Design Thinking Strategies for an Innovative Product Design Process

By admin

The production of creative strategies to use in an innovative product design process is fully dependent on the engineering staff. The following quote from Chang (2016, p.356) helps to round out the point.

“It is well known from the literature that the personal background knowledge and thought process due to prior training and work experience influence the way each STEM professional will think when challenged by an external problem or issue. The outputs are usually somewhat predictable.”

So how does a creative product design firm mitigate the above challenge? The answer, as one might expect, is not straightforward or obvious. The methodology to address that challenge requires continuous improvement and project awareness.

The most important piece of the puzzle for identifying unbiased and creative problem-solving solutions, that may lead to potential innovations, is based on the culture of the firm. An innovative product design engineering firm would be well served to employ open-minded, well-rounded, technically proficient, and adaptable engineers from a variety of backgrounds.

The design engineers need to be willing and able to pool their collective knowledge in brainstorming sessions that leave no feasible ideas unexplored. Then the same group needs to have the ability to express the vision and pathway to product development managers.

Once the project manager is dedicated to whichever particular path may be chosen, the idea must become reality. This is where the technical proficiency and adaptability of the firm’s staff shine.

Not anyone development engineer needs to be able to fully execute the idea, but the industrial design company must maintain the culture where problem-solving, information sharing, and labor leveling are encouraged and expected as required.

No innovative product design consultancy can perfectly execute each project. Even with the correct staff working on the ideal project, under the ideal conditions, the development process will dig up surprises and set out roadblocks that need to be navigated. The goal is to mitigate the number and extent of the unforeseen problems.

Techniques for identifying and handling unexpected engineering problems

Chang (2016, p.356-358) suggests the application of a technique called DEEPTHINK to facilitate the generation of creative ideas. The technique is based on a series of “question-based prompts” that develop a thinking strategy to jostle the mind of the STEM professional into thinking differently about a problem. The technique is summarized below.

  1. D) Delve: Dig deep into the levels and interactions of the subparts of an idea
  2. E) Envision: Think about an application of an idea in the future
  3. E) Exchange: Replace and/or swap components
  4. P) Perturb: Ask “what-if” questions about features and functions
  5. T) Transpose: Look at a concept from multiple angles
  6. H) Harness: Extract the wisdom of other ideas and apply to the current idea
  7. I) Integrate: Combine ideas to form new concepts
  8. N) Nurture: Grow unrelated ideas into something new and applicable
  9. K) Knock: Knockdown assumptions and conventional wisdom

The above technique is readily applicable to the innovative product design brainstorming process. The brainstorming process might arguably be the most important step used during the formation of creative ideas that may be innovative solutions. DEEPTHINK is a technique to encourage product design engineers and their clients to think outside of the box and question any preconceived notions about how and why something is being done.

Slack-time for innovative product design and creativity

Another problem identified by product design engineers was the stifling effects of time constraints.  Understanding that each project will have some form of development time and budget constraint, what techniques can be used to mitigate that project stressor?

Hayes (2005) identified some possible ways to reduce the effects of project time constraints.  One way is to build in “slack-time” to the project fee structure for creativity. Another way is to implement smaller more “day-to-day” improvements throughout the product design process.  An example would be to implement a daily routine of summarizing research results and conducting mini-brainstorm sessions. (Hayes, 2005, p 136-141.)

Innovative Product Design: Managing Creativity and Innovation

Lastly, Hayes (2005) identified as another opponent in the creative development process, the project management style itself. The idea is that the development project that requires creativity and innovation should not be managed in a traditional manner. Traditional project management is too stifling with its rigid timelines and fixed budgets. An alternative is a fee and project management structure that includes accommodation of unexpected findings during development.

Marion Hayes speaks to the idea of the knowledge economy. Businesses need talent in their staff and they need to create and innovate to survive. This is not necessarily a new requirement for survival. What is new, is the speed at which the innovative process must occur. Hayes refers to it as an “economic treadmill.” The increasing rate of that treadmill and the intense environment that necessitates innovative ideas for business success are not conducive to “traditional” development methodology.

Additionally, development projects, oftentimes, cannot be handled internally for individuals and companies for a host of reasons. This drives the need for adaptable and responsive outside agencies that are set up to fill the creative, innovative, and personnel gaps that might exist internally.  The design thinking process in design agencies needs to handle the full breadth of external project management while maintaining their own business health.

This places specific requirements on the shoulders of the consultant staff and leadership.

The development staff needs to:

  • Develop design thinking methods to extract as many valid ideas as possible.
  • Develop ways to turn those ideas into meaningful innovations.
  • Maintain an open and communicative atmosphere.
  • Feed new ideas with older concepts.
  • Understand the technical aspects while an idea is transformed into an innovation.

The leadership staff needs to:

  • Maintain a clear communication feedback loop with the client.
  • Understand and communicate client needs and wants.
  • Maintain a culture that encourages creative idea exploration.
  • Look for ways to maximize the time for creating ideas.
  • Ensure engineering staff personalities can thrive in the development realm.

At the core, the staff and leadership must understand that the rules for development design and engineering are not (and should not be) rigid. Each project, client, and problem are inherently different. Experience should be applied as needed; however, it is not the be-all-end-all.

Constant learning and questioning are a must when developing creative ideas for innovative solutions. And the development of those creative ideas and application into successful product/process innovations needs to balance with the external constraints of the client.

The necessity for creative and innovative engineers will only increase as the competitive business environment stiffens.  The days of engineers being able to focus on technical minutiae for their entire career may well be on the way out. Today’s development engineer needs to have an artistic vision, an open thought process, technical competence, and a communicative personality.  

These are the strengths that industrial design and development firms (and engineering departments) should be extracting from their engineering staff, with the intent of maximizing the ability to create new ideas and produce innovative products and processes.

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