4 Steps to Designing Products That Delight Your Customer

Polly Britton

By: Polly Britton
Project Engineer, Product Design

7th February 2018

This year Plextek encouraged me to attend a two-week course on Product Design taught by Magnus Long at Central Saint Martin’s College.

During my time there, I was taught to approach product design in four stages: Research, Ideation, Development, and Communication. I’m going to give a brief introduction to each of these using one of my own designs as an example.

The project brief was to “Improve the experience of ‘privacy’ within shared workspaces.” The product also had to be suitable for the Opendesk brand, meaning that it had to be constructed from simple plywood shapes.

Stage 1: Research

Before you can design for a specific problem you must know about the scenario. Where is it happening? Who is it happening to? Why is it happening? When is it happening, time of day, time of week, time of year?

“Where” was specified in the brief so I started the project by going to shared workspaces: the British Library, the University Library, King’s Cross Station, and Costa Coffee. I watched people working, asked them about their experience of privacy and working in shared spaces in general, and I thought back to my experiences of working in the university library when I was an engineering student.

What I found was that nobody was bothered by a lack of privacy and many of them enjoyed sharing the space with others because it helped them to focus. I thought about improving privacy, rather than increasing it, and about the Plextek office where we work side-by-side and I only need to turn my head to address another engineer in my department. In this instance, improving privacy meant decreasing it.

During the research stage, you might also want to create a user persona to keep in your mind as you develop your design. My persona for this project was a student I met in the university library, who went there to study for exams and write up course-work, but a persona could be an imaginary combination of real people.


Stage 2: Ideation

The ideation stage is your chance to let your imagination go wild. You are probably familiar with brain-storming and talking through ideas over a meeting table, but there are other techniques that you can try. The most important thing is giving all ideas a voice. Perhaps you can think of an existing product that can be improved on or re-purposed to solve the problem, or you have an idea that does not even obey the physical laws of the universe. Sometimes, thinking about what would make the problem worse can help think of a solution. Instead of thinking about why someone else’s idea won’t work, try to top it with an even crazier idea. This will encourage everyone’s creativity and lateral thinking.

After all the ideas have been recorded you can start to eliminate the impossible, the unsafe, and the illegal, then the unfeasible, the prohibitively expensive, and the offensive, etc. until you are left with the best of them. Depending on how long you have for the project, you could bring a few ideas forward to the next stage or just one.

I only had two weeks to finish my entire project so I brought just one idea forward: A desk chair that became two seats, for when two people want to work together at one desk.

Stage 3: Development

Even with just one idea there can be many ways to execute it, so you may repeat the ideation phase to explore the possible embodiments of the idea.

I sketched some different ways the chair could work; a stool could be stowed under the seat, a flap hinged on the side that extended the width of the seat, a similar extension that slides out from under the seat. The solution I settled on was to divide the chair vertically and have the two halves kept together by the back of the chair. When the back piece is slid out, the chair becomes two stools.

For this concept to work, the seat must be stable in its combined form, as well as each stool being stable on its own. This involved the application of basic principles I learnt in the Mechanics module of my Maths A Level and some intuition.


Stage 4: Communication

In my last blog, I discussed some ways to think about product personality, how it is communicated, and how it relates to company branding.

For my project, I chose to put my trust in Opendesk’s branding and style, since they have managed to build a business on it already. I used their most popular products to inspire my chair design so it would look natural in the collection. I added curves in some places and straight lines in others and drew a few variants, which I showed to some other people to get their opinion. This is the ½ scale miniature I submitted for my final design:


How can this help you?

In the competitive world of design, there isn’t always time to go through this entire process, and it isn’t always appropriate. In some circumstances, companies often develop technology before finding an application for it – their clients might even save them the trouble by laying out exactly what they want with a detailed specification.

However, if you can identify a problem that a significant number of people have and provide a product or service that solves that problem, your customers will pay you not just for the work but for also improving their lives. Different projects require different approaches, but when it comes to design you can never have too many conceptual tools, ready to be applied when the right project comes along.

This year Plextek encouraged me to attend a two-week course on Product Design taught by Magnus Long at Central Saint Martin’s College.

During my time there, I was taught to approach product design in four stages: Research, Ideation, Development, and Communication. I’m going to give a brief introduction to each of these using one of my own designs as an example.

The project brief was to “Improve the experience of ‘privacy’ within shared workspaces.” The product also had to be suitable for the Opendesk brand, meaning that it had to be constructed from simple plywood shapes.

Stage 1: Research

Before you can design for a specific problem you must know about the scenario. Where is it happening? Who is it happening to? Why is it happening? When is it happening, time of day, time of week, time of year?

“Where” was specified in the brief so I started the project by going to shared workspaces: the British Library, the University Library, King’s Cross Station, and Costa Coffee. I watched people working, asked them about their experience of privacy and working in shared spaces in general, and I thought back to my experiences of working in the university library when I was an engineering student.

What I found was that nobody was bothered by a lack of privacy and many of them enjoyed sharing the space with others because it helped them to focus. I thought about improving privacy, rather than increasing it, and about the Plextek office where we work side-by-side and I only need to turn my head to address another engineer in my department. In this instance, improving privacy meant decreasing it.

During the research stage, you might also want to create a user persona to keep in your mind as you develop your design. My persona for this project was a student I met in the university library, who went there to study for exams and write up course-work, but a persona could be an imaginary combination of real people.


Stage 2: Ideation

The ideation stage is your chance to let your imagination go wild. You are probably familiar with brain-storming and talking through ideas over a meeting table, but there are other techniques that you can try. The most important thing is giving all ideas a voice. Perhaps you can think of an existing product that can be improved on or re-purposed to solve the problem, or you have an idea that does not even obey the physical laws of the universe. Sometimes, thinking about what would make the problem worse can help think of a solution. Instead of thinking about why someone else’s idea won’t work, try to top it with an even crazier idea. This will encourage everyone’s creativity and lateral thinking.

After all the ideas have been recorded you can start to eliminate the impossible, the unsafe, and the illegal, then the unfeasible, the prohibitively expensive, and the offensive, etc. until you are left with the best of them. Depending on how long you have for the project, you could bring a few ideas forward to the next stage or just one.

I only had two weeks to finish my entire project so I brought just one idea forward: A desk chair that became two seats, for when two people want to work together at one desk.

Stage 3: Development

Even with just one idea there can be many ways to execute it, so you may repeat the ideation phase to explore the possible embodiments of the idea.

I sketched some different ways the chair could work; a stool could be stowed under the seat, a flap hinged on the side that extended the width of the seat, a similar extension that slides out from under the seat. The solution I settled on was to divide the chair vertically and have the two halves kept together by the back of the chair. When the back piece is slid out, the chair becomes two stools.

For this concept to work, the seat must be stable in its combined form, as well as each stool being stable on its own. This involved the application of basic principles I learnt in the Mechanics module of my Maths A Level and some intuition.


Stage 4: Communication

In my last blog, I discussed some ways to think about product personality, how it is communicated, and how it relates to company branding.

For my project, I chose to put my trust in Opendesk’s branding and style, since they have managed to build a business on it already. I used their most popular products to inspire my chair design so it would look natural in the collection. I added curves in some places and straight lines in others and drew a few variants, which I showed to some other people to get their opinion. This is the ½ scale miniature I submitted for my final design:


How can this help you?

In the competitive world of design, there isn’t always time to go through this entire process, and it isn’t always appropriate. In some circumstances, companies often develop technology before finding an application for it – their clients might even save them the trouble by laying out exactly what they want with a detailed specification.

However, if you can identify a problem that a significant number of people have and provide a product or service that solves that problem, your customers will pay you not just for the work but for also improving their lives. Different projects require different approaches, but when it comes to design you can never have too many conceptual tools, ready to be applied when the right project comes along.

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