Experience Required

What does it really mean for engineers, especially in the high tech semiconductor industry, to design for experiences?


Many prominent semiconductor, EDA and IP companies are acknowledging the influence of user-experience design methodologies and technologies on their business. Experiences are the evolution of commoditization (chip hardware) and customization (software). But many design engineers remain cautious about the actual application of experiences to their work.

What is driving this emphasis on experiences? How does it apply to the super high-tech world of semiconductor design? To answer that question, let’s start at the top— the consumer end product—and work our way down the supply chain.

Defining the Experience
The meaning and evolution of the experience economy was an important keynote topic at last year’s Dassault Systemes’ user event. Motivational speaker, B. Joseph Pine II, used the gumball machine (see Figure 1) in his keynote as an example of how an experience may supersede and even supplant the actual product. The experience of watching the specialized gumball machine dispense the gum as it traveled down a spiral column was equal to or exceeded the experience of consuming the product. An analogous adult version of this experience might be Autostadt’s car vending machine.

Figure 1: B. Joseph Pine II, used the modern gumball dispenser to show how experiences can be as valuable as the product.

The evolution of human business activity has moved from agriculture to goods and then to services. The Internet has helped to commoditized goods via online price comparisons. Today, services are being commoditized in the same way. What is the next stage in the economy beyond services? Pine and others believe it to be experiences.

What are experiences? In the broadest terms, experiences are customizations aimed at the individual. Pine believes that companies need to innovate experiences if they wish to maintain profitability. For example, recreational equipment company REI provides a climbing wall in their stores for customers to try out the company’s equipment before purchasing. Such experiences lead to greater product sales while the experiences themselves bring in revenue, i.e., customers pay a nominal fee to use REI’s indoor climbing platform.

What does experience mean in less broad terms? That depends upon the context and the user perspective. From an electronics viewpoint, experience is synonymous with software applications. But that experience is only possible thanks to engineers who have created hardware that enables the right amount of software to enable the experience, observes Frank Schirrmeister, group director for product marketing of the System Development Suite at Cadence. “This is related to the right feature set as well as the right performance. Can my phone record a call while I am also playing the game, Angry Birds? If that is in the set of requirements then hardware engineers need to provide the right performing design and enable software developers to provide the right functions.” (There will be more on the simulation aspect of experiences in a related story.)

IC designing experiences
Designing for experiences may make sense for end-user, consumer products and software applications. But is this approach applicable or even useful for hardware and software engineers faced with the technical complexities of designing semiconductors and larger electronic systems?

Intel believes it is. A few years ago at Imec’s Technical Forum (ITF), Intel’s CTO Justin Rattner put it this way; “What is new to me is the recognition that future chip designs and innovations may be focused in the area of enhancing user experience (UX)—sometimes called experience driven design. User experience design makes engineers nervous, since it relies on one’s perspective for what makes for a good experience. But this is now becoming a formal, qualitative design approach.”

Nervous is exactly how many engineers feel about UX designs, especially in the design of chips. “There is a huge wave of popular myth about the value of user-based design input and its role in shaping emerging technologies,” notes one Intel engineer, who asked not to be named. “But I have yet to see evidence that the ‘users’ being consulted are in any way typical, street-variety users, or that such users have much of value to say about design issues for component level technology.”

The answer to this nervousness has less to do with consumers looking over the shoulder of semiconductor design engineers and more about the gaming industry.
Today’s video games create virtual worlds that rival the imagery of the real world.

“Why not use that technology to create a user experience that engineers will enjoy, one that allows them to rapidly navigate around huge representations of the relationships of the systems they are designing,” asks Serge Leef, vice president of new ventures and general manager of the System-Level Engineering Division at Mentor Graphics (see Figure 2). “Why doesn’t the EDA tools community leverage something that has been done for us by an adjacent industry, namely the gaming world? The people designing user experiences for video games today have driven down the cost of high-end imaging and visualization. Why don’t we make use of that technology?”

Figure 2: Gaming and 3D imaging technology can be used to easily navigate around huge representations of relationships of complex electronic designs. (Courtesy of Mentor Graphics)

Leef believes that collectively, EDA tool vendors have done a poor job of creating a good user experience for design engineers. “I would generously call what we provide an old fashion user experience. More realistically, it might be called an unfriendly user experience.”

This doesn’t mean that EDA tools are poorly designed. Indeed, today’s complex chips could not be created without today’s leading-edge tools. What has changed is the expectation for the user experience. Apple’s iPhone and iPad have become the de facto standard for a positive user experience. Older engineers were trained to believe that windows and endless pull-down and pop-up menus comprised a good user experience. Today, a positive user experience is based upon functionality that is revealed in layers as needed.

Older engineers have been trained to put up with relatively cumbersome user experiences to gain access to the functionality that is buried inside the EDA tool. But younger engineers—the up and coming class of designers—have expectations of user experiences that are dramatically different from the people they are replacing. The user experience expectations of new college graduates are based on the same ease of use that they see in Apple and Android products, explains Leef.

The EDA tools community will have to provide a better user experience if they hope to capture a younger engineering audience. “If it’s not obvious to younger engineers how to do the things they need to do with a tool, then they will move on to another tool that provides the least bad experience,” he said. “We never get those people’s attention long enough for them to see the unique and highly differentiated features that make our product special relative to other products.”

Designing experiences
From complex semiconductor chips to end-user consumer electronics, experiences are important. But how does one design for experiences? Such activities must address two issues, notes Mahesh Deshpande, director of high-tech industry business consulting at Dassault. “First, one must understand how the experience will be perceived by the end user. What is the usefulness of the experience?” Here, the key attributes of the product are critical, e.g., the features of a smart phone. From the engineering point-of-view, this translates into the customization of the hardware, software and services.

The second aspect deals with the delivery and packaging of the experience. How is the experience perceived by the consumer? In the business-to-business space (B2B), as between semiconductor companies, how well does the designer interface with the EDA tool? Or how is the die, component or PCB delivered in the supply chain, i.e., how was the design implemented by the manufacturers? What was the business experience behind the effort?

When it comes to designing for experience, it’s important to ensure convergence of the design to the target or outcomes expressed by the customer. Deshpande calls this the visual management system—a systemic approach to performance improvement in organizations (see Figure 3). This is one way to ensure that all engineering disciplines involved in designing the targeted experience are in sync and fully collaborating. This approach is being used today, but often late in the development process. Instead, engineering disciplines should work together during the front-end of the design and throughout the organization and across the supply chain.

The other important aspect when designing for experiences is the virtual validation of the design, which is the way an end customer would like to use it. “I’m referring to a connected, virtual experience from the chip to board to all that being embedded with the smart, intelligent behavioral models into the final product,” said Deshpande. “The goal is to be sure that you are delivering and creating value for the customer, which is what experience is about. Of course, customers need features and functionality (enabled by hardware and software), but really they are driven by the value of the product.”

Figure 3: Design-To-Target execution systems are based on a visual design-execution system as a key enabler for “Design for Experiences.” In-work-design gets automatically and continually analyzed/verified against the design and business metrics. Thus the engineering and business stakeholders could ensure that the designs ultimately converge experience desired by the customer.”