How one company worked with end-users to design their perfect product
By Bryan Hynecek
"I don't like orange; never have and never will. My wife likes pink, and so do my kids. Isn't pink coming back? How about blue? No one hates blue. What if we made faceplates so that people could just put whatever color they wanted on it?"
As designers we have all experienced this scenario at least once in our careers—a situation where a customer is so paranoid about the success of the product that they flounder, looking for various justifications for a solution, only to suggest in futility, "they can put whatever color they want on it." Indeed, some companies have been able to empower their customers with the ability to make some of the design decisions in the products they are purchasing: Nike ID, Puma's Mongolian BBQ, Fossil, Build-A-Bear, Toyota Scion, and American Iron Horse Motorcycles have all created robust purchasing systems where users can mix and match different design details, colors, or parts in order to create the perfect, customized product.
These weren't average users, or were they? Although they weren't Industrial Designers, they were designers nonetheless. As video game developers, they practice visualization, they observe aesthetic trends, and they have an appreciation for shape and form. Doesn't everyone observe trends?
Other companies are investing more into understanding their customers and trying to anticipate the perfect product. As designers we have seen or participated in focus groups, surveys, questionnaires, beta programs, and various forms of ethnographic research and observation in order to understand what consumers really want. More recently some organizations have begun to use co-creation sessions. These are participatory gatherings where designers and researchers sit with a panel of target users and, through story telling and with the help of "toolkits" (a collection of objects that may represent features, functions, or forms), try to elicit features that consumers might want but never knew how to explain. Although co-creation is still a far cry from users designing their own products, it is the closest we can get to translating user wants and needs. But what is the next level? Can we get even closer?
Left to right: Dane Munkholm, Trisha Swanson and Graden "Trey" McCool of The Guildhall at SMU, Bryan Hynecek, Ignition, and Pennington Ingley, TI DLP Products Group
Setting Up the Project
A recent project involving Ignition, Texas Instruments (TI) DLP Products Group, and The Guildhall at Southern Methodist University (SMU) may provide an example of the next level of user-designed products. The program began when TI became interested in promoting their DLP technology in the form of a portable digital projector targeted to the rapidly growing video game market. They wanted a projector that spoke to the needs of the gaming enthusiast, so they turned to The Guildhall at SMU, a Masters program in video game development and one of the nation's leading programs of its kind—essentially a school of target users. Students in the SMU program were given the opportunity to design a video gaming projector using TI's DLP technology, with over $50,000 in scholarships to be awarded to the top three designs.
Here's how the program worked: Students from The Guildhall were given existing projectors to take home and experiment with for several weeks. They were then invited to submit concepts and a design brief for a gaming projector that would be appropriate for one of three target segments: the young (or beginner) gamer, the occasional gamer, and the "pro" gamer. The concepts were then evaluated by a panel of judges, including gaming retailers, DLP technology engineers and design professionals. Among the criteria evaluated by the judges were uniqueness of the design, thoughtfulness and feasibility. In the end, three concepts, one for each user segment, were selected as finalists.
What's interesting to note here is that many of the submissions were very pedestrian. This may seem obvious, but not for lack of talent. The fact is, when given a clean slate and essentially an infinite amount of choice, most people freeze. All but three of the students in this contest resorted to ideas they were comfortable with; ideas that were similar or even identical to the units they were allowed to take home and evaluate. (Paradox of Choice author Barry Schwartz explains why more options in the area of choice is in fact confusing, and ultimately less rewarding. His book describes how when people are confronted with too many choices, they become overwhelmed. They spend so much time sifting through all the options that their ultimate choice leaves them less fulfilled. They suffer from buyer's remorse, dwelling on whether they made the right decision.)
This program wasn't just a learning experience for the students. According to the designers involved in this exercise, it was an eye opening exercise, confirming to the designers what they had already suspected: that to a significant degree, consumers or end users really do know what they want or need in a product—even what they aspire to.
Aurthur Wu, Ignition, Dane Munkholm and Trisha Swanson, SMU
Working with the Finalists
TI now had three rough concepts, three student gamers with a thoughtful understanding of what each of the final products needed to be, and a technology that was ideal for the application. TI's goal was to fabricate working prototypes of each of the concepts and announce them at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Ignition was invited to help.
The first step was to have a working session with the students, the Ignition design team, and the TI engineers. Each of the finalists carefully presented his or her original concept for a gaming projector:
Student Trisha Swanson chose to focus on the younger gamer. Her major concern was adjustment and flexibility. She wanted to be able to quickly pull out the projector, set it up, play, and put it away when finished. Her solution, Trisha (each of the projectors were later named after their creators), was a spherical form that sat on a pedestal. This allowed for gross and infinite adjustment. Gamers could set up the pedestal, rotate the sphere to point at any wall or even the ceiling, and play on.
The second entry, Dane, from student Dane Munkholm, focused on the occasional gamer, suggesting a design that was functional yet attractive. Dane's concept was a unique "War of the Worlds" form that had an adjustable projection head-on-shoulders. This creation had character, and was attractive enough that it didn't need to be put away while not in use.
Finally, Graden "Trey" McCool targeted the pro-gamer, using a vertical form that was familiar to the gamer in adjacent products such as gaming consoles or computer towers. He also borrowed visual cues from current video game design trends—details that imply power and performance.
Philip Curtis and Randy Thornton, Ignition, Trisha Swanson, The Guildhall at SMU
After the student's presentations, TI's engineers dumped all of the components that they had at their disposal onto the table, looking for appropriate fits between hardware and concept. Immediately, there was only one real solution for Trisha: It was the only system architecture that would demand a centered lens, as opposed to the typical offset orientation for most projectors. For Dane the TI team had developed several solutions. One option was to use fiber optics, putting all the components in the base, with a fiber optic cable that would take all the light up to the top, color wheel and lens in the head—allowing the head to move independent of the rest of the optical engine. This solution would provide for the most versatility, and would adhere to Dane's original design intent. The second option was to put all of the electronics into the head, similar to Trisha, making the body more of a stand with an adjustable neck. For Trey, there were a few light engines that would allow for a vertical orientation; the only obstacles were circuit board sizes, circuit board orientations, and cooling.
When presented with the foam of the sphere, Trisha was shocked by the size, but excited about the simplicity of the sphere. She chose to swap the proportions of her original design, shrinking the base. Now the pedestal was a simple ring that held the ball in position, giving it the illusion of floating.
Trey McCool, Bryan Hynecek
Exploring the Forms
At this point in the process, the team split up. TI continued to work on the electrical feasibility, and the students and Ignition worked on the designs. A designer was assigned to work with each of the students and prepared them for a crash course in ID. Ignition made multiple volume studies. These were foam models based on the student's original designs, scaled to accommodate TI's system architectures. For example, Trisha's original projector concept was a small orb that sat on a very large cone-shaped pedestal. In order to get the system architecture to work with this design, the components would have to be separated—half in the upper ball unit, half in the lower pedestal. This solution wasn't feasible, so all of the components had to go into the sphere. When presented with the foam of the sphere, Trisha was shocked by the size, but excited about the simplicity of the sphere. She chose to swap the proportions of her original design, shrinking the base. Now the pedestal was a simple ring that held the ball in position, giving it the illusion of floating.
For Dane there were multiple volume studies, but each one was large, awkward, and not really what Dane wanted. The team went back to the drawing board and came up with a new system architecture. They took the engine and rotated it 90 degrees, firing the projection upwards and putting a mirror into the projection head allowing for the projector adjustment.
Trey's foam model was also very large. The optical engine necessary for his concept wasn't driving the size however; the circuit boards that needed to generate the desired performance were. He understood that gamers were tolerant of larger products (such as gaming consoles or computer towers), but only if they were high performance. TI later found a new set of boards that would get Trey to a more comfortable size, so the team updated the foams.
On the final day, the entire team was invited to view the completed working prototypes. The results were three unique projectors, each carefully designed by the user, for the specific needs of the user—and not just holistically as a new category.
The next step was to reconvene with the electrical engineers from TI. When they saw the foam models, their eyes brightened. The projector business has always been a race for the next smaller and brighter unit, which forces projectors to be a shoe box shape with offset lens—but these models were a breath of fresh air. TI brought engineer after engineer into the conference room; they brought people in from other meetings; they stopped anyone walking through the halls just to show them the foam models. None of the models stayed on the table for more than five minutes.
Although the students, Ignition, and TI were excited about the projectors, there was a unanimous concern about the sizes. TI's team had made significant progress on the components, but it still wasn't enough—the units were still too large. For the next month, the team continued to tweak the projectors in work session after work session, moving components, replacing parts, trying things that TI had never experimented with before. Whether it was the exciting new forms, the challenge of a new application, or that the students had scholarships at stake—the TI engineers in this program were relentless in their determination to find systems that would work.
Upon settling on final forms, Ignition designers refined the surface development and mechanical interface with the internal components. They also continued to work with the students on design details and colors. The students frequently visited the Ignition office to discuss color ideas, look at paint chips, see the progress of surface development and to witness their parts coming off the CNC machines.
The next step was to reconvene with the electrical engineers from TI. When they saw the foam models, their eyes brightened. The projector business has always been a race for the next smaller and brighter unit, which forces projectors to be a shoe box shape with offset lens—but these models were a breath of fresh air. TI brought engineer after engineer into the conference room; they brought people in from other meetings; they stopped anyone walking through the halls just to show them the foam models.
The Final Prototypes
On the final day, the entire team was invited to view the completed working prototypes. The results were three unique projectors, each carefully designed by the user, for the specific needs of the user—and not just holistically as a new category. Here are the results:
Trisha "before" image; rendering by student
Trisha is a simple, elemental shape; a shape that is familiar to a child and inspires a visceral emotion associated with play. A spherical form that rests on a ring, it is the most basic of physical relationships. It allows for infinite adjustment and enables children to rotate and aim the projector wherever they can imagine. The organic shape of the focus ring and button interface conveys product direction, implies motion, and gives it life.
Dane "before" image; rendering by student
Dane is an intriguing juxtaposition of shapes. The tapering ends and robust swooping arches imply strong horizontal movement. It is a metaphor for the movement of the ample air needed to cool its core. Much like a cannon, atop the strong shoulders of the form sits the projection head. The shape of the head is obvious in the direction it projects, and its sheer size implies powerful performance. The intersection of the two perpendicular shapes creates a certain degree of tension and hints at its ability to articulate. It is equally stimulating when at rest as in use.
Trey "before" image; rendering by student
Trey speaks to the enormous established market of avid video gamers. This group of individuals is obsessed with speed and performance, so the form needs to stand proud; its vertical orientation is confident yet agile. Avid gamers are nomadic, moving from location to location, and can't tolerate the lazy stance of a horizontal projector. The cavity for the lens is disproportionately large, an attribute that screams performance. Enormous super-car style air inlets are used to cool its vicious heart.
Fabbing Kiosks in malls and table-top devices at home will allow consumers to input their needs, personal desires and preferences, and these devices will then compile the data and pop out the perfect product—a solution, a "thing," that solves all of the problems they were able to articulate. But where did these needs come from?
Who Got What From the Project?
Of course, the students in this program were excited about the realization of their initial vision. They learned about negotiating the balance between concept and physical constraints. Game developers normally work in a virtual world, so, perhaps naturally, their initial designs were untethered from the physical requirements of heat, light and the mechanics of functional projectors. But they knew what they wanted as users, and they instilled insight and passion into their designs. The designers from Ignition and the engineers from TI helped them understand the technology requirements of projectors and the fundamentals of product design, and in the end, they helped bring the students' passion into the physical world.
But this program wasn't just a learning experience for the students. According to the designers involved in this exercise, it was an eye opening exercise, confirming to the designers what they had already suspected: that to a significant degree, consumers or end users really do know what they want or need in a product--even what they aspire to. But it is the job of the designer to tease it out of them, like a therapist helping a patient unlock their inner feelings. Sitting down with the students, evaluating their concepts, explaining the system architecture problems, the back-end of mechanical design—all through a combination of explaining and educating—thesee were the steps in helping them to refine their raw content into the idealized end product they desired.
The students in this program were users who a) evaluated their own experiences with similar products within the context of a new application; b) identified problems and opportunities, and c) created solutions that were aesthetically appropriate for themselves and similar users. These weren't average users, or were they? Although they weren't Industrial Designers, they were designers nonetheless. As video game developers, they practice visualization, they observe aesthetic trends, and they have an appreciation for shape and form. Doesn't everyone observe trends? Doesn't everyone have their own impression of what they like or don't like? Doesn't everyone pick their style of clothes, decorate their home, have a favorite color, and know what they need to improve an experience?
So if users can identify the opportunities and essentially define their parameters with respect to color, shapes, and textures, how can they get what they need? Is it possible to automate the roll that TI and Ignition played in the gaming projector program, closing the gap between the user, identifying their needs and delivering a final product? Can a compelling mix of software and rapid manufacturing accomplish this?
Let's play out a future where designers don't exist (designers in the traditional sense as we have today--product, graphic, fashion, etc.). Fabbing Kiosks in malls and table-top devices at home will allow consumers to input their needs, personal desires and preferences, and these devices will then compile the data and pop out the perfect product—a solution, a "thing," that solves all of the problems they were able to articulate. But where did these needs come from? What sculpted their preferences? And weren't these needs and preferences derived from situations that were shared by many, shaped by friends, peers, and associates? No doubt.
But with the overwhelming burden of infinite possibility, it seems fair to argue that consumers may resort to solutions that they are already comfortable with—solutions that they have seen before. Trends would start to fade; people would start to mimic one another until design would eventually normalize, and everyone would start to have the same "things." But then inevitably the cycle would start anew: Certain people would want to experiment, intentionally doing things differently to break away from everyone who had copied everything that had been done before. And if certain people didn't have the capacity to experiment, they would find a friend who did. Creative individuals would bubble to the surface, learning how to manipulate the data and shepherding people into new expressions and possibilities.
And then, naturally, they would be sought after—these renegades that had learned to master these new tools and help break the quotidian. And what will they be called? Well, the designers of the future, of course. You just have to ask them.
Bryan Hynecek is Director of Design at Ignition, where he has shaped his personal vision of design since joining the firm in 1998. Currently, he is responsible for the supervision of the industrial design staff and the implementation of the overall design philosophy of the company. He holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from the University of North Texas.
Photos: All product photography, Paul Schiefer; all others, Jeremy Sharp.