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How to Pick a DIY Electronics Project

by Carlyn Maw on January 26, 2015, 2 comments

More testing for the secret project

I’m teaching Introduction to Electronics to a very mixed room of skill levels. To match that reality, I reorganized the syllabus around conceptual themes rather than technical topics.  For each unit, students can either do my default project or pick one of their own that matches the theme.  For example, the first project I am giving them is a DIY continuity tester, but they can do something else if it meets some basic criteria and matches the theme of “On and Off as Information.”

That said, picking a project that matches your abilities is hard to do as a beginner.  Heck, it can even be hard when you are advanced. Sometimes amazing experiences can come from taking on something that ends up being harder than predicted. Sometimes, like for a class or for a client, not so much.  It just needs to get it done.

The below is a list of questions I’ve been working on to get a sense if a project is a match. Some day I’ll turn it in to a rubric or a worksheet of some sort, but smoothing out how to weight the answers will actually be kind of personal. For now simply a list of things to think about is a good start.

Step 1: What kind of challenge are you up for?

The first step is self assessment. This set of questions is the “bank account,” an inventory of time, money and psychological energy that you have to throw at the project. The answers to these questions will change depending on lots of life circumstances that have nothing to do with the actual project itself.  Even the simplest of projects will remained undone if you have too much going on and are doing it because you “should” not because you actually care.  Intrinsic vs Extrinsic motivation is a hot topic in education. It’s worth thinking about for yourself before getting started.

  • How much time do you have to work on THIS project?
    • from “It is for a party tonight and I’m still at work”
    • to “Just got laid off with awesome severance.”
  • How much money do you have budgeted?
    • from “I’m eating ramen every night”
    • to “Elon Musk”
  • How badly do you want the end product?
    • from “Someone is making me”
    • to “This has been my dream since I was 6.”
  • How relevant to other stuff you want to do is the project?
    • from “Not transferrable at all”
    • to “This is how I want to spend my life”
  • How do you handle frustration?
    • from “I throw things across the room and never look at them again.”
    • to “Frustration? What’s frustration? I love it when things don’t work! A new challenge!”
  • How confident are you feeling? 
    • from “I’ve never been able to do anything like this before and I’m scared.”
    • to “I am a GOD.”

Step 2: How clear is the Path?

Now that there is a sense of the “budget,” time to start subtracting the things that will drain from it.   The first set of questions is about the quality of the tutorial or directions. It is much easier to just copy a well done tutorial than invent from scratch something that has never been done before.

  • Is there a tutorial for exactly what you want to build?
    • from “Yes, identical down to the color.” 
    • to “Tutorial? What tutorial? All I saw was a picture on tumblr.”
  • Has the author of the write up has done many other tutorials?
    • from “Super Pro-Published Author. Like on Paper and everything.” 
    • to “looks like one Instructable 5 years ago.” 
  • Do you fall within the target audience for the tutorial?
    • from “Actually, it was written for me specifically. Seriously, my mom wrote it out for me.”
    • to “I’m 5 and it’s a SpaceX training manual.” (meaning no disrespect to 5 year olds)
  • Is the tutorial complete?
    • from “It’s from a kit that comes with all the parts, a tools list, a Bill of Materials with manufacturer part numbers for reference, a schematic, a github link for the code, illustrations/pictures of every step and a toll-free customer support number.”
    • to “Again, like I said, just a picture on tumblr.
  • Is the tutorial posted somewhere with an active community?
    • from “Yes, it is on, lots of other people have made one, and the author is active in the discussion thread. “
    • from “It is in a book that was written in 1917 that I found in a barn and Google Books hasn’t even scanned it in.”

Step 3: How familiar is the process?

Doing unfamiliar things costs time and energy, even when they don’t cost money. If you don’t have a lot of time and energy, try to limit what percentage of the project will be totally unfamiliar to you. For example, use a familiar circuit in a new enclosure, or a new circuit encased in a material that you use frequently.

  • What percentage of the electrical components have you worked with before?
    • from “100%. I have worked with these exact part numbers before in exactly the same application.”
    • to “0%. Not a one.”
  • What percentage of the non-electrical component materials (for the enclosure, etc) have you worked with before? 
    • from “100%. I have made pretty much the enclosure before, but now I’m just adding LEDs.”
    • to “0%. Not a one.”
  • What percentage of the physical tools have you used before?
    • from “100%. I have made pretty much this before, but now I’m just wiring it up.”
    • to “0%. Not a one.”
  • What percentage of the software tools have you used before?
    • from “100%. I use them all every day the same purpose.”
    • to “0%. Not a one.”
  • If there is programming, have you written anything like it before? Used the libraries?
    • from “100%. I use them all every day the same purpose.”
    • to “0%. Not a one.”

Step 4: Are you ready to roll?

Every item you don’t have on hand is a speed bump. Every piece of software that needs to be installed is a speed bump. If you care about the project, you’ll push through. If you don’t, this will be time you start playing Two Dots… oh, that is me…  This group of questions can be thought of as more points into the bank account for everything that is ready to go, or more points out for everything you’d have to figure out how to source.

  • What percentage of the parts/materials will you have to buy/source?
    • from “0%, Nothing. Got them all right here.”
    • to “100%. Everything. And international shipping by boat will be involved. “
  • Of the parts you have to buy, what percentage of the parts/materials have you bought before?
    • from “0% No clue what package, what tolerances, what specifications will matter to this project at all.
    • to “100% Still got my invoice from the last time I made it and everything worked great. 
  • Do you have the tools on hand? If not, do you know how to get them or get access to them?
    • from “I have NONE of the tools. Not sure even what I’ll need by the end. “
    • to “I have ALL of the tools, and they all live easy reaching of my work station.” 
  • If there is software or development environments involved, are they installed and loaded?
    • from “Nothing is installed and I’ve never done an install of the software before.”
    • to “I use it every day, with custom keyboard shortcuts all set up.”

These questions are a starting point.  No amount of planning can prevent all surprises. In none of the questions do I ask if you have a cat, and they will meddle with everything.  Hopefully though, by identifying what you are prepared to handle, there will be one less half finished project around the house.

2 thoughts on “How to Pick a DIY Electronics Project

  1. Tanks for the guide, usually it’s very frustrating tray to explain other people the consideration involved in the creation of something, I hope it at least help give them a sense of proportion.

    • Thank you, Josuel. There are lots of moving parts and the worst thing is too see people discouraged from making things because they can never line up a good project fit for them.

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