Fresh Tilled Soil Case Study: Voxel8

Revolutionizing shoe design and manufacturing with 3D printing

Overview

In the hyper-competitive athletic shoe industry, time is critical. Shoe designs have an extremely short lifespan, sometimes lasting only a few months. Additive manufacturing technologies have begun to enable designers and developers to realize their designs in much more rapid cycles, yet challenges still exist. Designers can design a shoe, package the design files, and send them to a production company for manufacturing, but the manufacturing team will inevitably have questions for the designers, necessitating a costly back-and-forth before final production can begin. By then the market trends may have already shifted — idea lost, potential revenue gone.

A shoe designed with the Voxel8 system

Voxel8 is revolutionizing how athletic footwear and apparel are designed, manufactured, and delivered to consumers. Their digital footwear manufacturing systems dramatically accelerate time to market by shortening the design-to-manufacturing process and tightening the loop between thought and creation. But their digital manufacturing system was not without its challenges, and the team at Voxel8 was in need of a design partner to help them improve upon the user experience.

Strategy

Fresh Tilled Soil was engaged in a rapid, 10-day project to audit their current solution and provide a series of recommendations and designs to improve the application’s user experience.

The problem and the solution

Voxel8 developed an application plug-in that allows shoe designers to design and prototype sneakers for printing on the Voxel8 manufacturing system. These designers are experts in the shoe design world who have used software-based shoe design tools for a long time, but they are not experts in the additive manufacturing process. Because the Voxel8 system is a novel piece of equipment, users found it difficult to understand what it was capable of and how to use all of the features it provides.

A product engineer and a shoe designer working with the Voxel8 system

The Voxel8 application enables shoe designers to act more like shoe product engineers. By making it more visual and exposing the potential results more clearly to designers, the system allows people who may not be additive manufacturing experts to get a better sense of what their design implies and quickly iterate on that design — kind of like creating a WYSIWYG editor for a website. But the system had its challenges, and the team needed help with:

  • Delivering a singular product experience for internal and external users
  • Organizing features and functionality while hiding or obscuring elements that were less instrumental and potentially confusing to designers
  • Making improvements to user flows
  • Making the interface more discoverable such that users would know what to do once they entered the system and could discover the full potential of the system once there

Fresh Tilled Soil conducted a product audit in order to deliver a full set of best practice recommendations with visual explanations. Sketches and a set of wireframes with annotated screens helped guide the Voxel8 team through a redesign of the system to improve the user experience. Fresh Tilled Soil also delivered a speculative future version of a potential application redesign to use as a catalyst for future product development efforts.

Initial Product Design

The Voxel8 plug-in works in conjunction with Rhinoceros 3D, a commercial 3D computer graphics and computer-aided design application. It exists as a separate window that sits “on top” of the Rhino application.

Voxel8 plug-in on the right screen sitting atop the Rhinoceros3D application.
Even when the plugin window is extended it is still hard to use.

User Research and Interviews

A designer using the Voxel8 design and 3D printing system

Fresh Tilled Soil design strategists made several site visits to observe Voxel8 designers and product engineers interacting with the product in their environment.

Selected questions from a user interview script

Our research revealed that most users don’t have a dedicated monitor for the Voxel8 plug-in window, so it has to share the screen with the Rhino design application. Many of these users were observed constantly adjusting plugin width & divider location, so the monitor space that the plug-in occupied needed to be optimized to ensure only the most important features and functionality were exposed to the designer and presented in a logical order.

UX Best Practices and Annotated Wireframes

Our design team provided Voxel8 with annotated wireframes together with a series of best practice recommendations to improve the Voxel8 plug-in user experience — to bridge the gap between the plug-in and the Rhino application. The recommendations were focused on optimizing contextual relevance, creating a design-centric experience, and making it easier for designers to learn the system. Here are a few of the example wireframes incorporating our recommendations:

Accordion and List Detail layouts
Parameter Editor
Preflight check and expanded view
Visualizer with open panels

Updated UI Design Elements

After the initial 10-day user experience project, Voxel8 came back to Fresh Tilled Soil with a request to make some targeted UI improvements to their machine tool interface with a very quick turnaround. We started off by giving them a couple of different aesthetic options to chose from. After landing on the preferred approach, our designers chose the product screen with the most UI elements as the basis for all of the design updates.

The project wasn’t large enough to warrant an entire UI kit as the team only wanted improvements that could be made directly within the product CSS. Following are some of the UI element updates:

Original Screen — Manual tab
New Screen — Manual tab
Original Screen — MDI tab
New Screen — MDI tab
Original Screen — Auto tab
New Screen — Auto tab
All UI elements with different states

Voxel8 Conceptual Designs

Upon completion of the UX and UI improvements, we had the opportunity to provide Voxel8 with some future plug-in design concepts to consider.

Plug-in with timeline concept
Potential future version of the Visualizer

Post-Project Results

The Voxel8 team was great to work with, and we couldn’t have accomplished so much in a quick 10-day turnaround without their engagement.

Thank you so much for all your hard work! It was a pleasure working with you and getting the opportunity to dig deeper. The visuals look great, and we’ll be sure to keep you in the loop on our product development.
Alexandra Koukhtieva, Application Engineer

We were able to carry forward the momentum from this initial project into additional opportunities with the team over time.

Thanks for everything guys, we love the mockups!
Jack Minardi, Co-Founder and Director of Software

Do you have a user experience or product challenge that you’d like to discuss? Let’s talk!

Fresh Tilled Soil is a strategic product, user experience and interface design firm working with product leaders and designers at emerging & category leadership companies.