Strategies of a Consumer Electronics Designer

Rich Gilbert is co-founder of the Agency of Design, an organisation that specialises in design at the junction of physical and digital worlds, working with organisations ranging from medical start-ups to the Department of Energy and Climate Change. As part of Think Up’s Royal Academy of Engineering-funded research into the design strategies of engineers from different sectors of industry, I interviewed Rich about the conceptual design of consumer electronic goods. It is a fascinating area of design that crosses the boundaries of electronic, materials and systems engineering.


What is being designed?

To illustrate Rich’s work as a designer of consumer electronic goods, we focused on two Agency of Design projects. The first is for a new type of door handle for hospitals, which dispenses antibacterial hand-wash when the handle is pulled. The mechanical system is connected to an electronic system which tracks device use and supply levels in the dispenser. The second project is for a new kind of light bulb designed according to the principles of circular design, in which components can be replaced and the manufacturer can remotely track the performance of the device, sending out replacement components as necessary.


The questions below are loosely based around a standard set that I have been using with engineers from a range of different disciplines. (To answer the questions yourself, you can do so on our online form and contribute to our research).


Establishing the brief

In response to what need?

Specific needs depend on the case you are dealing with. In the case of the light bulb the underlying need was for better environmental performance. This is not something that the customer knew they needed. Rather we saw it as the market under-performing. LED technology is good, but the power supply is not good. So here the need was really an entrepreneurial opportunity. In the case of the door handle, the need was to reduce the rate of infections transmitted in hospital. The World Health Organisation had identified that there is a huge risk of infection related to poor hand-washing. Here, we saw a need to move hand-washing stations from the wrong locations to the right ones.


With consumer product design need is an interesting question: are we dealing with genuine needs or are they socially constructed? Is is a need or is it desirability?


New technologies and functionalities come along that enable us to do something in a different way, and these need to be packaged into a new product. Touch-screens changed the whole consumer electronics market. Virtual reality and altered reality technology is doing it once again, radically changing the way we interact with digital technologies.  In a sense the need is to see how these new possibilities can be exploited.


And of course it is important that at some point what we do becomes a commercial success so we can carry on doing what we do.


What key information does the brief give you?

This is a hard question to answer because sometime we don’t get a proper brief. The first chunk of work is to create the brief with the client. We need to answer questions like who are the target users and what’s the end price? If it is a consumer product, what is the consumer positioning? Are we designing high-end or cost-competitive low-end products? Is there any existing research on that market? Do they already have a manufacturing base and a system of distribution?


Often people have a theory about what the want to do, but they don’t really know it. Often the first stage is to push back on the brief, and to do some research to assess if this is a good idea or not.


What is usually missing from a brief that you usually need to and find out?

Some people write incredible briefs, and some don’t. Some people just have a sniff of an idea, like let’s put hand sanitisers on door handles. They have no idea about price, who is going to manufacture it, who is going to install it. From this starting sniff you need to fill in all the gaps.


On the other hand a client will come to you with a user profiled, ages, price point, how to target them. These clients are just further down the line. You just jump on the process wherever they are in in their thinking and help them out.


Developing ideas

Evolution or revolution?

We push for a bit of both. We use an approach called an uniformed brainstorm. Here, we sit down with a blank piece of paper and allow ourselves to write down ridiculous ideas. Before you know anything, your brain is the most open. This is when the thinking is more revolutionary. The aim is to push through as many crazy ideas as you can. As you start to research things more your thinking becomes more honed, so it is important to get those initial ideas fleshed out at an early stage.


But we also do more structured, classic group brainstorms. For example, we will pick a technology, or a product feature, or a particular group of consumers and see what could develop from that starting point. We make sure we approach the problem from lots of different angles. In this case the thinking is more evolutionary.


What tends to inspire the ideas you conceive of?

Your primary inspiration is often only as good as the material that you are pulling into your head. You are always looking for stuff that you find interesting. You suck up a world view of design that is constantly getting assimilated into your thinking.


What we try to do at the start of a project is to go into museums or shops and get inspiration from what is out there. We use a tool called Google Keep to capture these initial scraps of inspiration, it lets you annotate them. It is really good to be able to see these things for yourself and then to be able to add your own commentary to a picture you have taken, rather than simply get some photos from the web.


One technique we borrowed from the Google Sprint book, which contained an analysis of where their best ideas came from. They realised the best ideas came from people going off and thinking on their own. So what we do is set everyone in the design team a brief, and they go away and develop six ideas, which they bring back to the table and we all build upon each other’s ideas.


When developing a solution, what comes first?

The first thing to do, as early as possible, is to mock it up in order to see if it is an idea worth taking further. It can be a model made from a few pieces of cardboard, or some simple web code. Are there some analogous components that already exist from which we could assemble the idea that will help us take the prototype further? It is important to do it quickly in a non-precious way. Putting something made of cardboard on the table and saying this is my concept gives people so much more of an explanation about what it is than if you simply do a sketch.


Are there a set of go-to answers to consider first?

Everything is a remix of previous ideas, so you mustn’t underestimate the importance of feeding in the right source material.


Can you characterise the dominant uncertainty?

In the case of the door handle project, the dominant uncertainty was human behaviour. We wanted to make it optional to use, not forced, and so we needed to make it as easy as possible to use, requiring minimal thought.


Another driving factor was the way that data would be captured about use. The dispenser is located at the bottom of a door handle, operated by a paddle underneath. We wanted to get data on the number of times the door handle was used, regardless of whether the paddle was used to dispense hand gel. So, we looked for a material that enable us to detect a hand touching the handle. This led us to use a di-cast aluminium for the outer casing. In this way the data sensing method significantly influenced material choice.


Developing and choosing ideas

What models do you use to test an idea?

Prototyping is the most important type of modelling. It is impossible to know how people are going to react to things until you can put it in front of them so they can pick it up and turn it upside down and, if possible, turn it on. You can make a theory of it, but the most important thing is to test with people.


In product design it is very easy to prototype something yourself. For the doorhandle pump project, in 45 minutes we had put some plumbing tubing on a hand pump and we had something that led to four years of further development. Physical prototyping gives you great information but you can never get the sample size that you can with digital prototyping for online tools.


In consumer electronics, it is just as important to create a physical model to see how people going to interact with the device. With cardboard and an Arduino board, you can quickly put something crude together. A rough model will very quickly tell you if there is something missing in your thinking about how people will interact with it. Systems like Arduino, open-source platforms and the freely-available online code libraries make it really easy to create prototypes of electronic products. Your output of concepts can be high, quickly mocking up different options and seeing if they are viable.


What models you use for communicating ideas with others

There is a time in a project when you want to show people a sketch, and a time when you want to show them a photo-realistic render. The sketch will have lots of gaps in it that the potential user can fill in for themselves, whereas the photo-render appears finalised, and so the potential user engages with it as a final product rather than something containing possibilities. The problem with a photo-render is that people can get hooked on it, and then they don’t want it to change.


What are the most important tests that tend to determine whether or not an idea meets the brief?

We have no formal process for this. We’ll develop three to four concept designs in response to brief that will solve it for different people in different ways. We will show the different designs to the client and see how they feel, and show it to customers and see how they feel. Gut feel on the part of the designer is important.


When are bad decisions made in the design of consumer electronics?

From the design perspective, things go wrong when you haven’t properly worked out your metrics for success. For instance, in the case of the door handle design, one of the big challenges we encountered later on was resistance to fitting the handle to the door, because hospital doors are big and expensive and their owners don’t like you drilling holes in them. You could argue this was bad design, but at the same time if you wait until you know everything, you can’t design anything. That is why a fail-fast approach is better.


You can’t assume you will make the perfect product first time. What’s important is to get the big things right early on.


To what extent are key decisions codified?

They aren’t really in our case, as we are small company working on a large range of products. For us the most important thing is good interaction with the team. We tend to take products to the prototype level. Considerations like whether parts are going to get swallowed should come up in the characterisation of the user cases, but are usually picked up in the production engineering stage of the design process.


When carrying out a design in your sector of engineering, what are first the three to five steps you would take?

  1. Uninformed brainstorm.
  2. Inspiration clip trip.
  3. Research, look for analogous tech or tech from other areas that could be applied to do this context. Cross-pollinate from other sectors, if we’ve got a problem, how is this solved in other areas and at other scales. This is research from which we are drawing inspiration.
  4. Ideation and prototyping.

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