Ben Clarkson, Head of Innovation, explains the importance of knowing when something is ‘good enough’ to take to market.
It’s the folly of the designer – your job is never done. No matter which field, there’s always another idea, technology or tweak sitting between you and that ‘perfect’ design solution. Each design cycle provokes new thoughts and educates the next version. Such is the iterative nature of the design process and wicked problems; there is no defined conclusion.
My manager, a particularly pragmatic leader, regularly points out:
“A business can’t be run by engineers or designers alone – they’d never let their ‘baby’ see the light of day. They need a reminder that at some point the business needs to start making money.”
I’ve seen it several times with projects we’ve been bidding on. The person at the top won’t stop tinkering, no product gets made and eventually the business (and product) disappears. The ability to efficiently process early iterations or ideas and to judge when a solution is good enough is therefore a highly valued part of a designer’s skillset – and something I keep a keen eye out for when interviewing candidates! Regardless of the problem, a structured approach should be taken to establishing design criteria and business criteria against which the solution can be measured. Whether it’s for internal or external customers, business necessitates a tangible result at some point to pay the bills.
The first step of your design thinking should be to gain an empathetic understanding of the customer, user and their problem. I repeatedly see this step being skipped over (particularly in the engineering world) and costing time and money in the long run. This is often seen as the ‘noise’ around the problem, but it should be a key driver for your design thinking:
Who will interact with the design/solution – upstream, downstream and operators? What condition (mental and physical) will they be in?
Labourers feeding ingredients from a freezer will be grateful for a wide in-feed hopper. Operators performing repetitive tasks may need over-the-top feedback or warning systems.
What environment(s) will the solution be used in and will this induce constraints on operators?
A pharmaceutical environment may dictate several layers of PPE, thereby reducing an operator’s ability to use fine controls.
Are there currently any economic or political contributors within the business which may affect the outcome?
Health and safety may dictate a particularly prompt resolution to a risk. Or an FD wanting to reduce maintenance labour may look particularly favourably on a low-maintenance, highly automated solution.
Who needs to endorse and approve the solution? Do they have any particular bias or preferences? How can you best present the solution to satisfy them?
A time-served engineer wanting to avoid rotary agitators after having had them fail on them in the past.
An understanding of what’s going on around the problem will not only improve your solution but also help you to pitch it to the key stakeholders in a targeted way.
Understand and define the problem
It’s valuable to establish the customer’s priorities – hard criteria which cannot be compromised on and soft criteria which are nice-to-haves. Document this as a design brief or scope of work and have it agreed with stakeholders to make sure you are focusing on the right elements. This should form the back-bone of your design inputs and give you requirements against which you can measure the validity of ideas, designs and solutions. Agree a timeline and layout a project plan with key milestones for reviewing, evaluating and freezing the design. Then progressing to prototype or manufacture, testing and delivery.
Now you’re just about ready to start the design phase! Conduct concise and targeted research – what is the industry standard? Are there any relevant emerging technologies? Generate multiple early concepts, sketch them out and explore their validity to expedite early iterations. Explore the bad ideas as well as the good – they can act as a springboard onto something great. Bounce ideas off colleagues and take their input. Constantly remind yourself and the team of the design requirements and use them early to eliminate concepts and home in on those with merit.
Establishing what you need to do to satisfy the customer and by when it needs to happen gives your design process the context to reach a conclusion. Circle back to that empathetic thought-train and ask yourself, if I was in the customer’s shoes; would I be happy with this?