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Saranyan Vigraham
Saranyan Vigraham
Saranyan Vigraham has a PhD in Computer Science. Currently, he is researching on the best and sustainable product development practices both in the EDA domain, and outside. Prior to this, he was with Qualcomm for over three years where he focused on analog verification methodologies. Before joining … More »

Understanding Publics and Your Customers

October 18th, 2010 by Saranyan Vigraham

Let us start with the notion of “publics” as used by Dewey, an American philosopher and psychologist [1]; according to him, public can be defined as people organizing around a collective action. While Dewey talks about social conditions in general, I find this applicable to the technological world we live in.  Hence, I extend Dewey’s definition of public to be a group of people around a collective action, which can be social or technological. In this context, the groups of circuit designers, who want to build great chips because that is where their passion is, form a public. Similarly, the entire semi-conductor industry can be thought of as another public whose focus has always been to design cutting edge chip solutions. There are now these two different publics, which the EDA companies are trying to design the tools for. Let us briefly understand the dynamics of these two publics.

The Circuit Design Public
The condition that defines and knits the circuit design public is the singular passion to do circuit design. Yet, within this larger emotion features an array of smaller issues that add depth and character to this public. Jack, a member of this public, is frustrated at the various things that are a hindrance to doing what he is passionate about. He does not like the organizational dynamics that force him to do something that he is not interested in doing. He does not appreciate why he has to spend majority of time looking at the data that is thrown at him by these “new tools”. Also, he is not happy that the art of doing circuit design is transforming from being an intuitive and challenging process to becoming a meandering and cumbersome process. He feels that yet another fast simulator is not what he needs but an efficient way to organize and get his day-to-day work done smoother so that he can spend time on things that are important to him.

The Semi-conductor Industry Public
The condition that defines and knits this public is the belief that technological advances are needed to create better user experiences. The industry always is looking for ways to advance the current state-of-art by designing chip solutions that are innovative, feature rich and widely applicable. With an increasing demand from its consumers to deliver feature rich products fast, the semi-conductor industry has always focused on time to market and product features. The complexity of a chip increases with the features and the time to market pressures significantly impact the business decisions. This public, hence, is concerned mainly about the issues of speed of achieving the time to market goals. The EDA tool vendors have to sell “speed” to keep this public interested.

Designing for any Public
To understand how designing for a public works, we need to take a look at the concept of public in detail. Also, it is prudent to look at inter-disciplinary areas of psychology and human factors and understand how design is perceived.

I think that the empathy associated while designing can drop significantly with increasing cloud or size of the public for which the designs are created. We invariably find that smaller publics are connected by traits that are core to their existence or daily lives. The central characteristics that constitute this public are very well defined amongst the members of the public itself. For instance, let us take a small group of individuals who share a passion for a brand like Apple. It is perfectly plausible to attempt understanding the value system and problems faced by this public. On the contrary, a huge public like “residents of America” will present more challenges in understanding the value systems and problems.

There is a great deal of research being done on “Designing with” vs. “Designing for”, which is also known as co-creation. This is the process in which a designer engages the end user to participate in designing a solution. This is a very interesting topic that has been successful in tackling several social problems [2,3]. In [2], Le Dantec talks about democratizing design process at the margins of the different publics involved. This work, though not directly related to the semiconductor/EDA industry, offers a lot of insights that could be applicable for creating better products. Here, Le Dantec urges a designer to design at the common boundaries of both the publics. He maintains that designs should be democratized and for doing that, it is imperative that we follow the “design with” method and not the “design for”. In a simplest explanation, designing for someone is akin to sympathizing while designing with someone is empathizing. Quoting Emily Pilloton [3], “To take it one step further, you can’t design effective solutions for people unless you make your clients or end users part of the design process-co-creating systems that will work for and be owned by them. To do either of these things, you simply have to be there, present in a place, and part of the community.” Again, this is in the context of solving a social problem. We can take a step back and apply it in the context of the semi-conductor industry. What Emily Pilloton talks about is the process of making the client part of the design process. Though, there is no concept of a client owning the solutions in the semi-conductor industry, getting them involved in the tool design process will enable the EDA companies to design a product “that works for them”.

But, is “designing with” practical in the context of the industry we are talking about? Here, the circuit design engineers are part of the bigger public. The EDA industry has determined that the needs of the semi-conductor industry drive the needs of the circuit design engineers like Jack. Jack now has no separate identity and requirements other than what the industry demands. This is one of the biggest mistakes the EDA industry has made. They have ignored the core nucleus of this huge public for whom they are designing tools. This small public comprising of engineers like Jack is the central foundation on which the huge semi-conductor industry is based upon. Figure 1 illustrates this point and goes further on to explain the priorities of these two different publics.


Figure 1: The two publics

As it can be seen, the priorities of both the publics are rather different. Because, the EDA industry has assumed public 1 to be the face of public 2, they could never cater to the needs of public 2.

When a big public is your end customer or client (like the public 1 in this case), “design with” methods are not feasible. Because a huge public might have several core nuclei of small publics, it is extremely difficult to employ “design with” techniques. These techniques are focused towards understanding the value system, empathizing with the public and working closely to co-create a solution. As long as the EDA companies are focusing on the huge public or marketplace, they are not going to solve the problems felt at the deeper layers. Figure 2 is a conceptual illustration of the above point.


Figure 2: Design methods vs. The Size of Public

It is important that the EDA companies attempt to address the core needs of the circuit designers by offering better experience and tools to do their daily jobs easily. EDA companies should start empathizing and connect with this public because any positive experiential effects felt at this deepest level will ripple through and spread to the other parts of the industry. How do they attempt to do that?

Jodi Forlizzi, in [4], talks about product ecology framework. According to her, every product has its own ecology, resulting in subjective and individual experience in using the same product. Further, she says that the factors in the product ecology are dynamic, and interconnected in several ways. This applies very well to the semi-conductor industry, where the EDA tools are champions of creating product ecology. These tools in many ways connect the different nuclei (or sub-publics) within this huge industry. It is time the EDA tool companies start thinking about the interactions and user experiences that are associated with their products at the various levels of industry. One way they can do is by borrowing ethnographic principles of research that Emily Pilloton talks about in [3] – “present in a place”, “part of the community”. The EDA tool design engineers have to venture out in the field of these core sub-publics and try to become part of their community. They need to make a significant “empathetic investment” [5] where they understand the needs and problems of engineers like Jack and how to solve them without losing the bigger picture of keeping up with the industry needs. In such a system, you need to “design with” the sub-publics in order to effectively “design for” the whole industry.


[1] Dewey, J. The Public and Its Problems. Swallow Press, 1954.
[2] Le Dantec, et al. A Tale of Two Publics: Democratizing Design at the Margins.
[3] Pilloton E. Depth over Breadth: Designing for Impact Locally, and for the Long Haul. ACM Interactions, June 2010.
[4] Forlizzi J. The Product Ecology: Understanding Social Product Use and Supporting Design Culture. International Journal of Design, 2007.

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