Unexpected journeys: Navigating the challenges of human-centered product design

Senior Design Engineer
Senior Program Manager

About the salon

While people are complex and often totally unpredictable, the product development process is traditionally a rigid and linear one. Acknowledging and then navigating this tension between people and process can help create a successful product. As designers, how do we keep product development on track while also leaving room for the unexpected? What are the tools and strategies that allow design teams and product managers to leverage these moments of serendipity to create opportunities for new and even better products?

Virtual Smart Salon

Join the conversation

on today's most important design-related issues

Virtual Smart Salon

Join the conversation

on today's most important design-related issues

Our panelists

Meegan Daigler is the CTO and co-founder of Reia, a healthcare start-up focused on improving the treatment experience for people with pelvic organ prolapse, utilizing a non-surgical option. 

Francoise Vielot is a category director at OXO, a leading producer of household tools including kitchen, cleaning, and home organization products based on universal design principles.

Ingve Holmung is a senior design director at Logitech, a technology company committed to revolutionizing the gaming experience.

Introduction

Our discussion was co-led by Smart Design Senior Design Engineer Vasily Romanov and Rose Bloomberg, Senior Project Manager, and informed by our firm’s more than 40 years of experience championing human-centered design and helping to launch OXO. We asked the panelists—who themselves have developed products in such diverse sectors as medical devices, gaming, and housewares—about the unique challenges they’ve faced with testing protocols and new technologies, and how to deal with unexpected events in a changing world.

Here are the evening’s key takeaways:

Rethink the concept of “If it works, don’t fix it”

Our panelists agreed that while the job of a designer is to solve problems, this process can sometimes lead to altogether new ones. For Francoise Vielot of OXO, that happened when her company decided to evolve its successful angled measuring cup, a patented product that’s been on the market for years. “Initially, we thought we could expand it to be more flexible and microwave-safe by a simple straightforward switch of materials—”super easy way to do it, and done!” she recalled thinking. But along the way, the design team realized that the choices for a translucent, high-heat resistant material were essentially limited to glass and silicone, and, after much consideration, silicone was eventually chosen as the best option. But then, silicone made the cup squishy and hard to hold, among other issues, forcing a rethink of the cup’s shape and what consumers really want and need. “Taking a step back and thinking about the real problem, as opposed to what we thought the solution was, opened us up to discovery,” Vielot pointed out. For example, the original cup’s handle was replaced by a specialized honeycomb pattern that protects the hands by dissipating heat, while a simple squeeze creates a precise pour spout. 

Ingve Holmung of Logitech picked up on this theme, suggesting that it’s not always necessary to “reinvent the wheel” when developing a new product. This is particularly important in the gaming field, where gamers rely on practiced motor skills to do well. For example, while developing the G435 model of lightweight wireless gaming headset for teens—a demographic the company wasn’t entirely familiar with—designers grappled with the issue of switching the core user interface from the left to the right ear cup to simplify the product architecture. Designers considered whether to change the user interface, and how to best integrate new technologies, but testing proved that keeping the existing left ear cup UX was favored—a good example of human-made unpredictability. “You’re always conscious that you’re making choices about how the product will work as part of a platform for gamers,” Holmung explained. From that point, he added, “you have to figure out elegant ways of solving the new problem that won’t alienate your user base but improves on the foundation of previous products.”

For Reia’s Meegan Daigler, a Smart alumni, the design brief was to actually reinvent the wheel—or in the case of her healthcare startup, the medical device known as a “pessary” which is used to treat pelvic organ prolapse. This condition mostly affects women between the ages of 50 and 79, and is characterized by a weakening of the pelvic floor muscles, which results in the pelvic organ descending from its normal position and bulging into the vagina. Pessary devices have been around for thousands of years, but their design rarely focused on comfort or ease of use. Ancient designs made from glass or brass are “scary looking contraptions,” as Daigler described them, but even current designs made from silicone are too rigid and stiff to be easily inserted and removed from the vaginal canal. By contrast, Reia’s pessary, which was developed with the help of a National Institute of Health grant, has a flexible silicone geometry to collapse for insertion and removal.

Get creative with testing protocols

When conducting consumer testing, designers and researchers must be open to applying new methodologies for different products. One hurdle for Logitech’s teen-oriented gaming headset, for instance, was the fact that the heads of young people in this age range are still growing. On the other hand, Reia’s constraint was that medical device testing on humans for products to be used inside the body cannot be done until late in the development cycle.

For Reia’s team—comprising a physician, and three people with engineering background, including Daigler—the approach was to gather and combine input from both doctors who have experience prescribing and fitting the device, and women who ultimately must insert it into their bodies. “We alternated back and forth between them to better understand the dynamics of the environment, ergonomics, and perceptions of comfort,” Daigler noted. An added challenge was that the anatomy of the vagina “is not particularly well studied,” she said, as is true in many other aspects of women’s health, a topic we explored in a previous Smart Salon

So the designers tested the prototype for efficacy by making a mockup of a vagina: molded silicone represented the vaginal canal; pieces of molded foam stood in for different muscle groups; a balloon was used as a bladder. To mimic the forces that might be exerted on the device, “we put everything in a box topped with a weather balloon” that was pressurized to simulate a cough (the highest force the device was expected to undergo). The next efficacy test was a clinical trial of final prototypes made of injection molded medical-grade materials. Daigler acknowledged that with this jump in prototype fidelity, testing the pessary was, to some degree, “a leap of faith to ultimately make sure that [it] worked.” In addition to the clinical trials, the FDA requires extensive tests for biocompatibility of the silicone, as well as cleanability and durability of the design—and even the packaging—which put pressure on the design team to comply with deadlines and work within grant budgets. 

“Sometimes we’re making a timeline sacrifice, and others a cost sacrifice,” she said about balancing these demands. For example, to change the device’s color later on would have required running all the tests again, a six months-long process. “It’s definitely a massive learning curve,” Daigler concluded about planning such high-risk testing.

Recognize opportunities when the unexpected happens

The linear path of product design can be upended by events outside anyone’s control. But this can also have an upside, according to Logitech’s Holmung. “COVID accelerated changes in how we work that would have taken five years to a decade, and squeezed it into a year and a half or less,” he commented. This ranged from how the company developed and tested products and designed via Zoom, and digital collaboration tools like Mural, to how consumer behavior patterns switched from physical retail stores to direct-to-consumer channels. “This got us thinking about how we could for example rethink the packaging experience, and shift from designing for how things turn up on a shelf, to how the product turns up in your mailbox.”

One lesson from this experience, he believes, is that “we need to be much more specifically focused on understanding our consumers and telling compelling stories in these channels, as they offer a completely different level of understanding of who you’re trying to reach.” What’s more, this “requires you to really engage and deeply consider not only how your product solves a problem but also how that solution will be marketed.”

For a global company such as OXO, which has extensive sourcing in Asia, a smooth-functioning supply chain is critical. So when OXO’s was disrupted during COVID due to labor and material shortages, supply chain and product managers faced tough questions about whether to focus on existing products or put new products that require a longer timeline into development. “Having to weigh that was pretty challenging, because [the] existing product is always important, but obviously, [the] new product is what keeps your pipeline active, and you have to prioritize across those things,” Vielot offered. OXO found that having existing products stocked on store shelves had unique advantages, in that “we could keep our business running, gain a competitive advantage with additional shelf space, and build up relationships that helped when new products were introduced.”

Carefully introduce product innovations

Designers must always consider the potential impact of product innovations, whether it’s OXO considering heat-resistant materials, or Reia adding a loop feature to its pessary after testing for hand size and tactility. For Holmung, the “exponential changes” taking place in technology—especially in the consumer electronics sector—put a bigger responsibility on designers to come up with solutions that “feel authentic to you as a brand.” In particular, he said that the shift from non-digital native consumers consumers to digital native consumers is finally happening and requires a “fast and slow approach.” This means capturing the knowledge of who your user base is and introducing technology platforms that they can live with for a longer period of time—and only then adding upgrades through digital interfaces that will keep the experience relevant.” This way, he added “the design doesn’t randomly change, but it gets better, and over time we might be doing fewer, bigger things— essentially creating stories that can have longer arcs.”

Conclusion

In addition to technology becoming a bigger part of the product development cycle—and the challenge of evaluating what advances to integrate, and at what pace—panelists talked about the need to gain a better understanding of how consumers interact with products, and the steady stream of data that is available to analyze. They also spoke of the huge influence of social media on shopping and purchasing, and how that impacts design decisions and brand narratives. Looking ahead, they committed to expanding sustainable practices including more durable and easier-to-recycle products.

Tools for now

Assess what’s working
When designing new products or reviving successful existing ones, you needn’t always reinvent the wheel. Identifying the real problem during the design process can lead to fresh insights and discoveries—and exciting new products.

Uncover creative ways to test products
Each product is unique and requires a specialized approach to testing. Know the limitations of testing individual products and devise protocols and methodologies to get a better picture of how it will function in different user environments.

Prioritize open communications
When unforeseen events happen, as they will, solving problems depends on having built strong relationships with peers and other stakeholders. Make decisions based on the best information available and a deep understanding of how challenges can be overcome.

Connect with customers
Know who your customers are today—and what they might be in the future. And as they react to new technologies, change behaviors, and adapt to new ways to buy products, maintain a close and growing relationship with them to understand their needs.

About Vasily Romanov

Vasily Romanov is a senior design engineer who strives to make the world a better place through good design and engineering. He brings expertise in product development and design for manufacturing to his clients and has applied his skills across the medical device, pharma, manufacturing, and consumer product industries. His notable clients include DJO Surgical, Stryker, and Beckton Dickinson, and has lectured as a part-time adjunct at the New Jersey Institute of Technology. He holds a master’s degree from Temple University. In his free time, he enjoys hanging out with his son, woodworking, and doing his own car and motorcycle maintenance.

About Rose Bloomberg

Rose Bloomberg is a senior program manager who believes design can improve everyday experiences. She brings expertise in project and client management and has worked across the housewares, beauty, consumer goods, and healthcare sectors. Her notable clients include OXO, L’Oreal, and SC Johnson. She holds a BFA from the University of Georgia. In her free time, you can find her experimenting with new recipes to cook in her tiny Brooklyn kitchen.

Let’s design a smarter world together