Final Case Study: Taking on Spotify as a Mechanical Engineer

Cornell University | CS 1998 | Digital Product Design

I will warn you right now that if you are looking for a case study about the analytical design of a feature addition to Spotify, you will be disappointed. What I can promise you is a brief explanation of my views coming from Mechanical Engineering and experiencing a new way of thinking. I hadn’t really any expectations coming into this class, for it was definitely for people who were interested in and pursuing digital product design. To be fair, I hadn’t really any expectations for any of my classes at the beginning of the semester. I threw away the singularity of my traditional coursework from the past three years; I wanted to do something different, and I only kind of knew what that different was. All I knew was that in my MechE career, I was pivoting.

It took about until Assignment 5 to realize what was going to be the most important part of this class and why. Below is the most amount of progress I had made in implemented my low fidelity idea into a medium fidelity mock up. I have poured an incredible number of hours into this mock up, and eventually I stopped.

While my low fidelity was not fully implemented, you’ll notice that the difference in color was maintained for various texts, the logo type was maintained for the options on the menu, the transparent ambiguous stock photo was maintained to indicate further what the logo means. There are design details that I attempted to carry over from the actual app to create the mock up. However, actually creating the idea and figuring out what the process flow for the user should be was more interesting to me than physically creating the mock up. I learned more from thinking about what is actually important to the user and what is important to Spotify as a company than from creating the mock ups. Traditional mechanical engineering is focused on how components interact with each other, but there is not a clear emphasis on where the user comes into play.

This class helped me revamp how I approach a design process as a mechanical engineer. This reason is also how I applied for graduate credit for a class that is a 1900 level program. When you learn mechanical engineering concepts, you start thinking about the world as interactions between those concepts. You think about the spring force required to return the retractable locking block in the door. Design thinking was a new space for me, and as I learned new design thinking theories and practices, I started seeing products and spaces with more intention. I started thinking about how intuitively, I knew the door was closed because of the sound of the retractable locking block — the user feedback. Even now as I edit this document, I know immediately which tab is the medium tab that I am working on because the logo is just outlined whereas the published medium article has a filled in logo. Being able to identify those details and understand their intention is opening doors. As a mechanical engineer who is planning to pivot from traditional engineering to more modern territory, ignoring this contrasting design process would have been a mistake.

My biggest takeaway from learning about the design process that differs greatly from the way I approached mechanical design is quantity with clarity. The ideate stage of the design process revolved around pushing boundaries on how many potential solutions you could come up with regardless of their plausibility. However, each of those ideas needed to stem from a clear problem statement. In mechanical design, it is more standard to being with a plausible idea and follow through with it until it is proven to be unfeasible. Considering a newer mechanical field such as automation and robotics, the quantity of ideas allows you to stumble upon an idea that through mechanical design might not have been pursued. In addition, while there are benefits to being able to follow through with a design initially, it is possible that the design that is chosen does not satisfy the needs of the user. I had come across this issue when choosing a feature to work on for Spotify.

Picking Spotify as my case study application was easy: it is an app that I use every day when doing problem sets, manufacturing carbon fiber components for Baja, or even just driving. For me personally, Spotify was such a major component in my daily productivity that the more it could be the foreground of my life without my intervention, the better. Initially, I had all of these ideas that would have enhanced my personal user experience. The product design method was interesting because it allowed you to explore as many possible solutions before becoming attached. For example, I had wanted to implement an anthem button that would play a song of the user’s choosing over and over again and be easily accessible from any screen. However, this would have done nothing to solve the real problem that users had with Spotify. You can check out the rest of my design process here.

Okay great — I claim I’ve learned something about product design in a one credit class taught by four incredibly well dressed people, one of whom will continue to be my one stop shop for career and fashion advice, and I managed to make a half baked med fidelity at the end for what I believe is gap in Spotify’s discovery platform. So what?

Well, I went out and tried to implement this new type of design thinking for a business class in a team of engineers who are more technically minded and the results were not as clean cut as they had been when implementing the process in this class, but successful. By starting a brainstorming session with plenty of enthusiasm, an expo board and marker, and this new design process, about an hour’s worth of discussion was shaved from a meeting. I had asked members of my team for suggestions to solve our problem of implementing a new robot system regardless of their plausibility. Then we had grouped those ideas into categories that eventually became three pillars to support an investment of our product.

Being able to create and pull ideas in using this new design process that CS 1998 has introduced me to is extremely critical to the kind of mechanical engineering I hope to pursue. Pushing the boundaries of creative solutions is what leads to brilliant engineering. Just take a look at Google X’s projects. Someone at some meeting had said, what if we put little baby wind mills on a kite. The Makani wing is just one example of the intersection of creativity, mechanical engineering, and robotics to serve people. I believe that is what product design is for mechanical engineering, and why I am pivoting towards that new age of thinking and engineering.

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