ITER vs. iPhone: the two extremes of system engineering


When designing a complex product, there seem to be two very different kinds of challenges.

ITER, the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, is a device with a clear customer requirement:  solve all world’s energy needs. It may or may not be possible to do with the Tokamak-like design, conducting nuclear reactions in thermonuclear plasma held together by a strong magnetic field. This game of scratching the boundary of technological possibility usually means that even if it will ever be found possible, there is  going to be exactly one way to do it. Every shape of every component of this mega-complex device of 15 billion euro, will be dictated by the laws of physics.

The iPhone is an example what we have on the other side of the spectrum. The device is a piece of plastic with a colorful touch screen, some radio frequency capabilities and very little else. It is a platform designed to run software, which will define its usefulness. In this world of endless possibilities, it is the designer’s job to decide what will actually solve the user’s problem, and even what the problem is, so that this device can solve it, in the first place. There’s no document of customer requirements. The customer would never know for life to tell what they are.

We call this technology driven and design driven solutions. The two types of engineering require different skill sets to get it done right.  This is what happens when the two are being confused. The managers at LG were probably spending money and yelling at engineers to squeeze a color screen and a bluetooth receiver into a tiny box. At the same time, what they were supposed to be doing is understanding how important is not to forget the pause position inside an hour long MP3 podcast, when the phone is switched off. The product definition person was probably writing specs about how a jumping lizard on a pink background would be cool to get more sales. He completely missed how cool would it be able to set a calendar alarm in less than thirty clicks. Unfortunately for their team, one would usually buy smartphone based on more than a glance at the store shelf.

Conversely, the software industry is full of technology failures conducted by people with perfect knowledge of what exact problem they are going to solve and how the solution will look like. It starts with hiring the wrong engineers to handle the complexity of the task. Sometimes it goes unnoticed, resulting in code that 99% works but is completely unmaintainable. It then continues with failing to invest in development process, testing, validation. Industry-wide, more than a half of software projects end up in a failure.

So, do yourself a favor and read five best books on how to manage your type of a product development, before messing it up.