How to Design for Success

by Mike Shipulski

What do they want?

Some get there with jobs-to-be-done, some use Customer Needs, some swear by ethnographic research and some like to understand why before what. But in all cases, it starts with the customer. Whichever mechanism you use, the objective is clear – to understand what they need. Because if you don’t know what they need, you can’t give it to them. And once you get your arms around their needs, you’re ready to translate them into a set of functional requirements, that once satisfied, will give them what they need.

What does it do?

A complete set of functional requirements is difficult to create, so don’t start with a complete set. Use your new knowledge of the top customer needs to define and prioritize the top functional requirements (think three to five). Once tightly formalized, these requirements will guide the more detailed work that follows. The functional requirements are mapped to elements of the design, or design parameters, that will bring the functions to life. But before that, ask yourself if a check-in with some potential customers is warranted. Sometimes it is, but at these early stages it’s may best to wait until you have something tangible to show customers.

What does it look like?

The design parameters define the physical elements of the design that ultimately create the functionality customers will buy. The design parameters define shape of the physical elements, the materials they’re made from and the interaction of the elements. It’s best if one design parameter controls a single functional requirement so the functions can be dialed in independently. At this early concept phase, a sketch or CAD model can be created and reviewed with customers. You may learn you’re off track or you may learn you’re way off track, but either way, you’ll learn how the design must change. But before that, take a little time to think through how the product will be made.

How to make it?

The process variables define the elements of the manufacturing process that make the right shapes from the right materials. Sometimes the elements of the design (design parameters) fit the process variables nicely, but often the design parameters must be changed or rearranged to fit the process. Postpone this mapping at your peril! Once you show a customer a concept, some design parameters are locked down, and if those elements of the design don’t fit the process you’ll be stuck with high costs and defects.

How to sell it?

The goodness of the design must be translated into language that fits the customer. Create a single page sales tool that describes their needs and how the new functionality satisfies them. And include a digital image of the concept and add it to the one-pager. Show document to the customer and listen. The customer feedback will cause you to revisit the functional requirements, design parameters and process variables. And that’s how it’s supposed to go.

Though I described this process in a linear way, nothing about this process is linear. Because the domains are mapped to each other, changes in one domain ripple through the others. Change a material and the functionality changes and so do the process variables needed to make it. Change the process and the shapes must change which, in turn, change the functionality.

But changes to the customer needs are far more problematic, if not cataclysmic. Change the customer needs and all the domains change. All of them. And the domains don’t change subtly, they get flipped on their heads. A change to a customer need is an avalanche that sweeps away much of the work that’s been done to date. With a change to a customer need, new functions must be created from scratch and old design elements must culled. And no one knows what the what the new shapes will be or how to make them.

You can’t hold off on the design work until all the customer needs are locked down. You’ve got to start with partial knowledge. But, you can check in regularly with customers and show them early designs. And you can even show them concept sketches.

And when they give you feedback, listen.

Image credit: Pixabay

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Mike Shipulski brings together people, culture, and tools to change engineering behavior. He writes daily on Twitter as @MikeShipulski and weekly on his blog Shipulski On Design .


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