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People-inspired product design: guide to successful ideation

Just like a great majority of new businesses, most new products fail. Even more accurately though, most products don’t ever make it to store shelves and instead die a quiet death elsewhere along the development path. As inventors, how do we make sure products we envision are wanted?

We view product design as the preponderant part of development and promote an integrated approach that underlies people-inspired product design and more specifically its early phase of ideation.

The art and science of design

Is designing an art, a science or a form of mathematics? The main point of difference is that of timing. Both artists and scientists operate on the physical world as it exists in the present (whether it is real or symbolic), while mathematicians operate on abstract relationships that are independent of historical time. Designers, on the other hand, are forever bound to treat as real that which exists only in an imagined future and have to specify ways in which the foreseen thing can be made to exist. John Chris Jones, Design Methods

To move into the realm of existence, a novel idea is ought to undergo the creative process of design – a broad term that can be, purposefully vaguely, defined as "taking something from its existing state and moving it to a preferred state".

If it is a tangible product, the applicable expertise is industrial design. Industrial design is preoccupied with shaping the product’s physical form while simultaneously enhancing its functional utility. Situated somewhere between arts and science, industrial design lends itself to numerous schools of thought which define methods and process through which the product obtains its final appearance and technical features.

Product-focused industrial designers commonly work through (1) analysis (or research); (2) concept; and (3) synthesis (or execution). However, a major flaw tends to cripple product design because what usually triggers it is invention-push innovation – typically a technological advancement of some sort. This often disassociates prospective users from development, eventually resulting in product offerings unwanted by the market.

On the other hand, demand-pull innovation is the kind that actively involves end-users since it is instigated by a market gap – a problem that needs solving. Design we practice is based off such user-centred methodology and aims to create innovative outputs with purposeful and useful design.

‘Humanistic’ approach

We see the origins of people-inspired design in design thinking as defined by IDEO’s David Kelley. In his adaptation, design thinking is a solution-focused method that is initiated by a goal in the context of some present or future situation.

Human-centred enterprises have been another influencer on our ways. To be human-centred, a design method should follow these ISO standard principles:

1. The design is based upon an explicit understanding of users, tasks and environments. 2. Users are involved throughout design and development. 3. The design is driven and refined by user-centered evaluation. 4. The process is iterative. 5. The design addresses the whole user experience. 6. The design team includes multidisciplinary skills and perspectives.

Essentially so people-inspired design is an amalgamation of few design methods: they focus on slightly different aspects of design but share common traits such as user-empathy, creative ambidexterity and iterative practices.

Discovery in design

While obviously a single process cannot be applied to forcefully fit every project that comes our way, a general procedure and broad principles are fairly easy to describe.

At heart, we solve problems – creatively with people in mind, first and foremost. This is the mantra that guides us through everything we do. For example, analysing a problem is done through the eyes of people who face it. Or when we brainstorm during ideation, we use divergent thinking to lay on the table as many plausible solutions to the given problem as possible – exploring various perspectives and thus addressing needs of multiple stakeholders.

In the end, constant empathising with the primary stakeholder helps us correctly translate abstract requirements derived through analysis and synthesis into visual language of design – sketches, drawings, and diagrams – and produce concrete objects throughout the iterative process of design.

User research

Studying consumer behaviour historically has been the most basic component of research in design. First and foremost, target users are to be determined and defined. User related questions we ask vary depending on the project nature but principal ones sound like these:

• Who are the prospective users? • What are their needs and goals? • What functions do they look for in the product? • How do they think the product should work? • How will the users interact with the product?

At its most basic, we start user research by looking at their demographic characteristics (age, gender, ethnicity, education, occupation, income, marital status, etc.) using census statistics.

More subjectively, we explore primary users’ personal traits through surveys and interviews. This is where their goals, wants and needs become established, guiding the rest of the design process – as pioneered by famed industrial designer Henry Dreyfuss.

The products we design are going to be ridden in, sat upon, looked at, talked into, activated, operated, or in some way used by people individually or en masse. When the point of contact between the product and the people becomes a point of friction, then the industrial designer has failed. If, on the other hand, people are made safer, more comfortable, more eager to purchase, more efficient-or just plain happier-the industrial designer has succeeded. Henry Dreyfuss, Designing for People

In this way, the entire design work becomes focused on satisfying the desires of people who are likely to use the end product, in contrast to fulfilling the goals put by technical stakeholders. At this point, it is helpful to formulate user groups through personas, the so-called archetypes who encapsulate behaviour patterns of a certain group of potential customers. It is helpful that storytelling is used to present personas engaging the design team’s visualisation skills.

Customer driven product development has become a go-to method of product development innovation for larger companies. Lee Jeans, for example, used it to create an exclusive line of cooling denim for Asian shoppers.

Looking for insight, designers conducted research in multiple cities in China and India, seeking out those who were committed to wearing jeans despite the most extreme circumstances – the denim-clad bicyclists pedalling through sweltry city streets, the basketball players on the court, commuters who stripped to their underwear while driving and wriggled back into their jeans upon arrival. The common thread: They were all steadfast in their preference for thick, heavy denim, no matter how hot it got. The resulting strategy for product launch: positioning jade – a traditional material that has strong cultural and spiritual meaning – as a high-tech solution for the contemporary lifestyle of young people. The JadeFusion line sold out within seven weeks of its debut. Along the way, Lee developed a new understanding of how to incorporate customers’ input and being open to discovery and inspiration from the very start of planning a product launch.

User experience

User experience can be looked at through product use cases and scenarios surrounding them. Here we often make use of some of the more lightweight techniques that make up contextual design including ethnographic inquiries into user population and subsequent data interpretation. Understanding social and cultural conditions of people whom the product targets helps us address their needs in the most sensitive and comfortable way.

Aside from user characteristics, the environment has to be borne in mind: time and location, weather, economy, sounds and smells – anything really that is relevant to an individual in question. With these factors concerned, we try to capture the user experience path in a map, from introduction to product to its purchase to ultimate review. The intermediary stage of product use is reviewed in detail, to help us spot potential issues with design and improvements otherwise.

A notable case in point: seeking to overhaul its iconic round thermostat, consumer tech multinational Honeywell surveyed over 2,000 homeowners across Europe and North America and realised “the need for an ecosystem of simple, consumer-centric products that are easy to install and provide customers with scalable and repeatable experiences”.

Market research

Because the earth is a highly competitive place to be, analysis of the target market is due upon every product inventor early in the process. In this matter, we primarily look for relevant technological trends and developments to assess the current state of the market. To make the endeavour cost effective, we limit ourselves to mainly secondary research methods.

A market study helps the team test their assumptions and re-evaluate the original product positioning against the competition. It also sets the stage for drafting of a proper business plan for internal planning as well as external stakeholders’ review.

Reasonable expectations

We won’t suggest that our people-inspired approach is foolproof when set against the larger context of product development. But we do believe that it works wonders with design: doing your homework through discovery of your users, together with design creativity and positioning, can help you gain positive market validation early on – which a major survival deal breaker for new products eyeing market entry.

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