Why the smart engineer is a lazy engineer

Why the smart engineer is a lazy engineer

Summary: If at first you don't succeed, why not try the lazy way out? It could turn out to be a better solution for everyone.


All the best engineers are lazy. It's not that they don't want to do the work, it's that they realise getting a good job done now can save plenty of time in the future.

It's that innate laziness that drives innovation, finding a solution that gets what you want with the least effort, because it's that good laziness that gets shared.

It's a mindset perhaps best documented in Robert Heinlein's semi-autobiographical novella The Tale of the Man Who Was Too Lazy to Fail — part of the science-fiction novel Time Enough For Love — where a navy cadet rises to high rank on the basis of his lazy solutions to problems that save time and effort for everyone else.

Nokia Lumia 920

Let's take a look at an excellent example of lazy engineering at work, the Nokia Lumia 920. We've written about one aspect of it in the past, the camera with optical image stabilisation. Instead of mounting the lens assembly on springs to remove the motion from an image, Nokia engineers realised that this would be too much work at cameraphone scale, not to mention just how tiny and how expensive those springs would be.

Lazy engineering even comes to Microsoft's Surface, in the shape of its magnetic keyboard connector

Instead they took the whole camera assembly and mounted it using larger and far cheaper springs. The result is improved low-light photography and much better video recording.

The camera isn't the only lazy engineering work in the Lumia. The same principles were applied to its wireless charging system. To get the most efficiency from a wireless charger, the receive antenna and charging coil need to be closely coupled. Consequently, the device needs to be placed accurately on the charging pad — otherwise it just won't charge.

That's positioning is an issue for phones, which people tend to just drop on a charging pad. You could implement some sort of NFC-based guidance system, similar to that used by airports to bring in aircraft in fog, or you could just take the easy way out and add more receive antennae.

That's what Nokia did, and the Lumia 920 boasts not one, not two, but three wireless charging antennae. Arranged in an overlapping pattern, they allow the Lumia to pick the best coupled antenna and to switch to using it to charge the battery.

There's no need for an end user to worry about alignment, as it's all handled by the phone. What's lazier than just dropping a phone on a charging pillow?

Microsoft Surface magnetic keyboard connector

Lazy engineering even comes to Microsoft's Surface, in the shape of its magnetic keyboard connector. Magnets are great for linking one object to another, but while they're hard to pull apart, they're easy to slide apart. With a keyboard cover, it's easy to twist it slightly and break the connection.

With Surface, the magnets are nubs that lock into the Surface case. You can pull the two apart with plenty of force, but you can't twist. That's why it's possible to hold a Surface from the keyboard without worrying that it'll plummet to the floor.

Lazy engineering shares many attributes with lateral thinking. If a problem seems intractable or too complex, you step away and approach it from another, often easier angle. Making something easy for you as an engineer or designer will often make a product easier to use and easier to sell.

So if a problem seems too hard, try being lazy — it might just make things easier for everyone.

Topics: Mobility, Microsoft, Nokia, After Hours

Simon Bisson

About Simon Bisson

Simon Bisson is a freelance technology journalist. He specialises in architecture and enterprise IT. He ran one of the UK's first national ISPs and moved to writing around the time of the collapse of the first dotcom boom. He still writes code.

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  • I've long called this...

    ...creative sloth.

    It's not cheating unless the "cheating" solution is noticeably inferior to the "non-cheating" one.
    John L. Ries
    • Cheating solutions I hate those

      Just like car manufacturers do by replacing real functioning audio systems with computers. "The computers has a media player, so it knows how to read CDs and mp3s and iPods... Put a nice graphical user interface and there you go, a car radio!

      By the way, why not incorporate climate controls too!

      And then you're stuck with a lot of important controls on a touch screen so you have to look at the screen to know what you're doing.

      I prefer the good old dials and physical buttons, you could do it while still looking at the road. I know my buttons by heart on that radio, the dial on the top left: volume, buttons on right and left and next/previous tracks, etc.

      Anyway, enough ranting, was just showing what a cheating solution is as opposite to a lazy solution: they used a functioning computer instead of designing a radio...
  • these are more reasons not to buy Nokia and $urface

    they are both created by lazy guys.
    The only real and hard innovation is driven by foss and google.
    The Linux Geek
    • So then

      You are saying only Microsoft and Nokia have smart engineers. You said it not me.
      • not quite

        He's not saying that at all.

        Simon is saying that lazy people think outside the box and he uses examples from Nokia and Microsoft to demonstrate this point.

        Its a fine line about lazy people and I would argue these particular inventions are the result of innovative and creative people.

        I would argue that lazy people wouldn't be charged with such lofty responsibilities. because by their nature they haven't demonstrated the proper skillsets.

        So the article in itself - while whitty and informative - is nonsensical - IMHO.


  • Captian James T. Kirk

    Did not the famous captain practice this sort of thing in solving the kobayashi maru test.
    • Indeed

      It appears that was the only way to win.
      John L. Ries
    • changing the question; cheating or lazy?

      the Kobiyashi Maru was a test of what a captain did in an unwinnable situation; it wasn't winning, but how you lost that was being tested. By working extremely hard (not lazy) and changing the scenario by hacking it (not lazy), Kirk changed the question the scenario asked (much closer to lazy). Lazy engineering is rather like the approach to directions in Irish jokes (I wouldn't start from here).
  • Well, I wouldn't really call it "lazy"

    Well, I wouldn't really call it "lazy."

    It's basically following the KISS principle: That which is simple is usually better than that which is complex.

    Complex systems often involve more overhead, are more fragile, and are more difficult to maintain.

    In fact, sometimes the simple solution requires more thinking, as it often does require a great deal of lateral thinking. But in the end, a simple and elegant solution is usually the one that works best.
    • Yes: Simple and Effective.

      it is KISS really. nicely said cobra. it is really tough to KISS when we have a serious problem at hand. and it takes a lot of hard work at that.
      Rajkumar Sakthibalan
  • detracting from the main subject

    Good article SB!
  • The first microprocessor applications ...

    were "embedded systems" that were easier and more foolproof to use than prior ones. Example: a thermocouple-based temperature sensor that fed an analog voltmeter had to be calibrated before each use by touching its sensor to a known-temperature heat source (e.g. boiling water or ice water) and noting the reading. The user had to take each reading, look it up on a chart to compare the voltage for the unknown with the calibration voltage, then get the actual temperature from a chart. Once the microprocessor was available, makers of the temperature sensor packaged the processor chip, a small RAM chip (not much was needed), a ROM chip for the program, the thermocouple and an analog-to-digital voltage converter. Dip the probe into the standard (ice/boiling), punch the Calibrate button, then apply it to the unknown object and punch the Readout button, the program makes the chip do the table lookup and display the temperature on a digital display. You could even have a F to C to K selector switch. More expensive to build, less expensive (in terms of labor) to use. And as it ages, the calibration is maintained automatically.

    A few months later, of course, came the idea "I could use that chip to build a miniature computer."