December 31, 2004

Two views of user research in industrial design

Reading IDSA's "Innovations" magazine this morning, I found an example of two very different ways to view user research in the industrial design process.

In describing the design of the DeWalt 735 planar Bob Welsh and David Wikle talk about how they do user research:

Marketing led the charge by conducting user research throughout the country, digging into what fed portable planer users' likes, dislikes, needs and wants.


This preliminary information was converted into quality parameters, which focused on the team's efforts. These parameters were ranked in order of importance and quantified so that we could directly measure our progress toward each prescribed target. [...] The team proceeded to zero in on the top four opportunities: surface finish, minimum snipe, accuracy and ease of knife change. Curiously enough [because it's a portable planar --mk], portability pulled up last in the rankings.

What's interesting about this to me is the tension between their functionality-driven philosophy, natural in a power tool company, with the recognition that the rationality of function is not necessarily a primary driver. In between discussions of features, thoughts like the one about portability slip through.Portability is not an actual functional factor, merely an aspirational one, in the way people choose planers. Similarly, they acknowledge these kinds of emotional/surface design decisions later when they talk about the placement of the threaded posts at the corners. Yes, they serve a functional purpose, but "the team thought that visually exposing the posts would drive the machine's character as well as garner credit for their function and design." In other words, the posts are there to look like big, badass bolts as much as to elevate the mechanism. Another quote is amusing: "just above the opening to the cutterhead, 'teeth' were added to cognitively warn the user that this is the business end of the machine."

Tej Chauhan of Nokia takes the opposite direction when describing his design for the Nokia 7600, that wacky lozenge phone that came out last year. He begins his description by talking about functionality:

The Nokia 7600 had to look like no other mobile handset. But this wasn't an exercise to design something different just for the sake of being different. The form had to be as purposeful as it was unique.

He then describes Nokia's user research process/philosophy:

Our research extends from people, to trends, ergonomics, technologies and a host of other criteria. Trend research is in itself a vast area. "It's all about making observations, and then defining them and telling them as stories," explains Liisa Puolakka, experience design specialist at Nokia. "And like stories, they should have a frame, characters, context, references to culture and society, and so on. These observations are looking at new emerging interests, lifestyles, desires, dislikes, attitudes, etc. But the most important thing is that the products we then create appeal to people, are relevant to them and their emotions."

Of course the role that the 7600 was supposed to play was to introduce new functionality to the world, since it was Nokia's first 3G phone, so the phone has a camera that can do video and a large color screen. Plus, it's designed to be more of a camera and picture viewer than something to dial numbers, enter text or talk on, as evidenced by the wacky key layout: "Having the keys on both sides of the display put the display and image at the centerpiece of the design. It also encouraged two-handed use, giving the produce and instinctively familiar [in a phone?!? maybe a camera. --mk] and natural-to-hold quality."

Comparing Nokia to DeWalt is interesting: one talks about functionality, the other with emotion, but they're both making consumer products and both dealing very much with both. What's interesting to me is how the corporate culture of the two groups has defined the approach to design and the shape of the end-product. i would say that if they're making mistakes, it's that they're both taking their positions too much to the extreme. DeWalt seems almost embarrassed to talk about the esthetic impact of their design, choosing to couch it in languages of touch "DeWalt design DNA" and Nokia seems to be so obsessed with the emotional impact of their products that they're forgetting that they have to work first. Maybe the two could learn from each other.

Posted by mikek at December 31, 2004 12:29 PM | TrackBack

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Posted by: lolita at January 19, 2005 04:37 PM
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