Why the smart engineer is a lazy engineer

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.