Test & Measurement

Speed-to-answer - differentiating instrument design

25th July 2014
Nat Bowers

Industry studies have recently highlighted significant changes in the test market, including shrinking product design cycles (down by 13% over the last three years) and fewer dedicated test engineers with in-depth T&M backgrounds. In fact, one in five electrical engineers now working started his or her career within the last decade. By Jonathan Tucker, Keithley Instruments.

Many engineers are now responsible for testing for the first time, while at the same time the profile of the typical instrument user has broadened. In addition to electrical engineers, it now includes a growing number of engineers from other disciplines who need fast access to data but may have limited training in electrical measurement. A growing number of these users have a greater focus on software than on hardware. For these emerging user segments, traditional button and command menu interfaces can present significant challenges.

The proliferation of consumer electronics with capacitive touchscreens and intuitive operation have led electronics users of all kinds (not just T&M instrument users) to expect that operating modern devices will be virtually self-explanatory, requiring little or no reference to a traditional user manual. For example, 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 owning a tablet computer, almost twice as many as owned one just a year earlier. These and other icon-based tools like smartphones have become so ubiquitous they are fundamentally changing the way we interact with electronics. This will likely have an impact on the instrument selection process by creating a different set of expectations for ease of use, forcing instrument manufacturers to re-envision what they will offer in order to address these new expectations.

A recent survey by Keithley revealed several recurring themes related to customers’ concerns and desires about the next generation of instruments. Users want a simplified interface, a significantly faster measurement process and to be free to focus on their work, rather than on the details of the test or measurement process. In modern instrument design, no single feature or function can ensure greater testing productivity; instead, achieving a higher speed to answer depends on a combination of factors.

Instrument users are reluctant to consult a manual when they’re confused about what to do next (all too often, because the manual has gone missing shortly after the instrument comes out of the box), so configuring a seemingly simple measurement can turn into an aggravating, time-consuming process; incorporating context-sensitive help functions can help overcome this. However, that’s not always sufficient to ensure user productivity. Instrument design should allow for intuitive operation, so that configuring any device is as straightforward as using a digital multimeter or a power supply. The newest touchscreen interfaces make instrument navigation an intuitive experience by representing many functions and parameters graphically, which can reduce the learning curve associated with using a new instrument substantially.

The design philosophy underlying new instrument architectures is undeniably changing. As the time available to make decisions based on test and measurement results continues to get tighter, a growing number of users are likely to begin demanding that their instrumentation vendors deliver better speed to answers without compromising measurement integrity to achieve it.

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