The user-centered approach in manufacturing

Jan. 29, 2020
“People in the manufacturing space don’t need us to tell them to speak their minds.”

In late March, Josh Lucas-Falk presents on adopting a user-centered approach to manufacturing during Smart Industry Base Camp. Today, the CEO of Grand Studio previews his presentation, touching on understanding customers, clinging to bad ideas and…um…Mad Libs.

Take a look…

Smart Industry: What does it mean to be user-centered? How does this apply in the manufacturing space?
Josh: Being user-centered is one of those “easy to explain, hard to do” things: it means that you as a product-owner have to put all of your ideas and opinions about your product on the shelf and then go find some users and ask them what they think. It also means that, if your users tell you something different than what you believe about your product, you have to try to square that circle.  

Grand Studio's Josh Lucas-Falk

The bad news is that this is surprisingly difficult to do for lots of reasons, including that it can be hard to find your users; it can be difficult to gather sufficient data to really form a solid hypothesis about your product; and it can be difficult to reconcile what you learn from users with your business realities, like development time and costs.

The good news is that, if you’re doing “user-centered” correctly, you can find ways to collect data and respond to what you’ve learned in a way that reduces your overall risk and costs. Ultimately, user-centered design will de-risk innovation efforts in particular, as you will be able to test and refine many ideas before you need to spend anything on development or manufacturing.  

Smart Industry: How well do manufacturers in the modern era understand their users?
Josh: I’m not sure that I know how well manufacturers in general know their users—I’m hoping to learn more about this at the conference! However, I can say that we work with lots of different companies in a variety of industries, and no one knows their users as well as they would like.

Manufacturing does have some specific challenges. The one that is most obvious to me is that you guys have to actually, you know, engineer real products. There’s a degree of responsibility associated with being the principal engineer on the project, with having the risk associated with real products failing in complex environments, that is quite different than in other, digital-first industries. As designers, we’re using to moving fast and iterating quickly. Candidly, it can be a challenge for us to balance the need for us to explore many ideas with the requirement that we very highly define them so that they can be rigorously tested and vetted.

Digital tools are definitely making it easier to innovate, though. We did a project a few years back with a manufacturer where we had to simulate the performance of a large-scale electrical grid in order to test ideas around a software product we were supporting. This wasn’t trivial, but it would have been impossible without online, rapid-prototyping tools that now are easily accessible (and very cheap).  

Smart Industry: What is a common "bad idea" in the industrial space that many still cling to?
Josh: It’s hard for me to be too critical—you guys have technical skills and knowledge I will never have. However, I will say that we’ve observed that it can be very easy to think about product development such that product improvements are always incremental. The benefit here is obvious: you get to improve a product that you (and your customers) already understand. The problem is that it precludes real innovation, where you allow yourself to imagine product opportunities that couldn’t easily exist within your current product. It also means that if your V1 product is built around assumptions about user behaviors that aren’t fully validated, chances are pretty good that the V20 still has some of those same challenges.

Smart Industry: How do you employ the Mad Libs approach in research?
Josh: Increasingly, being a product-designer means that you need to have a range of tools you can deploy to get the right feedback at the right time from your users. Mad Libs are one tool of many—it’s basically a “fill in the blanks” exercise we do in one-on-one interview sessions to help interview participants to feel comfortable framing their opinion about a product.

I will say that, in the manufacturing space, there’s a degree of seriousness and professionalism that needs to be respected in the design process. We tend to use tools like Mad Libs when we’re talking to people about products that impact their personal lives (even “serious” products like banking and insurance services), because they are particularly effective at coaxing out opinions from research participants and making them feel at ease when expressing themselves.

In our experience, the kinds of people we tend to find in the manufacturing space don’t need us to tell them to speak their minds: ask an operating engineer about their workflow, or tell them that you’ve got a new idea about how that workflow could change, and you’re likely to get a lot of feedback without much prompting!