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How test instrument manufacturers can design to meet the expectations of new and experienced engineers

Mon, 10/14/2013 - 2:36pm
Jonathan Tucker, Keithley Instruments, Inc.

A recent industry study indicates one out of five electrical engineers now in the global workforce has started his or her career within the last 10 years. These newer engineers (Figure 1) tend to be more software-oriented than some of their more experienced colleagues due to recent changes in universities’ electrical engineering curricula.


But today’s instruments users are not just electrical engineers. Many have been trained in other disciplines, such as mechanical engineering, electrochemistry, biology, physics, etc., but still need to make good measurements.

Regardless of whether you are new to instrumentation or an experienced engineer who has been making measurements for many years, there is no denying that all of us are being influenced by consumer electronics like smartphones, tablet computers, and digital cameras, which are fundamentally changing the way we interact with electronics. A 2013 poll by the Pew Internet & American Life Project reveals that tablet ownership continues to grow rapidly, with a third of all American adults (18 and older) owning a tablet computer, almost twice as many as owned one just a year earlier. One-third of 18-to-24-year-olds own a tablet, as do 37 percent of American adults from 25 to 34 years old. Smartphone ownership is expanding even more rapidly among young Americans, with 79 percent of 18-to-24-year-olds owning one and 81 percent of 25-to-34-year-olds. This means we are likely to be far more familiar with icon-based user interfaces than other types. This will likely have an impact on the instrument selection process by creating a different set of expectations in terms of ease of use.

We will always need instruments that can deliver accurate measurements quickly and easily in order to do our jobs. To make this possible and to retain or grow their share of these customers, instrumentation manufacturers should consider drawing a few lessons on design from their consumer electronics counterparts:

• The “see it, touch it, do it” aspect of touchscreens not only makes consumer electronics more fun to use but can enhance the user experience with bench instruments in much the same way. Because so many of us are already familiar with touchscreens on the handheld products we interact with every day, smart technology users are likely to be early adopters of instruments that use touchscreens, not only for configuring measurements but for displaying results either numerically or graphically (Figure 2). 


• Rather than struggling to configure measurement functions using cumbersome, multilayer menu structures and confusing multi-function buttons, smart technology users are more likely to prefer the flatter menu structures with which they’re already familiar, like the array of app icons displayed on a tablet or smartphone (Figure 3).


• Instrument developers need to be aware that “speed-to-answer” is increasingly important to these users. Time-pressured engineers don’t have the leisure or the inclination to haul out the manual every time they need to make a measurement. They want setting up, making, and getting the results from a measurement to be virtually instantaneous; if they have questions, they want answers at their fingertips, not buried in a manual. To address these concerns, the designers of the Model 2450 incorporated  built-in QuickSet modes that allow configuring basic functions with a single touch. In addition to access to a context-sensitive help function through the touchscreen, the Model 2450’s KickStart no-programming start-up software helps new and experienced engineers start taking measurements quickly.

To succeed in the marketplace, manufacturers must listen to their customers – particularly the newer engineers and those experienced instrumentation voices – and design instruments that meet their changing expectations.


Biographical note
Jonathan Tucker is a Senior Marketing and Product Manager for Keithley Instruments, which is part of the Tektronix test and measurement portfolio. He joined Keithley in 1987. During his tenure, he has served in a variety of positions, including manufacturing test engineer, applications engineer, applications manager, product manager, and business development manager. He holds a BSEE from Cleveland State University (Cleveland, Ohio) and an MBA from Kent State University (Kent, Ohio). He was a 2007 recipient of the Nano Science and Technology Institutes (NSTI) Fellow Award for outstanding contributions towards the advancement of the Nanotechnology, Microtechnology, and Biotechnology community. Jonathan is a Senior Member of IEEE and was recently the IEEE Nanotechnology Council Standards Committee Chairman. His technical interests include nanotechnology, amateur radio, software defined radio technology, and JAVA/HTML web programming.

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