Episode 4 — Design Thinking

In this episode, we discuss “design thinking,” a problem-solving approach that is now applied in business and education, as well as in the creation of new products and services. We talk with Jim Tappel, a professor at the University of Cincinnati and former IDEO employee, about how engineers might best coexist with, or even embrace, this approach to discovering new solutions.

  • Jeff once used the intro and outro music of a Dire Straits song, Industrial Disease, in the background of a video featuring a robotic gripper he had designed.
  • Jim is currently involved with Cooperative Education at the University of Cincinnati. At a previous point in his career, Jim worked for the well-known design firm, IDEO.
  • An article that tells designers to excite engineers with performance issues is The Key to Sustainable Product Creation: The Marriage of Engineering and Design.
  • Tracy Kidder’s book, The Soul of a New Machine is referenced by Jim as documenting one corporation’s willingness to fail.
  • A series of increasingly capable robots from the movie, “The Incredibles,” is noted by Chris; he is probably thinking of the Omnidroids?
  • Swiss watch manufacturers thought outside the box in creating Swatch watches.
  • “Design Thinking” covers a broad swath of ideas, as evidenced by its entry in Wikipedia.
  • Eddie Obeng has written about “foggy” projects in his book New Rules for the New World: Cautionary Tales for the New World Manager. Such efforts lack a clear objective, and the existence of any workable solution is uncertain.
  • Jeff mentions a book by the CEO of IDEO, Tim Brown: Change by Design.
  • We learn about the importance of “kiss off” and “suck back” in making toothpaste enticing to consumers.
  • Jim estimates that when coming up with new ideas, the success rate is about 2%; it takes the courage to generate a lot of mediocre and bad concepts to find a winning solution.
  • In reference to a Dan Saffer video about design thinking, Jim notes that there is more to the methodology than putting a whole bunch of post-it notes up on the wall.

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Thanks to Dawn D for the photograph from Design 2020.

Episode 3 — Compromise

  • This week on the show, we had some unfortunate audio issues, as Jeff says in the introduction. If you can get past the sound this week, the content is good!
  • Chris has been working with his sawzall of late. Sometimes you have to stop measuring and just “cut into the wall”.
  • Problem sets in school do not approximate the real world. There are no curves that fit most problems.
  • Sometimes you’ll need to use bodge wires and duct tape in order to accomplish your goals, especially after you make mistakes.
  • Chris mentioned a Tacoma Narrows bridge, which was discussed on the 99percent podcast last week. Click through for an amazing video.
  • Jeff knows an engineering professor who had a student respond to an optimization question with the answer: 76.4 blades. Too much focus on equations.
  • Cost, Speed, Quality: Pick 2. All part of the Project Management Triangle.
  • Why are engineers lamented as being cold and clueless when many situations mandate that engineers not be emotional creatures?
  • The Pareto Principle, as applied to design and engineering schedules.
  • Jeff insists on well written specifications while consulting in order to be realistic about feature creep.
  • Designing often requires safety factors and margin of error. This will depend on your confidence in incoming specifications.

Have you subscribed yet? It’s the easiest way to hear when there’s a new episode. We plan for every 2 weeks. But who can remember that? Just subscribe! Email or RSS reader or Podcatcher.

Thanks to dianaholga for the seesaw picture

Episode 2 — Feedback

This episode we talk about the feedback that engineers receive about their work. How do you deal with feedback and how should it be interpreted?

  • Steve Wozniak, of Apple Computer fame, is of the opinion that designers are like artists, and they should work alone. Thus, he seems to imply that outside feedback should be ignored. His thoughts on this issue are more fully developed in his book, iWoz: Computer Geek to Cult Icon: How I Invented the Personal Computer, Co-Founded Apple, and Had Fun Doing It.
  • Jeff notes that while being a ‘maverick’ designer is exciting, everyone can benefit from outside opinions to help them see things in a new light.
  • It’s far easier to get buy-in from management for out-of-the-box ideas during the conceptual phase, than it is during final product design.
  • Dan Saffer recently posted a humorous presentation titled “How to Lie With Design Thinking.” While talking about web design, he skewers those who promote non-quantifiable aspects of “design thinking” over the hard work of actually doing design.
  • IDEO, founded by designer and entreprenuer David Kelley, is almost synonymous with design thinking.
  • Customers often don’t know what they want. They may cling to the first solution they think of, regardless of implementation issues, and will frequently ignore underlying design problems that are, in fact, causing the purported difficulty.
  • Chris describes using Voice of the Customer to determine a customer’s preferences. A related methodology is Quality Function Deployment (QFD).
  • Noting the linear thinking of customers, Chris references an xkcd comic about a “smart” engineer offering to turn the dial up to “12.”
  • Jeff urges taking feedback with “a grain of salt.” Lots of smart people have differing opinions. Look to friends and family for emotional support, not managers and business colleagues.
  • When things go badly, Jeff proposes that one should take heed of the “45-minute rule.”
  • Chris tells us about what it means to be “Shanghaied.”
  • A lack of feedback may indicate a need to reassess the importance of a project.
  • Delayed feedback is worse than no feedback, as it indicates that opinions have remained hidden until such time as they can only be used as a bludgeoning tool.
  • Chris notes that nobody says, “It’s just engineering,” to justify questionable behavior, although the phase “It’s just business” is frequently used in that manner.
  • Contentious interactions between involved individuals are always a possibility, despite efforts to “iron out” difficulties up front.
  • Jeff mentions the “curse” of the mechanical designer: anyone who’s ever changed a spark plug thinks they can do a better job of designing physical objects.
  • Chris announces a name for our podcast; it will henceforth be called “The Engineering Commons.”

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Thanks to CathodeRayJunkie for the feedback picture.

Practical insights for the engineering crowd