UX Designers should be 3d-printing!

Nov 3 · 4 min read

TL;DR — with a 3d-printer you are in total control of an entire production cycle. This puts a product into your hands in a short time, but more importantly, it quickly lets you see whether your design choices were good or bad. This speed and control is a great way to cultivate a “fail fast” mindset and a way of working where you work smart and test assumptions quickly.

All product people should have a 3d printer

I’m a geek at heart, and love fidgeting around with stuff, taking stuff apart and repairing them. So I got a 3d printer earlier this year — I know, I’m late to the party, but I’m glad I showed up! :-)

I’ve enjoyed using my printer to fix stuff, build tools and toys. I’ve also enjoyed designing my own 3d-printable things, first using Tinkercad and now using the both powerful and free CAD software Fusion 360.

And I’ve learned something while designing, printing and tinkering : all designers should own a 3d-printer. In fact, I would argue that everybody who is involved with product development ought to own one.

Here’s why product people should be 3d printing

A 3d-printer puts you in total control of an entire product development cycle, from initial idea to concrete design, to production, and finally to a product being put to use. So you get to make all the decisions — and more importantly: you also get to see very quickly whether those decisions were good or bad! (news flash: not all design decisions are good!) :)

It’s inevitable that you will make bad decisions when creating something new. Why? Because “the new” is inherently a road you haven’t traveled before. So You will make assumptions that are wrong and you will fail to take important factors into consideration.

The inevitability of making bad decisions is of course why people say you have to “fail fast”. It’s inevitable that some decisions will be wrong, causing you to “fail”. So your job as a designer / as a product person is to identify the wrong decisions as soon as possible. Your job is to fail fast, so you can learn quickly.

Cultivating a “fail fast” mindset

Let’s take a practical example: I recently designed an arcade controller with 4 mm holes. The screws didn’t fit, because they needed 0.4 mm extra clearance. So I spent 5 hours and 40 meters of PLA printing an object, and the damn screws didn’t fit!

Tolerance testing tool

Now we can agree that five hours isn’t actually that much. But I could have tested the hole sizes with a 20-minute print and saved myself 4+ hours.

I could’ve zoomed in on my assumption that a 4 mm hole would work, and I could’ve tested it.

I could also have created a tool for testing tolerances more generally :)
(which is what I’ve done)

The great thing is, that after a handful of stupid failures like this, it becomes very obvious that there is a better and smarter way to work. That’s why I think 3d-printers are such a great technology for cultivating a “fail fast” mindset

So what IS a fail fast mindset?

You could describe it as a way of thinking where:

  • You are aware that your design decisions aren’t always great
  • You identify your assumptions
  • You are aware that assumptions and your designs need to be tested
  • You identify and break down problems to test them with the least amount of effort — i.e. you don’t do a 5-hour print if 20 minutes can resolve a question or validate an assumption)
  • You work towards an MVP — i.e. you don’t spend more resources than you have to … you don’t print a 6cm object if a 3cm object is enough.

In short, you develop a way of thinking that fits snugly into an agile, modern way of working.

In conclusion

Obviously, things in the real world are complex and messy — and in many ways the exact opposite of the simple process when you’re 3d-printing:

  • Estimates in the real world are difficult and often not very accurate.
  • Despite being agile, a lot of time passes between making a decision and seeing the consequences.
  • Usually there isn’t a linear relationship between the complexity of a development task, and the amount of time / resources needed to execute it.

Despite this, I think 3d-printing is a good way to help yourself and your team improve the quality of your thinking, when it comes to scope, decision-making, iteration, assumption testing, and MVP-first development.

Thanks for reading!

So what’s next? Well, why not use 3d-printing as a team exercise? Take a few hours to come up with a practical need you want to serve. Then design a thing, print it, test it, and reflect on the process using some of these questions:

  • Did you solve the right problem? — i.e. “could the need we defined be served in another way?”
  • What assumptions did you make? — i.e. “what did you “know” to be true?”
  • Did your assumptions hold up? — i.e. “what did your learn, how did your views change between then and now?”
  • Did your design work? — i.e. “how did your product perform when put to the test?”
  • How would you change the design if you could go back in time? — i.e. “given what you’ve learned now, how would you iterate your design now?”
  • Could your design have been more efficient in terms of time spent and material use? — i.e. “did you produce an MVP or not?”
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