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The risk of assuming – upgrading product design to meet customer needs

Author Maija Hakuli
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Product development often entails facelifts of previous projects and occasionally the design of completely new products from nothing. What are the key decisions that the design is based on? When a deadline is breathing down a designer’s neck, the most important thing is often forgotten: the user. Why?

In product development there are always decisions that need to be made. These include decisions about mechanical design such as the thickness of a wall to the location of a button, or software decisions such as how the user interface should look or where and how information should be placed.

This is a very crucial moment. The product may require a specific feature, but if this feature is located in a place that makes it difficult for the actual users to even notice, it does not meet the customer’s or the users’ needs. Another example would be if the handle of a product is designed so that it makes using the product more challenging even though the main goal was to improve usage by designing a new handle.

This problem is especially an issue for large design projects where the design team consists of different teams with varying responsibility areas. It is not unheard of that at some point the control of the whole design is distributed around the team and nobody has time to think how the user can handle the design as a whole.

It is unfortunate that this happens, as it means that a lot of design effort, time and money has been invested in a project, after which the user cannot use the product as well as she/he should. What is even more unfortunate is that this could have been prevented.

Brave designers admit knowledge gaps

The bravest and wisest designers are those that admit that they don’t know how something should be done and then start looking for answers. This takes courage. It is not easy to question your own professional skills or your designs. Yes, it will hold and yes, it will work, but how usable will it be?

The fact is that designers are usually so married to their designs that it is very challenging for them to think about the product from the first time user’s point of view. The users do not know the design and its features as well as the designer does. There is, however, a simple and very effective solution to this challenge – a usability test.

Usability testing for prototypes

There are several methods available to check the future usability of a product before it is actually finished. If there are, for example, different possible physical alternatives, such as differently shaped handles, the options can be printed with a 3D printer and tested in a real environment with the required variables, e.g. with gloves on or off.

Another example; a control panel user interface can be evaluated with the help of users before a single string of code is written. The entire product concept can even be evaluated before a single line is drawn. The visibility from a car cabin can be verified in a virtual reality laboratory with 3D glasses and an actual view of the model.

No room for guesses and assumptions

It goes without saying that a vast amount of time and money can be saved when unnecessary resources do not have to be employed to fix errors after the fact. There is no room for guessing, or assuming anymore. Design decisions can then be based on actual user opinions. There will, however, always be some exceptions.

The earlier usability studies are conducted, the greater the chance of saving money later on. When existing designs need to be revised, or even re-coded or re-assembled, it costs much more. Usability studies should, therefore, be conducted more during R&D processes and not only when the product is finished or almost finished.

Pay special attention to crucial elements

Crucial elements should be given special attention and considered from the user’s point of view; how do these elements affect the product as a whole? Another useful idea is to conduct tests on existing designs before the facelift project starts. This provides the design team with valuable information regarding the most challenging user situations that need to be addressed to meet the users’ needs more comprehensively.

Usability testing is an indispensable tool in removing a large part of the risks associated with product development.

The user should be the focus from the very beginning of R&D projects and this focus should be maintained throughout the entire design and production process. Not only does this negate potential downtime or an unpleasant escalation in costs later on, but it also increases productivity – happy users are more efficient users.

The original text was published in our 2/2014 Top Engineer magazine

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Maija Hakuli

B.Sc. , Wellness Technology - Maija Hakuli was a senior designer of user experience as well as mechanical design and worked at Elomatic from 2005 to 2015.

Intelligent Engineering

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