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Written by: Kent Hatcher on July 2nd, 2008

What do blue jeans, golf clubs and a masonry saw have in common? They were all the subject of a Wall Street Journal feature on product design. In "Form & Function", they told the story of seven different products and how the design of each was influenced by a combination of scientific analysis, classic beauty and plain old common sense.Sosegwayarticle_page_1

How did we develop our stereotypes about the design of everyday things? Typically it is because they worked well at what we asked them to do (or what we were told they do), so they were consequently admitted into the club of perpetual, time-tested stereotypes. For every iPod and Blackberry (the most recent examples of conceptual designs), there are hundreds of examples of relative failures. Recall the Segway; the strange contraption which was to revolutionize personal transportation. Aside from TSA agents in your local airport, the Segway has not been invited into the "Human Design & Usability Stereotype Club"/ Gianfranco Zaccai, the founder of Design Continuum  in Boston, comments in the WSJ feature that the Segway is "brilliant technology, but fundamentally didn’t consider an aspect of human nature". Lawrence Rout further comments that it is one thing to have a broad idea of what a product will be. It’s something else altogether to figure out how it will all be put together – what it’s actually going to look like.

David Lewis, a designer for Bang and Olufsen, stated that innovation is all about coming up with something that people have never thought of – shattering stereotypes about what common objects will look or perform like. Therefore, this cancels out the need for user testing or market research, because people won’t know what they don’t want (because it doesn’t exist in a form recognizable to them).

So what is all this doing in a blog about ergonomics and human performance?

As I read each of the seven stories, three of them jumped out at me as really interesting examples of probably the most fundamental design rule – know your user. Consider the following themes:

  • Indigenous design and the role of cultural stereotypes. In the past, design concepts for products would be simply borrowed from one culture and unsuccessfully implemented "cookie-cutter style" into another. In the WSJ piece, John Stoll talks about designing a new car for Buick being introduced into the Chinese market – they included features that are intuitively pleasing to the Chinese consumer, such as fish-like features built into the grill, headlights and profile.
  • Wasted Time. At a construction site, projects are constantly under the gun with respect to deadlines. One story in the feature talked about cutting concrete blocks was slowing down the construction process, because workers were having to run back and forth to a large industrial machine (that wasn’t even designed for concrete). As a result, the machine was getting destroyed! Therefore, out of necessity, the construction company – that is, the people who would most benefit from the design – worked with a company to develop a lightweight portable masonry saw. This is a perfect example of how innovation is driven out of a desire to make a job more efficient. There is a human performance lesson here, can you see it?
  • Why does this have to be so hard? ilan Brat, writing about Caterpillar redesigning a large motor grader, illustrated the fear that CAT had that the new design would alienate their loyal customers and operators. CAT realized that their aging worker pool was getting beaten up physically after a full day of manipulationg the industrial steering wheel, as well as levers and pedals. With a shortage of skilled workers to replace the aging workforce, the physical demands of the task had to be lessened in order for the machine’s place in the construction industry to continue. After seven years of prototypes and user testing, CAT ended up with the first grader with solely joystich controls! I relate this back to Lewis’ comments about shattering conceptual and design stereotypes (motor graders and stereo speakers – same difference). People don’t usually think too far outside their conceptual stereotypes regarding the design of things they use every day.

Sometimes, everyday products remind us of our constant mission to make the things, jobs, situations, etc. around us better. What is around your right now that you think can’t be improved upon?

Remember, in 1989 the commissioner of the US Patent Office infamously said "Everything that can be invented has been invented". How did that work out?

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