Oleg Kadolka, our industrial designer, explains the nuances of his job and shares his personal experience at EnCata – a service company that specializes in design development and industrial prototyping for hardware and deep-tech startups. This interview is brought to you by EnCata’s content manager Vera Vasilevskaya.
As far as I know, an industrial designer is involved in a wide range of product development activities such as engineering, marketing and product design. The development of a new product – from concept to mass production – is a complex iterative process. When should an industrial designer get involved in the development process?
New product development begins with data collection and analytical work. It is necessary to study the target audience, market conditions and market competitors at this stage. The research is being conducted in order to develop an idea for a competitive product that will fulfill the needs of the target users and will be able to fill a market niche. A product manager, product marketer, and product designer are the core participants of the process that begin the creation of a new product. The product manager and product marketer conduct the study and make hypotheses about the expected functionality of the future device. A product designer joins to the team at the end of this stage. In the case of a hardware product, this will be an industrial designer. Dry analysis does not always guarantee that the outcome will be an exceptional product. So an industrial designer assesses the set of features and functionality emphasized by a product manager. Although a product marketer may argue that each individual feature or function of the device is highly sought after in the market, the product may end up looking like a “raggle-taggle show”. Some of you may recall one for all universal remote controls that were large in size but fit in the palm of your hand. Even the PC keyboard lacked the diversity of buttons found on those remote controls. The device was compatible with anything that received radio waves, such as TV sets and household appliances. However, no one tried to properly grasp how to set it up or operate it, though I've seen it many times in someone's hands. The concept of a universal remote control was initially intriguing, but the product failed to meet the demands of a consumer.
How does an industrial designer collaborate with mechanical engineers, procurement engineers and technologists in the product development process?
Everything is dependent on the product and source data. Say, once we had the “Robot for Teaching” project assigned. In fact, its centerpiece was the robot itself and its mechanics. The job of an industrial designer here began with the rough concept of the future product. So he or she starts by determining whether the robot will stand on legs or on a platform, what kind of manipulators it will have (for example, arms), and what function they will perform. In such a case, everything is drawn out and a sketch, or conceptual vision, is prepared. Following that, a mechanical engineer gets down to business with the mechanics. However, it can’t be that the industrial designer makes a drawing and after that tells the mechanical engineer: “Look, you do this”. It’s not the way a design and manufacturing team should work. The approach will be fundamentally wrong. A lot of kinematics, stability, and weight distribution calculations are required here. At the start of the project, a mechanical engineer is responsible for the majority of the work. He or she works on the mechanics of the robot, such as its dimensions and arm lengths. But it’s only the prototyping stage after which it can be verified that the mechanical engineer’s solution works, and therefore the mechanics development can be regarded as finished. Then an industrial designer gets down to the project. That is, as an industrial designer, I will rely on the skeleton model created by the mechanic.
At the same time, there are projects where the development process is built differently. Say, the functionality is already laid out, the requirements and expectations of the Customer are known. The Customer might only be unaware of the visual image of the product, but they may know the buttons, screens and controllers that are to be embedded for a user’s convenience. The Customer knows competitors’ strengths and weaknesses, as well as trends of the target market. In this case, the scope of work and technical requirements should summarize all this valuable information. The device’s functionality, user experience and links to competitors would be enough to get an industrial designer started with the development of, say, electronic devices. The industrial designer's role in this situation is to determine the product's ergonomics, appearance, and style. Sketches are the first step in the process. So a more or less viable sketch is drawn in CAD, with the assembly and general arrangement taken into account. Electronic devices are usually quite flexible in terms of appearance. All you have to do is agree with the Customer on the design. The job of a mechanical engineer is often unnecessary as the product electronics is responsible for the proper functioning, and there are no moving parts. However, technical constraints may emerge even in this case. If the circuit boards inside the device produce a large amount of heat, for example, a cooling system must be developed. This has to be balanced with the product’s ergonomic, noise and energy consumption. It was one of the obstacles while developing a smart cup, which is among our projects.
It is vital to know that industrial design is a collaborative process. The mechanical engineer matches many of the industrial designer’s concepts with the manufacturing capabilities. Thus, industrial design is a 50/50 mix of creativity and precise analysis. Many industrial designers lack the necessary experience and knowledge in analyzing materials and technological constraints. This leads to losing the original concept due to technological constraints or drastically increased production costs. The more qualified an industrial designer is, the more likely the final product concept will match the Customer’s expectations.
What are the difficulties in the work of an industrial designer? What are the most critical stages of product development?
If you take EnCata specifically as a service company, the biggest challenge here is when the Customer comes with an industrial design of their own. In this case, the overall product design vision is often based on the personal vision of the product owner or product manager. So this is where an industrial designer and the entire team sometimes play strict teacher. We take a step back and subject the Customer’s hypotheses and assumptions to the Discovery phase investigation. This assists us in ensuring that the current solutions are sound. Needless to say that the vision of the Customer and product manager is a priority for us, as they have the greatest interest in the product's success. We follow LEAN principles in the Discovery phase and do not hide any hazards. Instead, we inform the Customer of possible risks as soon as we find them. In some cases it makes product owners change their concepts, while in others they may even abandon them. The latter is more preferable for us rather than follow the Customer’s instruction and remain silent regarding the dangers. Such scenarios are rare, as we know how to create common ground with customers and use our development knowledge to assist their vision.
How to coordinate the Customer's wishes with the device’s ergonomics and the budget of the project so that both the Customer and the Contractor are satisfied with the result?
It’s similar to making soup. The Customer says: “I don’t know what it’s called yet, but I want this and that taken as an “ingredient”. After obtaining the input data, an industrial designer proceeds to examine it. It happens oftentimes though that the Customer’s requirements may not agree with ergonomics. Say, a product is large, there is a lot of electronics in it. Yet the Customer wants the item to be easy to operate and fit in the palm. Particularly, the Customer wants a flashlight that fits the size of his hand yet is jam-packed with electronics. It cannot be manufactured in the form expected by the Customer. The job of an industrial designer here is to meet the final user demands and the Customer’s expectations. It’s vital to note that slight changes might occur along the way. For example, it is possible to position the flashlight’s handle in the palm of your hand, while all of the product's electrical “filling” in the bottom section of the product. "SEEKING SOLUTIONS and USING CREATIVE THINKING," should be the mantra of industrial designers.
Can an industrial designer commence the development of a new product, if they see a market need for one? Is it possible for an industrial designer to encourage the consumer to focus on the new functionality, or not?
It depends on the nature of the customer-contractor relationship. It's evident that the former only pays for the work that they require. However, it is possible that during the initial interaction with the Customer, the industrial designer will identify a substantial gap that must be investigated in order to avoid disastrous implications and losses. Then it's up to the Customer to decide whether or not to listen.
How easy is it to come to an agreement with the Customer? How does the "only this way and no other" communication process work with "difficult clients"?
People can be different, and therefore customers as well. Because the design is tough to convey in words and not everyone can sketch, communicating with the Customer might be problematic. In this scenario, analogues are used in the design process, as well as references to our favorite and least favorite things. But, once again, we strive to make it apparent that there are still physical and market laws, economic rules that cannot be overridden. And I believe that it is preferable to be honest with a customer than to have an unviable work in your portfolio. Our designers and engineers apply their knowledge and expertise to examine the entire project and recommend the best solution that fits the Customer's needs. Working on the product entails a never-ending quest for a balance between the rules of physics and the market, the Customer's requirements, and his budgetary and time constraints.
We value the voice of the Customer, but we are also interested in the development of a viable product. Our solutions predicate on facts, and EnCata offers thorough information on the status of product development at all stages. We provide the product owner with horizontal – with no intermediaries – access to all members of the technical team working on the product. This enables us to provide the most objective information on all aspects of product development, which assists in reaching compromises, establishing a trusting connection between the Customer and EnCata’s team, and, ultimately, the product's success. We test our ideas and technical solutions to see how they affect a product's business model. We're here to assist all our customers in releasing a useful and commercially successful product.