Innovate or disintegrate – I had the opportunity to attend an event in March regarding empathetic design presented by The CEO Forum and BIG (Big Ideas on the Gulfcoast) guest speakers Dr. Deena McDonagh and Walter Herbst. Dr. McDonagh is an Associate Professor of Industrial Design in the School of Art + Design at the University of Illinois (Urbana-Champaign) and faculty at the Beckman Institute of Advanced Science and Technology. Mr. Herbst founded Herbst LaZar Bell Inc. in 1962 which has grown into one three largest independently owned product design and development firms in the country.
The two focused their talk on the growing emphasis technology usability plays in the consumer marketplace. What I found most compelling was learning how our assumptions and design concepts are being put to the test. Dr. McDonagh shared a few very interesting case studies including everything from how we use a roll of toilet paper to how we tattoo ourselves with brands like Harley Davidson.
She emphasized in one of her examples that it was clear the designers were men and the women’s perspective was never taken into consideration in designing the product. She went on to illustrate how the product was useful and well intended but the lack of understanding and efficacy for the user in the design and implementation of the concept left quite a few people with the inability to fully use the technology as it was intended.
Design and technology forms the basis of manufacturing of every product we encounter. If you really sit down and think about the amount of effort it takes to get a product from initial concept through the design phase into production and finally to store shelves, it’s a wonder things ever make it to market.
Another very interesting design test you can perform is to intentionally deprive yourself from some of your sensory abilities and see how your experience is altered. One of the examples given was regarding hearing. Did you know that impairing your hearing while consuming food will alter your experience? It might even completely change how you experience the act of dining. You should try this one and let me know about your experience.
The other example is to tape all four of your fingers together and try to do simple things like writing a letter or talking on the phone. You will quickly discover how the design of the objects you’re using works or doesn’t work. Ask yourself if you feel attention was placed on the design or conceptualization of the technology. From the phone device itself, to how you use a hairbrush, or a pen for writing a letter.
Good design and good technology is the responsibility of the developer, the designer, and the manufacturer to challenge the norm and go beyond what’s expected. Understanding the empathetic component in how we design products and services and how the end user will experience our creations is imperative in our ability connect with the consumer.