Even though I've been practicing interaction design for most of my career, it is my industrial design experience that has enabled me to straddle the worlds of both hardware and software. Over the years I've seen interaction design thrive while the industrial design profession has gone into decline. I think we need to challenge the practice of industrial design. We need to adopt new behaviors to make the discipline healthy again.
At its core, industrial design has been about creating objects of desire. For nearly a century we've reinforced this understanding by celebrating the superficial beauty of the industrial designed artifact and forgetting the human context in which that artifact lives. Too often designers ignore how people interact with products over time, the cultural relevance of the artifacts they create, and the social and environmental consequences of their design decisions. We've allowed this malady to infect our schools and seduce our customers. The problem is pervasive. We need to do more than attach new words to our definition of industrial design. We need to redefine what industrial design means.
We need to do more than attach new words to our definition of industrial design. We need to redefine what industrial design means.
The impetus for change is not new. Industrial designers had the opportunity to examine their role the first time an empty shampoo bottle was thrown into the trash destined for the landfill. Or the first time an arthritic hand was unable to open a refrigerator door. Or the first time a camera failed to capture a fleeting emotion on film. While the physical object is essential in each of these situations, it is the larger experience with these products that is most meaningful to the people who use them.
The good news is that many industrial designers already embrace the ideas described here. Even though the situation demands a change to the discipline, the industrial designer is well-suited to serve the demands of this new age. The time has come for industrial designers to redefine their profession. Here are ten ways to make that happen.
1. Design beautiful experiences, not beautiful artifacts
History is littered with beautiful objects that are culturally offensive, socially anemic, environmentally irresponsible, useless, or unusable. Consider all of the contexts of the artifact that you create: How is the product used over time? Where does it live? Who uses it? How does it fulfill the practical needs of the person using it? And consider all of the meanings behind the artifact: What are the emotional, cultural, social, and environmental impacts of the product? The physical artifact will be trivial without considering these larger contexts and meanings; indeed, they are what define the experience. Think beyond the object and consider all of these contexts of use. Apply a design process that helps you learn about these contexts and experiences. Work toward an experience-oriented solution instead of an object-based result.
2. Stop asking "what" and start asking "why"
Designers are often asked to design an object that adheres to the strict guidelines of a brief. If the industrial designer only considers "what" they are asked to design, they enter into a design problem blindly, and the result will be an artifact that has been stripped of everything that is meaningful to people. The next time you receive a brief that tells you what to build, ask "why": Why would someone be motivated to use this product? Why is it necessary to build a product for this particular market landscape? Why embrace a particular technology? The answers you get will open up new possibilities that go beyond the physical product and into the realm of experience. Asking "why" will take you to the edges of the product where experiences live.
3. Start with experience, end with experience
Understand and empathize with a person's real experience before a single sketch is put to paper. Try to understand people who don't rely on technology today. How might that inform a new design solution? First, go into the homes and workplaces of the customers you are designing for. Observe and understand what motivates them. Document what they say and what they do. Next, describe the experience using words. Develop a written narrative that represents the experience you observed. Focus on functionality and behavior. Finally, create an experience that would delight the people you met. Prototype several solutions, watch how people experience your designs, understand their point of view, and develop a new design solution that enables a meaningful experience.
4. Genius will fail, wisdom will succeed. Become wise
In his book The Logic of Failure, Dietrich Dorner suggests "Geniuses are geniuses by birth, whereas the wise gain their wisdom through experience. The ability to deal with problems in the most appropriate way is the hallmark of wisdom rather than genius." It simply isn't possible to derive a good design solution without understanding the experiences of the people you are designing for. Great design is the product of wisdom, not genius. Become immersed in the experiences of your users. Do what they do. Live where they live. Become sensitive to their needs and pain points. Become wise.
The challenge is not to design an object, but to design an object that changes dynamically and adapts over time. This requires a new approach to design.
5. Keep it simple
It's hard to design a simple artifact or experience that is rich and meaningful for the person using it. Start by teasing out the complexities of a product's value and context by understanding where it lives and how it's used. Then, simplify the design by reducing the clutter, cutting unnecessary features, and removing steps in a task. Work together with the members of your team, informing yourselves through research, thoughtfulness, and discipline. Put the words of John Maeda into practice: "Knowledge makes everything simpler."
6. From design thinking to dynamic thinking
Physical products aren't frozen in time. The design process doesn't end at the moment a solution leaves the designer's hands or when the product leaves the factory floor. Products are living artifacts that change and adapt as they are used. The moment a product is purchased by a customer, it takes on new characteristics. This can happen in overt ways ("I've written my name on my new water bottle"), passive ways ("my water bottle is dented from the dozens of times I've dropped it on the floor"), and profound ways ("my behavior has changed now that I have a water bottle to drink from throughout the day"). The challenge is not to design an object, but to design an object that changes dynamically and adapts over time. This requires a new approach to design. Sketch the design in use, over time, with storyboards. Sketch the behavior of the product. Sketch the way the product responds to the context of the user and the environment. Design how it engages and communicates.
7. Let iteration direct your process: Work more rapidly, change more frequently
Don't expect to get the design right the first time you put pencil to paper. If good product design requires multiple iterations, then good experience design requires even more iterations. Why? Because experience design is complex. The things we design exist in a system of user motivations and behaviors, and within contextual constraints and opportunities. Work more rapidly and change more frequently to solve for this complexity. Rough out the design quickly as a sketch and put it in front of people. Then refine it. Put it in front of people again, and refine it again. Don't be afraid to shift your design goals as you progress.
8. Have fun
Great products are fun to experience, so make them fun to design. Not only do our design solutions need to incorporate moments of delight, engagement, play, and reward, but so do our design behaviors and practices. Remove the burden of adhering to tired processes, and think creatively about how you can make the process of creation fun. Turn your design activities into games and get your whole team involved.
9. Adapt your process to your design goals, not the other way around.
Industrial design processes have evolved and matured over the last hundred years. The industrial designer who is only focused on the physical object will rely on these tried and true methods. But today people demand more from products. We need to turn the process on its head and become more flexible: adapt the process to the design problem, and stop compromising the user experience by adhering to old practices.
10. Preserve the experience, not your own competency
Our tendency is to preserve our own competence when faced with a design problem that is unfamiliar or ambiguous. We need to resist that urge, and seek out new competence. Discover the meaning behind the experiences you create by consulting with people who aren't like you. Talk to the ethnographer who is expert at observing people in their real environment. Work with the interaction designer who can envision product and people behaviors over time. And once you have freed yourself of the chains of competency, consider changing your title.
Call yourself an experience designer.
Ken Fry is Design Director at Artefact, a design consultancy that works with a variety of high tech consumer electronics, communications, and computer software clients to research user needs and design breakthrough software and technology products. Prior to joining Artefact he spent most of his 12 years at Microsoft leading user experience groups across Microsoft hardware and consumer software groups. He also helped define design and research standards and practices to help other teams at Microsoft create products and services that people love.