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13 July 2014

Design follows use

During my career in product design and engineering, I’ve learnt a couple of key lessons that have shaped my philosophy of product design.

Blog post

I’ve been at Consumer for just a few months. I trained as a design engineer a couple of decades ago, then worked in automotive, consumer and medical product development in the UK. I moved to New Zealand in 2004, where I taught product development at Massey University, created user-focused furniture at Formway Design and had a previous stint at Consumer as a writer before returning as the Head of Testing. During my career in product design and engineering, I’ve learnt a couple of key lessons that have shaped my philosophy of product design. I’d like to share those with you.

First, it is essential to understand that product design is one big compromise. In an ideal world, products would do everything for every user. But throw in real limitations of cost, resources and time, plus conflicting needs of users, and this simply isn’t possible. Good design juggles these limitations to produce, on some level, something acceptable to everyone. Good design creates good products, not exceptional products. The exceptional product is usually the result of design taking a more bullish view.

That brings me to my second lesson: every user’s experience of a product is unique. In your world, your experience is all that matters. You shouldn’t care what others think about the product, it just needs to work for you. So product design that’s focused on a broad market with diverse user-needs will always be flawed at an individual level. The bullish design approach that creates exceptional products eschews the needs of the many to focus on the needs of the few.

Here’s an example of these two lessons. In my time working in the design centres of Ford, Land Rover and Jaguar from the mid-1990s, I saw a paradigm shift in design. These companies moved from struggling to achieve basic reliability to producing vehicles that "surprised and delighted" customers (yes, that’s a technical term). It was some turnaround. Jaguar went from being the laughing stock of the industry — selling vehicles riddled with fundamental faults — to leading customer-satisfaction surveys.

Shift to satisfaction

What changed? It shifted from measuring reliability to measuring satisfaction. This fundamental shift led to a raft of design and engineering process changes. Reliability measures how well a product functions over time. But it is product focused and ignores the customer. Satisfaction creates a direct link to the customer. It captures reliability, but it includes broader design considerations — from seat comfort and door-closing effort, to cost of ownership and after-sales service. Measuring satisfaction forces designers to raise their game,to focus on user needs when considering which of those design compromises are acceptable.

Jaguar realised just who their customers were and what they wanted, and it designed for them. The company started to make excellent vehicles for a particular user rather than mediocre vehicles with a broad appeal. Unsurprisingly, by focusing on satisfaction, the old measure of reliability also improved dramatically. Look at any consumer product industry and the star companies creating the best products will be those who focus their design on the user — embracing customer satisfaction, rather than aiming for the myopic target of product reliability.

Where to from here

Now, let’s link this idea of designing for satisfaction to Consumer. Our product testing programme is fiercely independent and centred on one thing — you, the consumer. We are interested in quantifying user experience: measuring the things that create user satisfaction. We combine lab testing with user testing. We test durability where possible (within cost and time limitations), such as scratch testing of cookware, and conduct reliability surveys with our members. I hope our testing informs your product-buying decisions and encourages you to think about your product needs — so you can choose products that provide a fantastic user experience for you. I also hope that together, we encourage designers and manufacturers to produce exceptional products by putting the user front and centre in their design. There is no excuse for a bad product — just ill-judged design compromises.

I want to use these blogs to explore the relationship between product design, product testing and user experience. They will shape my thoughts as I review the role of product testing at Consumer to ensure it keeps pace with product developments and meets the changing needs of our members. I might discuss topics such as electric cars and coffee machines, disruptive innovations and market laggards, a lemon juicer that intentionally doesn’t work, and designing for "surprise and delight". I hope you’ll find the blogs interesting and thought-provoking.

About the author:

Paul Smith manages Consumer’s product test programme. He has spent most of his career pushing user-focused quality into the design and manufacture of cars in the UK, and educating design engineers of the future in New Zealand. Paul wants Consumer’s independent tests to empower people to make informed purchase decisions. He’ll only be satisfied when he rids the world (or at least New Zealand) of underperforming, poorly designed products. Paul’s favourite items are his steel fixed-wheel bicycle and Dieter Rams-designed Braun travel clock.

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