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Small Wonders

As technology shrinks, consumers are faced with tiny gadgets that can be a big inconvenience.


Don Richardson's tiny new cell phone turned out to be more cumbersome than convenient. About the size of a candy bar, the phone fit neatly in his pocket, but Richardson always hit too many buttons at once and the mouthpiece ended up in the middle of his cheek.

Frustrated, the 6-foot, 7-inch postmaster from Los Angeles finally ditched the dinky device in favor of a model with bigger buttons and a mouthpiece that actually reached his mouth.

"I'm big," he said. "Everything I buy is big."

Most of the technological gear around him is small--and getting smaller. Devices from computers to radios once too bulky to carry around now get lost in the bottom of a purse.

Sony's newest Walkman stereos, for instance, are the size of cigarette lighters, and the lightest cell phones weigh just 2ounces.

It's taken only 10 years for mobile phones to shrink from the size of briefcases to credit cards, but the fingers fumbling with tiny buttons haven't changed much in 10,000 years. Human beings don't evolve nearly as quickly as their gadgetry.

There are limits.

Like Richardson, some users grouse that phone buttons are too puny to push. Others complain that they can't read the display on their pagers. Frustrated by Lilliputian devices, some forgo the latest technology to stick with big, comfortable, clunky stuff.

Although plenty of petite products line store shelves, they're not necessarily the most popular.

At 5.2 inches tall, the Nokia 5165--AT&T's best-selling mobile phone--is more than an inch longer than Nokia's smallest model.

Tiny technology has been a sign of status since the invention of the pocket watch in the 16th century.

But the difference between fashionably small and impossibly small is, well, small.

"If it's too big, you don't carry it with you. It's a burden. Portability and constant communication are lost," said Donald Norman, author of "The Invisible Computer" and "The Design of Everyday Things." "But if it's too small, then the device itself gets lost."

Although most consumers notice that electronic gear loses inches and ounces every few months, designers and manufacturers constantly grapple over how big to make their products.

What size something ultimately ends up often is as much a function of expectation and culture as technological and ergonomic limitations.

Historically, technology dictated the size of a device. Early pocket watches were limited by the metal gears and springs inside. Bulky mobile phones needed big batteries to power them. TV sets housed huge picture tubes.

But with solid-state circuitry and tiny lithium-ion batteries, portable electronics can be even smaller than they already are.

"If you do the naive thing, making things smaller is almost always making things harder to use," said Joseph Konstan, a computer science and engineering professor at the University of Minnesota.

Ultimately, designers try to "hit the sweet spot," the point where a gadget's form and function combine to create a device with which users are comfortable interacting, said Frank Nuovo, vice president and chief designer for Nokia.

That sweet spot can be defined.

The width of a depressed fingertip, for example, ranges from about three-eighths of an inch to half an inch. Designers have the technical ability to create much smaller buttons, but doing so could render them unusable.

Likewise, most people can discern characters displayed on a screen that are about a quarter-inch high for every seven feet away they are.

Sometimes it's not size that matters most. The alignment and spacing of buttons can make small devices easier to use. Research in Motion spent five years perfecting the miniature keyboard on its popular Blackberry two-way pager. The buttons are only a quarter-inch across, but they are widely spaced and slightly curved.

"It's not so much a matter of what we're capable of doing but how we implement it that's important," said Robert Beaton, associate professor and director of the Displays and Controls Laboratory and ErgoNorms Compliance Center at Virginia Tech.

In other words, manufacturers need to think about how a device will be used, not just how small they can make it.

When RKS Design Inc. in Thousand Oaks began developing the prototype for a wristwatch with an address book and the calendar features of a personal organizer, designers studied how people use other small devices. Watching consumers play with camera watches, pager watches and watches that play digital music, they heard a common complaint: Buttons are too small.

Designers then looked at watches--2,000 of them--to determine an acceptable size from a fashion perspective, said RKS President and Chief Executive Ravi Sawhney. That turned out to be too big. Those who tested the first prototype liked the device but thought it should be smaller, Sawhney said. So designers reduced its size by about 30% to "the smallest size practical," 1.9 inches by 2.2 inches.

To do that, "the whole guts had to be redone," Sawhney said.

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