Sunday, September 14, 2014

Interdisciplinary Design Challenges

In the final days of IDDS as my team built our final prototype to present at the regional agricultural fair, my team experienced conflict during a meeting which I attribute to our different disciplines. 

As we shared two strengths and two weaknesses for one another, the electrical engineer made comments directed at the industrial designers. The electrical engineer said, "You have 20 designs. You keep things open. You don't close things, and we don't come to a decision." He stated that he did not think some design tools were helping us reach a final prototype. For instance, he felt an hour of sketch modeling with foam and glue the previous day was a waste of time. In reference to the industrial designer's sketching, he commented "because you show so many options we cannot move forward."

As another way to stimulate our brains before my team converged on a final prototype, we made low-fidelity sketch models supplies supplies such as band-aids, paperclips, and wooden dowels.

The industrial designers shared in response on sketch modeling, "When developing a product, you can't go straight to a product. It's about the small steps." About her sketches the industrial designer shared, "For me sketching is a way to get to a solution. Maybe I should not show you my process because you think these are different designs." "Although I am the only designer, it is not my responsibility [to design the entire product]. I haven't seen one sketch of how to improve [our hay baler from anyone else]," she added.

I felt in awe that I was able to witness such a rich debate so rooted in different disciplinary customs. From this conversation, I took away that industrial designers, engineers, and business people are accustomed to contributing to teams in different ways. On my team, the industrial designer may not have felt that other members were committed to finding a solution because they were not sketching.

Different expectations on contributions: 
designer: sketches, concepts (object)
engineer: functional representations, technical drawings (object)
business: slide decks, ideas, market research, networking (opportunity)

This debate also gave me insight into how different disciplines are accustomed to working. From the conversation, it seemed that industrial designers are more comfortable converging (deciding on a concept or prototype design) and diverging (sketching all the different possible designs) simultaneously. It may have felt unnatural or unnecessary to the engineer.

When I thought about how unnatural sketching feels to me, I remembered something Tim Brown, CEO and President of IDEO once said. In his book Change by Design Brown writes, “[Interdisciplinary collaboration] requires ... individuals who are confident enough of their expertise that they are willing to go beyond it.” Interdisciplinary product development is hard. Especially for novice interdisciplinary collaborators, it requires individuals to do things so fundamental to their discipline (such as making a contribution) in fundamentally different ways.

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