Learn to Design; Design to Learn
So you have all of your product specifications nailed down (or at least 80% finalized) and you are ready to begin your design. Where do you start and how will you know that your design, or at least your concept of the design, is what the customer wants or needs? The answer to this and many other questions posited by like-minded designers may be found in the realm of iterative design.
Iterative design is nothing more than acyclic methodology of prototyping, testing, analyzing and refining a product. During the iterative process, the product is tested and evaluated repeatedly at different stages of design to eliminate flaws in usability before the final product is fabricated and launched. In other words, iterative design is a process of improving and polishing the design over time.
Where to Begin
Some designers are good at conceptual thinking and can easily translate written specifications into a working design from the onset. Then there are others that begin with a broad concept and need multiple iterations to hone in on the final product. No matter where you may fall within the spectrum, iterating is the key to producing a useful, quality product.
If you are like me, I usually start working on the design during the requirements gathering process. I might even produce a quick mock-up or an initial prototype so stakeholders can visually see and/or touch a proposed solution. The reason for this is to stimulate thinking and to jumpstart the overall creative process for those involved in determining product requirements. It also identifies those “pie in the sky” specifications that physically cannot be easily produced. As a result, I like to think of mock-ups and prototyping as an essential part of the requirements gathering process. Figure 1 shows the initial concept and design behind the MatterControl Touch stand. Can you see where improvements may be made? This initial iteration was printed on its side.
Prototyping encompasses product iterations from a draft, working and then to an operational prototype. However, the intent of prototyping can be distilled into two major functions: validation and integration. Validation is essential to the design process because this is where the designer confirms measurements, layouts, tolerances and the fitting of components as part of one product assembly. In other words, did the designer measure correctly and does the product components fit well within specified tolerances?
Integration involves the meshing of different design disciplines. For example, 3D printing involves mechanical, electrical, software and chemical engineering knowledge in order to have a complete and comprehensive product. How these domains integrate into a seamless product is a good reason to prototype. This way, designers and engineers can “play test” with their solution to make sure that the components and capabilities are well integrated.
Figure 2 shows the second iteration for the MatterControl Touch stand. Footprint size and time of fabrication have improved, but what about ease of manufacture?
I have heard and experienced the attitudes of small scale designers and fabricators when it comes to testing. Their opinion is that testing is draconian and is meant only for large organizations and manufacturers. Besides, our product is small and does not have that many components and systems. My response to that assertion is to ignore testing at your own peril. Testing is where the designer validates the functional requirements and answers the question, “Does the product do what we say it is going to do?” I am not advocating test for testing sake, e.g. writing test cases and conducting a full regression of a product as part of a large complex system. However, small user groups, whether internal and/or external, conducting alpha and beta testing is essential to producing a viable product. Only through testing can the designer fully identify all problems, especially problems that would not normally be revealed from internal testers. Part of this process also aids the stakeholders in validating the need for the product from the start. If the product is too complex to use or is not being demanded by the customer, then producing the final product may be a total waste of resources.
Figure 3: Final Iteration
Figure 4: Iteration for Larger Footprint Touch
Once an operational prototype is complete, the stakeholders should complete a full analysis of the product’s viability. Some of the questions that should be answered are, “Can the product be produced at a reasonable cost? Can the product be sold at a reasonable price? How easily can the product be produced or manufactured? Can all the components be sourced so as not to have any shortages or disruption in fabrication?” Also, the stakeholders should review the results of the testing process to include beta testing. For a physical product that has interaction with the customer, product form and feel is an important consideration. It may be that once all the information is compiled, that it may not be a good decision to continue with the proposed solution. Maybe the requirements need to be totally overhauled, or the idea scrapped. Either way, this prevents continuing with an original product that may not be ready for prime time.
Refining the Product
There are a couple of thoughts to leave you with before you begin your next product design. The first is that Iterative Design is both a cyclical and iterative process where many of the activities may be conducted both serially and in parallel. The designer can be testing and prototyping simultaneously and taking the resulting information and utilizing it in the follow-on design. Iterative Design is just a template. The designer should figure out what activities best work for him/her in designing and fabricating a product. The second thought is the title of this article: Design to Learn; Learn to Design. The designer should be looking at his or her domain as a learning experience. Only by questioning and doing can a designer become fully skilled and knowledgeable in the design domain. Much like 3D printing is a process, good and functional design is also a process. Remember to keep it simple, learn and have fun on your design journey.