Keep it simple: beware of feature creep

April 07, 2016 // By Bill Schweber
Bill Schweber
Bill Schweber discusses how keeping the design problem – and then the solution – as simple as possible, can provide the best chance of success.

I recently came across a fascinating product for the visually impaired and associated background story: the SmartCane. It does one thing, and apparently does it well, and doesn’t try to address more than a single well-defined problem.

The developer of this add-on for canes came to understand that the plain cane only detects obstacles near ground level, but does indicate to the user when there are higher obstacles, such as a sign, tree branches, road barriers, car doors, or even a person immediately ahead. The solution: an add-on ultrasound unit so the cane which vibrates in proportion to the proximity of the object – that's about as simple and direct as it can be.

The SmartCane was brought to market in 2014 and retails for around $50. It is a basic but carefully engineered and validated design, both technically and from a user perspective. As with most good "simple" products, there's more to its final design realization that you might assume at first.

The SmartCane mounted on a standard, basic cane used by the visually impaired appears simple, but is the culmination of many design iterations and user feedback.

Beyond being impressed by both the objective and design, I was fascinated in reading the story behind the development. Rohan Paul of New Delhi initiated the project as an undergraduate in 2004; he is now a postdoctoral fellow at MIT and co-founder of the Assistive Technologies Laboratory. The SmartCane website has a detailed narrative here, full specifications here, a review of the design process and beta-stage user feedback here, and much more.

But what really struck me was how long it took to get this fairly simple design refined and into production and distribution, and how many others are involved. It is manufactured and distributed via a partnership between a Dehli-based nonprofit organization called Saksham Trust, manufacturer Phoenix Medical Systems, and the Indian Institute of Technology.

Engineers with