5 Lessons from Industrial Design for UXers

The industrial design principles I learned in college have given me a unique perspective in the world of web products. Having a real object in your hands forces you to be more practical in your critique; physical products are literally more tangible than web products. What can we learn from great product design and how can we apply it to digital projects?

Air Optics, concept goggles sketch and Blood Service wireframes

A couple years ago I gave a talk at Ignite Sydney (an awesome conference for interdisciplinary talks). The topic was “Life lessons from industrial design”; things I learned as an industrial designer that I use everyday as a user experience designer. Now with a couple more years under my belt as a UXer I can safely say that these lessons are are still relevant to my day to day work. I’d even go so far as to say that these 5 principles helped me win international clients and get a job at super cool design firm in Amsterdam.

Before I moved overseas to Australia and then Europe I was living in Portland working at Intel. Straight out of an Industrial Design degree at CCA, I was designing concept laptops and the holistic customer experience for future laptops. This job was my gateway to digital. I had to look at hardware, software, service design, and inter-device relationships.

When I left Intel to travel for awhile and “find myself” I found a job at a digital consultancy in Melbourne, Australia. It turns out all the skills I’d been practising at Intel made me a pretty good UX consultant.

Here’s 5 lessons from industrial design and how they help to create relevant products and experiences for users.

  1. Don’t skip the principles
Principles should describe the solution without implying the answer.

Principles are easy to overlook in digital but they are pretty key to finding clever solutions in product design. They are an exercise in separating problem from solution. Clearly defining problems is the key to coming up with clever solutions.

Take for example: “the “Get in touch” button doesn’t look clickable”. This is an observation which implies a solution: make the button look clickable. This approach moves straight from observation to solution.

Instead, insert the extra step of defining the problem and principles for a successful solution. Principles should describe the ideal solution without implying the answer. They should also span across multiple observations or a recognised pattern.

“Users must be able to contact us” is probably a relevant principle. It might be a higher priority principle on this particular site like: “the primary purpose of the site is to get users in contact with us”. Brainstorming based on the underlying principle rather than the initial observation will help you find way cooler solutions.

Lets assume that the primary purpose of the site is to get users in touch with your company. More than just the “Get in touch” button needs to change, the content and layout should all work to funnel users towards the action of making contact. It may be that a “Get in touch” button is not the most effective way to get in touch, maybe having a phone number users can click which automatically connects a call is an even more effective way to get in touch. Now you have some potential solutions you can test for “get-in-touch-effectiveness”.

Skipping principles just means you miss opportunities to design a cleaner more effective site earlier in the process. Moving from observation to principle to solution is part of a holistic design process, jumping straight from observation to solution is a reactionary one.

2. Sketching improves your thinking

Sketching is not only a communication tool but also a thinking tool…My sketch book is an extension of my brain and it allows me to process complex concepts and frameworks.

When I was new at Industrial Design sketching I would draw products with no material thickness, screws or part lines. These products would have been impossible to manufacture. As I gained experience in how products are made, my sketching became more detailed. It developed into a planning tool. I use sketching at work to test ideas, plan presentations and, of course, design websites. Sketching is not only a communication tool but also a thinking tool.

The more I practiced sketching the more it became essential to thinking through a project before I started to build. There are some particularly complex concepts I can’t think through properly without a pen and paper near by. My sketch book is an extension of my brain and it allows me to process complex concepts and frameworks.

3. Your first 30 ideas are crap

Your first batch of ideas are just as obvious to you as they are to any other group of brainstormers.

Let me preface this one by saying that 30 is the number of sketches I was expected to do each week in design school (actually it was more like 50 most weeks); it’s a fairly arbitrary number. The point is that your first batch of ideas are just as obvious to you as they are to any other group of brainstormers.

Keep this in mind when creating a pitch or presentation because your first round of ideas are probably pretty similar to the competition’s ideas. To make your ideas stand out you need to spend a few extra rounds of ideation pushing your ideas further than those first brand impressions (and don’t skip the principles). I’m sure clients often see variations on the same general concepts from competing pitch teams but the agency that wins is the one that took the idea to the next level.

4. Make it real

Arc dish rack design by Lily Kolle

One year I entered a dish rack design in the International Housewares competition. It looked like a bridge that spans over your sink to save counter space and drip dry dishes directly into the sink. I sent sketches and renderings in a booklet detailing my design but I had not built a prototype to prove the concept would work. I received a score of 34 / 100 and the feedback that this dish rack would snap under the weight and break all the dishes.

But I knew this wouldn’t be the case because I had actually done the research on how bridges carry weight and the types of strength promoted in different bridge designs. So I build one and used it above my sink for years.

Arc functional prototype in my kitchen

It can be really frustrating when you have a concept in your head and no one else seems to ‘get it’. When someone feels strongly about an idea, it probably has merit, but they may not have found the right way to communicate its merits yet.

Companies should encourage their employees to peruse those kinds of ideas. Google lets their employees spend 20% of their work week on their own projects and this fuels some really innovative projects. Don’t let your ideas go to waste, just spend a little time on to demonstrate them.

The best way to share your idea is to make it real. When things are tangible they’re a lot harder to disbelieve.

5. Tell your story

No matter who you present to, a story is always going to illustrate the point faster than a long dry document.

In design school I presented my work for critique at least twice a week. When I focused too much on my boards or the chronological order of what I worked on, no one was engaged and the feedback I got was about how I presented rather than my ideas. I wanted feedback on my ideas!

I developed a strategy for presenting my work that I still use today. I imagine explaining my project to my best friend. I usually start with a summary, what I think is cool about it, what the problems are that need to be addressed, and overall why I think it can be successful. Imagining that I’m telling this to a friend keeps me honest about acknowledging the challenges. But it also frees me to show my enthusiasm for the underlying potential.

When I started presenting this way I was much more relaxed, it is a natural and candid style. People are more engaged in what I’m saying because I’m enthusiastic and realistic. The best part is that the feedback is always on my ideas, not my presentation.

When presenting to a client or delivering a research report it is easy to get stuck ticking the boxes of what needs to be included. I think of how I would explain the ideas and challenges to a friend and structure the deck to match that flow of conversation. No matter who you present to, a story is always going to illustrate the point faster than a long dry document. Structure reports around the points you’re trying to communicate rather than the deliverables you’re ticking off a list.

Those are the top 5 lessons from industrial design that I use to improve my UXing:

  1. Don’t skip principles: they get you to better solutions faster.

2. Sketching improves your thinking: use it as an extension to your brain.

3. Your first 30 ideas are crap: for original ideas, put in the time.

4. Make it real: tangible concepts are easier to believe in.

5. Tell the story: being honest and telling the story you care about is the easiest way to engage others.

Watch my talk at Ignite Sydney [digital], Life Lessons from Industrial Design for the original spiel.