Design Process: Defining Problems to Solve
I've been working on and bringing products to market for 19 years now, close to half my life at this point! My experience has been in both the consultancy world (the agency side) and as a brand owner (the client side).
That experience on each side of the table has given me an appreciation for both sides and I'd like to think, a more well-rounded, thorough approach to design. I've learned to be as comfortable defining business needs and designing within and around business parameters as I am with front-end design and form language development.
I was recently asked to give my nephew, a high school student looking to figure out what he wants to pursue in college, an idea of what industrial design is all about, as it's something he's interested in.
So with that as a catalyst, I thought I'd document how a new product comes to market as I'm working on it. My hope being that:
- It will give some insight into how we do our thing here.
- We can get some feedback / insight from you all along the way.
Defining the Problems to Solve
The first step sounds simple, but it's deceivingly difficult. I've done my fair share of missteps on this one, more times than I care to admit. Because it's not just about identifying a problem. It's also about understanding the value that will be provided by solving that problem. And the cost of the time it will take to deliver on that solution. Essentially, is the problem worth solving?....we can go down a rabbit hole here, and it gets meaty, touching on personal beliefs, desires, ego, societal needs, opportunities, among other things. That's a topic for another day.
So going to jump ahead then and just say that for me, electric mobility has problems worth solving, and that's what I'm tackling with this project.
The Definition Process
I like to keep this early phase (and most early phases) very loose and operate with the "no question is a bad question" and "no idea is a bad idea" type of approach.
With that in mind my tools of choice here are sticky notes, sharpies, white boards, curiosity and lots of conversation.
There are some good catalyst exercises to keep the convos going and the ideas flowing, but maybe will talk through that in another post, as that will make this post really long. For this post, we'll just talk about some of the insights we arrived at from our work session last week.
The project we're tackling is electric mobility, how it plays into our society/culture, and where can value be added.
Not going to lay out everything that was discussed / gleaned, as this blog will just keep getting longer, but going to touch on some interesting things that came up.
To start, we explored a core belief here, which is that movement matters. That movement sparks life. That thought is something we have spent the last 14 years exploring in one way or another.
It's our belief electric bikes have the potential to take this activity that has provided us with so many benefits; health, friendships, and mental health to name a few, and expand it to many more folks. Because our take is that the format of an electric bike solves many hurdles.
After riding (and working on) electric bikes for years now, talking to countless cyclists, we identified a bunch of items to explore, with a handful of them being:
- Replacing the Automobile
- Peace of Mind (Theft Prevention / Maintenance)
- Storage / Cargo (Utility)
- Go Anywhere / Out There (Freedom)
Below are some interesting takeaways from the workshop, across each category.
Replacing the Automobile
The auto industry has put in a lot of time successfully creating solutions to people's problems, and in the process, providing an exchange of value that people gladly will participate.
If you put some time into thinking through a car, you can spot these solutions.
Take storage, cars have every type of storage that is helpful. Fingertip storage, easily accessible locked storage, locked cargo transportation storage, tertiary storage (like the spare tire kit), and even add-on storage attachment points in the form of hitch mounts and roof racks. They've clearly considered the usage scenarios.
A lot of the progress that industry has made is so "normal" these days that we take it for granted. Take peace of mind. Automobiles do so much these days to ensure that you don't end up stuck on the side of the road. They have readouts to tell you how many miles you can drive your car, when you need to take it for service, if your tires or anything else needs attention. A bunch of information designed to give you peace of mind when you leave your house. And of course a network of additional services have been designed to offer even more peace of mind - AAA if you get a flat or lock your keys in the car, car insurance in case of an accident, google maps telling you where the closest gas or charging station is located.
Cars have solved a lot of problems. They have also created a host of new problems - pollution, traffic and road rage, and what I would argue is very inefficient use of resources - i.e., a car trip of .1 miles is likely a pretty inefficient use of resources! There's a lot more, but we can explore that another time.
But the key takeaway here is the automobile is a great example of a set of solutions on 4 wheels that have solved many problems successfully, and a good guide as to what it will take for e-bikes and other forms of micro-mobility to make a difference.
Image courtesy of Bicycling
Peace of Mind
As mentioned above, peace of mind is a key problem to solve in the e-bike use case. There's a lot at play here and a lot of room for innovation.
- Theft is a big problem to solve, and it's prevalent for many reasons:
- A 40lb bike is much easier to steal than a 4000lb vehicle
- Cars need to be registered to be operated and it's hard to register a stolen vehicle
- Opportunistic (bike) vs Planned Theft (cars)
- The legal repercussions are much more severe with auto theft
- Unattended parking is necessary for uptake in daily errand use.
- Trust in the performance of the bike is key - range, speeds, etc, especially when it's still partially human powered.
- Trust in the up-time of the bike - up and running vs in service and reducing on-road breakdown events.
Storage / Cargo
The transportation of storage is critical to providing a full mobility solution.
- Many current e-bikes deal with cargo/storage as add-ons, after the purchase of the bike. That is very different than when purchasing a car, where the storage/cargo solutions are built in, i.e., a car doesn't come with a rear rack in place of a trunk, where you need to go out and buy a trunk to attach to it after the fact.
- Identify the types of usage scenarios for storage and transpiration of cargo - which types of storage have to be built in to the design vs which can be add-ons.
- How does theft prevention play into storage.
- How does cargo load play into range/ride quality.
Go Anywhere, Any Time
Gravel bikes have taken off here in the states because of their all-terrain nature. A similar dynamic is at play with e-bikes.
- All-terrain performance = freedom.
- Reliability and durability is paramount. Peace of mind and trust in equipment goes a long way.
- Comfort considerations are important.
- Performance is key - speed, torque, handling.
- Appropriate features for any necessary tasks - lighting, safety/visibility, storage, etc.
Ideas naturally start flowing as we're tackling the problems at hand, but the focus on this round is to identify the problems and needs first. We'll create a design brief based on what we ultimately identify as the key criteria and start filtering it with business needs and other real-world factors.
That being said, this is one of my favorite stages of the process because we can look at the problems and solutions in a true way, before the consideration of resources come into play. That's when things get interesting.
More on that down the road!
Let me know your thoughts on any of this. Would love to hear what ya'll have to say.