Industrial Design Conference: Seattle, 2022
By Chris Daniels, Jen Barber, Eric Fickas, and James Lua
There are a number of reasons we go to conferences. They provide an opportunity to meet up with old (and new) friends from across the globe. They allow us to find the pulse of the design community and to glimpse the future. We go to sharpen our skills, and to learn and see things from a new perspective in a new place. They leave us with inspiration, our creative tanks topped off, and our passion fueled.
This year the International Design Conference (IDC) was back in person for the first time since the pandemic began. Many inspiring students and professionals had the chance to showcase their work. Some topics included the move from industrial design to UX, the future of industrial design, the many aspects of inclusion, and design research.
The Future of Traditional Industrial Design
For a product designer working in the physical space, the future of traditional industrial design is a point of interest. In some circles, there is a fear that opportunity is waning for physical product. Budget allocations, momentum and excitement appear to be shifting in the direction of digital services.
Tim Hulford (Meta), in his talk Designed To Disappear, shared his perspective on how the evolution of tech “has led to a remarkable reduction in physical objects.” Hulford illustrated the changing landscape by showing an image of a cluttered desk with “artifacts of work” disappearing one by one. What was left behind was a computer and not much else. This illustration was meant to show how these once needed physical objects have now largely been replaced by digital products that allow us to do more with less.
A panel discussion followed which raised many questions, with a balanced perspective about digital experience. This included the overarching idea that digital products/experiences embodied in a physical platform should be designed with connected teams working in parallel. This would mean teams creating a physical product (engineering, industrial design), working directly with UX/UI.
The stakes are higher for the creation of these physical products, however, because you must lock in a design, commit to tooling, and consider the complexities of production. Digital design is more flexible, allowing rolling changes, iterations, and updates on the same hardware.
But, what does this mean for designers? Designers with a background in physical product are uniquely equipped to excel at UX/UI with their foundation in user centered design. However, a rush to digital design could lead to a vacuum of qualified designers doing physical product design where capital stakes can be higher.
User-focused Research and Design
It is easy to get so zoned-in that you lose sight of the context and the people a product/service will serve. Taking steps to align internal stakeholders to prioritize the needs of their consumers ensures that their product is a success in its design, and how its value is articulated. This ensures that users can see their need met in your offering. One speaker continued to emphasize how important it is to include the target audience throughout the design process. Frequent touch points with users ensures that the design and communication speaks to the intended audience’s values and does not make assumptions about that group.
"Make sure you are focused on the user’s needs and not on stakeholders needs."
With big topics like the shift of design to a more digital focus, this conference challenged us to look bigger. Designers who once primarily focused on physical products must now have an eye towards digital. As products and experiences have one foot in digital and one in physical, we must take a step back and look at the experience as a whole.
From the user’s perspective, all touch points must work together to create a frictionless and intuitive experience as they transfer mediums. One of the speakers referenced service design’s holistic view of an experience that encompasses all touch points including physical, digital and intrapersonal. This end-to-end look at the context of a product, both customer facing and with those internally who are providing the product/service, will be essential when creating products that truly meet users’ needs.
From our team’s perspective, it is important to cover both the function of the product/service, as well as the context and emotional side of the experience. We utilize our human factors specialties to make sure products are safe, effective, and easily understood. Simultaneously, we utilize design research capabilities to identify how the current experience compares to the ideal and what changes need to happen to reach the ideal state.
Inclusivity in the Product Development Process
Another theme of the event touched on the importance of diversity and inclusivity – both in the workplace and research/testing groups. Hearing the opinions of designers from a variety of cultural, ethnic and economic backgrounds, genders and identities in the workplace is imperative. This breadth of different backgrounds leads to a diverse set of personal experiences, opinions, and outlooks that contribute to the development process. By having a mindset of diversity and inclusivity, our workplaces can thrive with new ideas.
An example of inclusivity that was discussed referred to designing for a demographic different from the designer. In this case, a major retailer designed a line of clothing for Pride Week. The designers were not part of the target demographic and made assumptions based on stereotypes. The result was a line of clothing that was tone-deaf to the targeted community. In a massive course-correction the following year, the retailer sought the advice, options and designs of the LGBTQ+ community and released a line of clothing that was very well received, selling out merchandise almost instantly.
Diversity and inclusivity in the workplace and in the product development process will result in development that is inclusive of communities, rather than a small pool of people.
In summary, the takeaway this year was one of responsibility, opportunity and looking towards the future.
Our team is especially optimistic to deliver multi-disciplinary product development. With flexible, interdisciplinary teams of researchers, industrial designers, engineers, UX/UI, CX designers, software development, electrical engineering and prototyping specialists working side-by- side, we’re equipped and ready to tackle the upcoming challenges facing product development.
We understand the best products (whether physical, digital or both) are products designed by teams who appreciate that every product can bring positive change, connect people, and enrich our lives one interaction at a time.
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About The Authors
Chris Daniels, Sr. Industrial Designer
Chris specializes in hardware design. He has intense attention to detail and won’t finish a project until it’s perfect. This obsession carries over into his personal life, as Chris has built his own hot rod from the ground up.
Jen Barber, Design Research Specialist
Jen’s experience is in design research and innovation, applying user feedback along with design thinking tools to guide innovation for both products and experiences. She has worked to identify and apply insights from medical devices to quick-service restaurants. Jen is a team player, and always willing to help. When she’s not in the research lab, you can find her playing volleyball and enjoying hiking and camping.
Eric Fickas, Sr. Industrial Designer
Eric loves solving a puzzle no matter the challenge: mechanical, aesthetic, or maybe just figuring out how to do something no one has done before. He’s also your go-to-guy for anything related to pop culture minutia!
James Lua, Sr. Industrial Designer
James has unique empathy for each client’s respective end-users and is motivated to develop appropriate solutions for their unique challenges. He loves every phase of the design process, and thrives on problem solving, storytelling, and conceptual development. He is also a talented guitarist who helps compose original music for his band.