Everyone understands that engineering is a specialty. The public is comfortable with the fact that we receive specialized training, and that gives us specialized knowledge and skills that allow us to solve specialized problems.
What the public does not understand well is that our specialty-ness is much deeper and narrower than they imagine. We’ve all experienced this…
“Oh, you’re an electrical engineer – can you take a look at this old TV? It seems to have stopped working…”
“Well, see, I’m actually an FPGA place-and-route specialist. I develop part of the algorithm that does incremental placement of blocks when there has been just a small netlist…”
“Hey, the game is starting!”
If you start explaining what you do to a layperson, their eyes quickly glaze over and they change the subject. It seems, for them, to be just “too specialized.”
In fact, our expertise is more of a fractal. If you look at the complexity of electrical engineering, it’s pretty intimidating. Even we “specialists” wouldn’t want to tackle all that. However, if you zoom in on just one area… OK, you find that it looks just as complicated as the whole thing, dang. But, if you zoom in from there into an even smaller area… Yep, it’s still just as complicated. See, there – it’s a fractal.
What this means is that to accomplish anything very useful in today’s engineering world, you have to be specialized – very, very specialized. Sure, there are still the “tall thin” engineers that we all know and respect who can create a whole project in their basement, from top to bottom, on an FPGA development board, including the hardware, embedded software, and external interfaces. However, we don’t know anybody tall and thin enough to design, say, a smartphone. That requires an entire ecosystem of engineers in dozens of specialized disciplines.
While the public’s lack of understanding of our engineering world may make us feel isolated and misunderstood at times, the real professional problem for us comes when we need to cross that chasm in the other direction. We get tunnel vision in our design work.
When you spend all day every day worrying about the esoteric idiosyncrasies of some narrow area like… leakage current minimization, it’s easy to forget that the rest of the world does not know what you know. The rich and complex environment where your mind spends its days is a foreign planet indeed to your average customer. When they pick up their portable media player and flip it on, they are oblivious to the effort you spent on power rail startup sequencing. They have no concept of the clock domains you disabled to save power during various modes of the decompression process. They have not one inkling of the effort you spent trading off bit-width in part of the video path – testing to see what effect your power and cost-saving optimizations would have on image quality. They’re not supposed to. That’s your job.
Unfortunately, our detailed view of the internal workings can blind us to the end-user experience we’re creating for. When we’re deciding what to externalize on our product, we view it with our insider’s understanding rather than the customer’s naivety. We assume the customer will adapt to the device rather than making the device create a natural and pleasant experience for our customer. In short, we tend to design for ourselves.
The true challenge is empathy. It is difficult to forget what we know and to put ourselves into the mindset of our customer. Of course, we have marketing to help us with that task, but the line between marketing and engineering is blurry at best. Marketing can give us requirements and tell us in vague terms what the customer wants and what we should build, but the actual realization of that requirement is in our hands. If the marketing requirement was “we need an image of a woman,” we, as engineers, could create anything from the Mona Lisa to… OK, well that may be a bad example, given what most engineers would create. The point is, we have the power to fulfill marketing’s requirements with dull, uninspired solutions that fully meet the letter of the specification, or we can get inside the head of our customer, show empathy, and create innovative, elegant solutions that transcend the requirement and elevate our design from mundane to magnificent.
Today, our world is undergoing a dramatic transformation because of the work of engineers. Barriers to communication are being knocked down, and a global community is emerging. The most incredible capabilities that, in the past, would have been available to only the rich and privileged, are now available to the masses. All of the cumulative knowledge of the human race can fit in our pocket, available at any time, instantaneously – and this is not just the purview of the privileged. It is available to anyone with a few hundred bucks of “disposable income.” The work of engineers is knocking down geographic, cultural, and socio-economic barriers faster than at any time in history. As a result, we engineers have to wield this power with responsibility. We have to think outside our own experience and get inside the head of our customers – and not just one, but a huge range of them.
Next time you have a chance, sit down with your mother. Explain to her what you do. Listen to her questions and responses. For most of us in engineering, this won’t be easy. We have a generation, an education, and a lifetime of role playing to overcome. However, in many ways, our customers are our mothers. If we can’t design a product our mother would love, we are probably making some mistakes for our customers as well. Our tunnel vision blinds us to the world as our customers see it. If we can get even a good glimpse of their view, how they think, and how they will perceive our work, it can make all the difference in our design work.