities through the filter of what we’ve done before. As the saying goes, “there is no better teacher than experience”. But just as system technologies continually improve, so must design techniques and methodologies. It’s getting harder and harder to design and implement today’s technologies using yesterday’s tools. Sometimes it’s important to look at your products from a different point of view.
We recently finished a few days of planning meetings focused on our next version of SystemVision. Our meetings started with well defined agendas, but we often took unintended detours to explore important topics. Each discussions was backed by nearly 150 years of EDA industry experience in multi-technology, mixed-signal system simulation. With so many years of industry experience in our group, I think we have a pretty good handle on system simulation and analysis issues. But one of our engineers, a recent graduate with a freshly minted masters degree, made an interesting suggestion. After sharing a few experiences from his university studies, he suggested we modify how we view our design technology and focus not only on how engineers use our tools to run specific analyses, but also consider the engineer’s overall experience.
While “use” and “experience” may seem equivalent, and are sometimes used interchangeably, there are subtle and important differences. Consider, for example, the difference between using and experiencing an iPhone®. At its core, the iPhone is simply a small computer that runs software programs called “apps”, one of the most important being a program that enables phone calls. Whether an iPhone user is placing a phone call, playing a game, writing notes, checking stock portfolios, or listening to music, each task just runs a software program. There are dozens of phones that do the same thing and usually for a lot less money. So why is the iPhone so popular, and why can Apple® charge a premium price? Simple: it’s the overall user experience – how the different applications are organized and how folks can access and use them. So using focuses on performing a specific task, while experiencing focuses on the whole flow, how elements fit together. Considered another way, “use” is a subset of “experience”.
Admittedly, I’m a bit “old school” in my views of design methodologies. After all, if the process works pretty well and produces desired results, why go through the trouble and expense of trying to fix it? Always a good question to ask at the beginning of product planning. But this young engineer proposed a fresh idea that, quite frankly, made sense and got me thinking. The challenge, of course, is translating the idea into usable capabilities.
The take away from all of this is simple: in spite of decades of experience, or perhaps because of it, it’s important to once in a while step back and see what the latest trends are, and then determine if those trends make a difference to your customers. This is certainly true for system technologies, but is equally important for your design process. Adopt the ideas that make sense and show promise of success. Shelve, but don’t throw away, the others — you never know when a farfetched idea might eventually come in handy. And if your planning meeting discussions routinely rehash the same time-tested ideas, invite a young, sharp engineer to listen-in. Offer free pizza and soda pop if you have to. Then encourage that young engineer to join the discussion. Chances are, you’ll end up with at least a few new ideas on ways to improve your processes and products.