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No vanilla please, we're Kiwis! Rethinking our approach to product design

If you're designing a product, it has never been more important than it is now to directly capture information about your users.

aruna shekar product design massey university

This is being driven in part by the ever-increasing complexity and demands for new products that meet a real need.

The failure rates of new products have remained high. Marketing departments have been known to carry out user research and provide R&D with the findings, but engineers must get out of their labs and design studios and spend time with the customers for whom they are designing. They must understand the context of product use and customer-product interactions before they jump into solution mode.

Teaching a class of engineering students about the design process or consumer research can be challenging, as some of them question the relevance of it all – “We are engineers, why do we have to talk to consumers?”They want to zoom into the product’s technicalities and start building a solution. But in fact they need to take a few steps back and ask a lot of questions, which usually means going out and talking to customers to get the answers.   Questions could centre around what the product should do, the benefits of using a product of this type, how it needs to function, what features it needs, what features are liked and/or disliked, what if anything is unnecessary or requires improvement etc.

Giving students examples of products that are either over-engineered or simply the wrong product for the problem helps them realise the importance of the design process, of understanding the problem, the consumer perspective and to be creative.  We do not accept vanilla or ‘me-too’ concepts. We want concepts that are unique.

Some students struggle with the ambiguity of a project design brief ("Tell us what to do and we’ll do it”). An engineering student recently commented: “If we have to build only one solution, then why bother coming up with several concepts?” As they will come to learn, design problems have many solutions, and the first idea is not necessarily the best answer.

Sometimes they say that they know what the customer will want – a product that is of the best quality at the lowest price. To this, I ask what they mean by 'best quality' in terms of features and how confident they are about the importance of those features.  With a limited budget (which is often the case), one may not be able to provide all of the features in a product, so they need to prioritise the features in terms of ‘must-haves’ and ‘nice-to haves’. They soon find that they need to speak to real users and gather information to close these gaps in knowledge.      

We expect students to learn the principles, the methodology and techniques that can be applied to a broad range of products.  It's the approach and type of thinking that we focus on, rather than the specific details of a particular product. The challenge for design engineering educators is to change the traditional mindset of thinking that there is only one right answer, to emphasise the importance of finding the ‘right’ problem to solve and defining it clearly; to create alternative solutions that are unique; to make simple models early in the process in order to communicate one’s ideas and to talk to consumers directly for insights and feedback.   

Dr Aruna Shekar is a senior lecturer in product development at Massey University