The Design Process

Step 0: Get Motivated

As a high school sophomore surrounded by technology, I’m not quite sure where I can make the most impact. But, by prototyping and designing software that I think can solve problems in the real world, I’ve gained an affinity for product design.

This past summer I attended a camp called Design the Future at Stanford University. Throughout the weeklong summer camp, we learned about the design process and how to apply it to our lives. We were all given project partners who had a disability. Each project partner gave a group three problems and challenged the group to use the design process to solve one of those three problems.

Each of the problems, I would soon realize, truly negatively impacts their everyday lives.

Step 1: Empathize

The first step is to deeply understand the problem our user faces from their perspective. As an able-bodied person, it was difficult for me to really understand the severity of their problems upon first glance.

That’s when the mentors at the camp encouraged us to hypothesize multiple simulations. In one of the simulations, the goal was to button up a shirt, except we had to do it with our thumbs taped to our hands. This was supposed resemble a wheelchair user who doesn’t have full dexterity, showing me that everyday tasks like putting on your clothes are much more challenging when you are disabled. We had also tried to put on a pair of shorts without moving our legs, which ended up being a lot more challenging than I initially expected it to be.

After we got into the mindset of being empathetic towards the user, we were given three problems by our project partner:

  1. Not being able to organize or reach high shelves.
  2. Not being able to wheel his chair and carry a food or drink at the same time.
  3. Not being able to adjust the camber of a wheelchair. Camber refers to the angle of the wheels.

With this, the day came to a close, and we all slept on these problems.

The following day we had interviews with our project partners. These interviews gave us a chance to learn more about their problems, their everyday lives, and where we could add value. During the interview, we gained a deep sense of his lifestyle, personality, preferences, and which areas of his life these problems impact the most.

My mind had been swimming with millions of possible solutions to our project partner’s problems. However, I realized that none of those solutions would truly work after the interview.

The reason for this was I had failed to empathize. For example, our project partner stated he wanted a tray and all of us thought of a big airplane tray but one of the first things he said in the interview was he is unable to carry unwieldy or heavy objects in his wheelchair. We didn’t think about the fact that he would have to carry around an extra two pounds every day. After gathering some wheelchair measurements and the information we needed we were ready to move on to the next phase.

Step 2: Define

We now had to understand the core of the problem and the actual need. By this point in the process all of us wanted to design a solution to the second problem (not being able to carry multiple tems).

At the beginning of this stage none of us really understood what it meant to define the problem. We simply thought a tray was the solution and for a good part of this phase we just tried to come up with tray designs. Towards the end of the day we were told to make a problem statement.

Our statement was: “Tony, a determined individual, needs help to hold his things so he doesn’t feel like he sticks out in a crowd.” This statement helped us figure out the actual need: Tony just needs a way to hold his things. It doesn’t need to be a tray. It could be something totally different.

Step 3: Ideate

The next day we entered phase 3 of the design process: ideation.

As a group, we wrote any ideas that came to our minds on post it notes and then stuck them onto a white board.

We then categorized the results of our rapid brainstorming session, both by form and by function. Some of these ideas ranged from suction cups to trays to clasps. We articulated the pros and cons of each category and each idea, consolidating multiple ideas into a solution that we felt would solve Tony’s needs.

Our chimera solution was: a clasp that can attach to the wheelchair, which would hold a tray with multiple attachments like a suction cup. This provides Tony full flexibility and control over the types of objects he wants to carry.

Step 4 & 5: Prototype & Test

Prototyping and testing go hand in hand because without testing each prototype, we would have never understood how to iterate and make our product better.

Iteration 1: Low-res prototypes

During low-res prototyping we made a cardboard circle to represent the suction cup, some cardboard trays to visualize the dimensions of our final tray, and came up with an sliding mechanism.

When we tested these low-res prototypes we scratched the sliding mechanism altogether because it added too much weight. This taught us an important lesson about tradeoffs.

Iteration 2: Weight saving techniques

We then decided to make a small plate, which was lighter. However, we realized it wasn’t strong enough to carry any meaningful amount of weight, rendering it unusable.

Iteration n: Higher-res prototypes

Several iterations later, we came up with a high-res prototype that involved two laser-cut glass plates (one larger and one smaller), a rod of wood which would serve as an arm attached to the chair, and a metal tray for objects to sit on.

We were almost finished with our product when we realized the glass plates weren’t supported by the metal bars. So overnight, we 3-D printed some clasps which we could glue onto the plates and to the metal bars which would greatly aid table stability.

Iteration n+1: Revisit and rebuild

We thought we had solved Tony’s problem, but had a rude awakening the day before our final presentation. We had been iterating with a wheelchair that had slightly different dimensions than Tony’s. Back to the drawing board.

Because we were on a time crunch, we had to compromise quickly. There was no time to restart the entire design process. We took out the metal bars and plates since they weren’t at the right height for Tony to use them. We found a suction cup and fastened it to the wood arm and tested it with a few of Tony’s favorite things he wishes he could carry in his wheelchair.

Even though it wasn’t perfect, this iteration led to a product that was portable, small, lightweight and could hold something as heavy as a laptop without any problems.

What I Learned

Lesson 1: Done is the enemy of perfect.

Something I had struggled to learn was that there’s never a finished product. There is always an improvement to be made, or a feature to be added. During the week our team got wrapped up in trying to make the product look pretty and perfect when we really needed to prioritize its functionality and usability.

Lesson 2: Design is nonlinear

Another lesson I learned was design is never a linear process: it depends on each person. You can revisit any stage at any time. When we were in the define stage we needed to come back to empathy in order for us to move forward.

Lesson 3: It all starts with empathy

In our initial ideation sprints, we had pre-defined notions of solutions for Tony, our project partner. However, none of these solutions ended up being the one that worked best for him. The only way to arrive at a good solution was to build huge amounts of empathy for Tony and really try to look at the world through his eyes.