Cambridge’s own Dragon’s Den

22 April 2010 by Anna Mieczakowski  
Filed under News and views

Recently, I was one of the ‘dragons’ in a conceptual design competition organised by the Engineering Department at the University of Cambridge.  Among other judges were members of companies such as Rolls Royce, Jaguar, Siemens, James Dyson Foundation, PA Consulting Group, Mott MacDonald, and TTP. We were asked to judge the best and most innovative designs for a new product that can be used in the kitchen, bathroom or living room that accommodates the needs of older adults and enables independent use.

I have to admit that I was very impressed with the high level of maturity in thinking and the quality of analysis of user capability ranges, as well as marketing and engineering issues that some of the students exhibited and it seems even more impressive when I look at the fact that they were first year students. I have worked with many designers and consulted big companies on improving user experience in their designs and now in retrospect I can see that a lot of the experienced designers that I came across in my work had more trouble with considering the human component in their early conceptual designs than the students had with a simple assignment task. Maybe it has got something to do with youth… It was Jack Schmitt, a former NASA astronaut and the last of the Apollo astronauts to arrive and set foot on the Moon, who admitted that the Apollo programme achieved so much in so little time because of a combination of things, one of which was “extraordinarily motivated twenty-two-year-olds… [who] were just out of engineering school and highly imaginative – basically, they didn’t know how to fail, they hadn’t been around long enough to know what failure was like, so they didn’t worry about it” (Smith, 2005, p. 280). Or maybe with the fact that many organisational, technical, legislative, financial and time related compromises have to be made during the product’s progression from conceptual design through logical design to a physical form, all of which result in designers creating less for humans and more for product for product’s sake. But then again to objectively compare the performance of students with the performance of experienced designers with regard to the inclusion of the human component in their designs, we would have to observe how both groups went about product design from the preliminary conceptual stages through the stages of creating a logical model of a given product to the physical embodiment stages. However, in recent years academia has been paying a lot more emphasis to improved product-user interaction and different scientific methods that facilitate that interaction than in previous years when the experienced designers were educated and so the students have the advantage of having more information on user experience. Also, industry research carried out by Frost (1999) shows that for some time designers have been ignoring structured methods that would help them to improve their design processes, for the reasons such as:

  • the lack of availability of large quantities of data, which is often difficult and expensive to collect and when data is unavailable or incorrect the whole process of applying design methods seems redundant
  • not enough time nor inclination to research and use scientific design methods
  • designers and scientific writers do not share a common pattern of thinking and language and, as a result, design practitioners rarely refer for help to design science resources
  • the experiential knowledge of designers is often faster and more certain than the deployment of insightful but esoteric and abstract design science methods in situations where only an incremental change to a product form is required.

Although many designers are reluctant to employ design support methods in their work, the problem may not necessarily lie in their unwillingness to recognise the benefit of such methods but rather in the lack of visual, easy and quick to understand, implement and use methods that lead toward improvement in design practice to increase the chances of producing an accessible and usable product. So, there is still hope that one day designers will be given support methods that will fit their ways of thinking and working and more importantly that they will be happy to use such methods in their daily work.

  1. Smith, A. (2005) “Moondust: In Search of the Men Who Fell to Earth”. London: Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.
  2. Frost, R. B. (1999) “Why Does Industry Ignore Design Science?”. Journal of Engineering Design, Volume 10, Issue 4, pp. 301-304.

Exclusively from Cambridge: Design Rationale Editor (DRed)

21 September 2009 by Anna Mieczakowski  
Filed under News and views

In recent months, I spent quite a bit of time looking at different modelling software packages for my PhD thesis. I have been particularily interested in the functionality of P3 and DRed, both of which are proprietary software systems of the Engineering Design Centre at the University of Cambridge. More about P3 will be explained in the next post, while today’s post focuses on the Design Rationale Editor (DRed).

DRed is a new IBIS-based software and it has been researched, implemented and introduced into industry by Rob Bracewell. The system is aimed at unobtrusively capturing, graphically presenting, and storing for future reuse, the rationale behind the day to day decisions of individuals or groups of designers. DRed allows designers to record their design rationale (DR) at the time of its generation and deliberation. The design rationale is displayed in a document as a graph of nodes linked with directed arcs. The user creates the nodes by choosing from a predefined set of element types. The key element types are: issue, answer, and argument.

The DRed system has become quite a success story especially among the designers at Rolls-Royce as using it improved the company’s design process. As a result, the system was given the Rolls-Royce Research and Technology Director’s Creativity Award for 2004. Using DRed has been made mandatory for design scheme reviews on at least one Rolls-Royce project. More companies are now interested in the functionality and usefulness of DRed as it evolved into a tool which maps a unified information space covering product planning, specification, design and service. Users can now create bidirectional hyperlinks between DRed elements and selected locations in a range of external document types.