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The Best Product Design Is Empathic

It’s common knowledge that product designers wear many hats, but it’s just as important for us to wear many shoes. At Bresslergroup, before we begin designing a product, we do our best to walk in our users’ shoes. At its core, this is empathic design, and it is essential to our practice.

Empathic design is the idea that seeing things through a user’s eyes instantly transforms them from “users” into humans, and leads to better design insights and solutions.

We’ve done this again and again, and it has taken us to some unconventional places — we’ve entered fighter-jet cockpits, cadaver labs, sea fishing boats, locker rooms, coal mines, adult bookstores, operating rooms, dentists’ offices, and sewage treatment plants. Our team has traveled throughout the U.S. and to many faraway destinations, including China, Brazil, Slovenia, Berlin, and Paris.


The Value of Empathic Design


So why do we travel far and wide in pursuit of empathic design?

In short, empathic design helps us create better products. One example is when we were called to redesign a window air conditioning unit for a large consumer products company. We visited a dozen users at their homes across three states and found most users had duct-taped the edges of their units to their window frames.

It would have been easy to assume from this sight that users needed better insulation, a product that truly fits to a window’s dimensions. But by spending time with users in their homes, we discovered what they really wanted was access to their windows — to have air conditioning as well as views and the option of fresh air.

By taking the time for empathic design, we were able to reframe the problem and come up with a better solution.


Accessible Design Means Better Design for All


We believe accessible design drives innovation for all.

Recently Comcast created the industry’s first “talking TV guide,” or voice-enabled television user interface. While the product was designed for people with limited sight, it has also benefited aging populations and multitaskers who prefer a hands-free alternative to a remote control.

Comcast quickly realized that products designed with accessibility in mind make life better for all users and launched an accessibility lab to drive future R&D.

We think Comcast is onto something. To find the best design insights, design with empathy for all users, including the atypical.


What Users Say Versus What They Do


What users say and do is often quite different, and empathic design can help us see through that fog.

When we were working on a redesign of a scalpel for cataract surgery, we did user research with nurses and asked them to demonstrate how they passed the scalpel to the surgeon. Then we watched them pass the scalpel to the surgeon during actual surgeries. What the nurses described and demonstrated outside the operating room was much different from what they did inside the operating room.

The nurses weren’t trying to deceive us. They really thought they were doing what they had described, but by putting ourselves in their shoes, we saw the disconnect. With that knowledge, we were able to design a safer product.


Users Are Product Development Partners


The first step in making your design practices more empathic is to treat users like product development partners. While you bring expertise, users are the ones who need your product and will ultimately benefit from it. Be willing to set your opinions aside to really listen.

At Bresslergroup we involve users early in the process to understand their pain points and make sure we’re solving the right problem. We check in with users during the development process, and we test prototypes with them along the way.

Keep in mind, too, that gender plays a role. While 85% of all consumer purchases are made or influenced by women, even gender-neutral products are often designed for men. Involve female users and consider our advice on designing better products for women.


Empathic Design for the Future


Traditionally, research was limited to the past and present. Through empathic design, we can begin to understand users’ aspirations and ask them how a product might help in the future.

If your user is a mom with two kids in middle school, ask what her life will look like when her kids are in high school or have moved out. Will she still use the product you’re developing? This can help future-proof products, giving them longer life spans.

That’s especially important considering the risks of product development are so high. According to the Product Development and Management Association (PDMA), 25 to 45 percent of consumer products eventually fail in the market, and the U.S. Department of Commerce says 95 percent of new products miss their sales and performance goals.


Recommended Reading


If you’re looking to dive deeper into the world of empathic design, we recommend reading a research paper published in the International Journal of Design titled Challenges of Doing Empathic Design: Experiences from Industry in its entirety.

Of course, there’s no better teacher than experience, so give empathic design a shot. It’s a challenge that pays dividends!

About the author: To Mathieu, design is not just about fixing complicated problems — it’s about evoking emotion. And he believes emotional appeal can be rationally and analytically designed. This is the foundation of everything he does at Bresslergroup.


Industrial Designer in a UX World? Here’s How To Thrive

As the emphasis in product development continues to shift from form development to user experience (UX) and other elements of human to computer interaction, industrial designers need to adapt in order to thrive in an increasingly digital environment.

What better proof than the growing difference in hourly rates between interaction designers and industrial designers? The former are commanding nice premiums over their counterparts, and large design consultancies are reorganizing, their focus shifting from industrial design to user interface and user experience design.

My advice to the industrial designers I work with at Bresslergroup: Don’t despair. Adapt!

As an industrial designer who has been in this business for more than 20 years, I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting on this, especially as it relates to Bresslergroup, the research-driven product development firm where I am currently Director of Design. Here’s the advice I give my industrial design team:

  1. Embrace Interaction Design 

A future in which industrial design reports to user experience and interaction designers is not far off. Some forward-thinking, tech-driven companies have already adopted this structure. At Bresslergroup, we’re growing our interaction design team, but at the same time we want to bolster our industrial designers’ understanding of interaction design.

We believe our industrial designers will be better off once they hybridize — that is, combine their industrial design expertise with central tenets of user experience and interaction design.

Interaction design is multifaceted, allowing industrial designers to focus on existing strengths. Those who are stronger at product usability, architecture, and ergonomics may find themselves better suited to the usability and information architecture aspects of interaction design. Industrial designers who find themselves drawn to visual brand language and form development may find a more natural fit in the visual design aspects of interaction design.

2. Hone Your Front-End Research Expertise

While you no longer need an industrial design degree to design and manufacture a product — thanks in part to 3D printing — there’s still a need for well-trained designers who can develop strategy to inform product experiences. As design and manufacturing become more commoditized, innovation strategy expertise will be more valued than implementation.

When anyone and everyone can manufacture a product, the need to communicate something specific and profound will become more important than ever. Designers who can develop strong brand identities and product experiences will stand out amongst the crowd and help products cut through the noise.

This opens up an opportunity for industrial designers to thrive by honing their front-end research and brand strategy capabilities, skills long associated with our discipline. As the general public develops an immunity to traditional forms of advertising and marketing, these skills will help industrial designers contribute to products that don’t simply function but have emotional appeal and provide a holistic product experience.

Brand-focused strategic designers who use form and aesthetics to create something unique will rise to the top.

3. Become Fluent in Immersive Design Language

As products become more digital, the demand for subtle, multisensory, and immersive features will become even more important. Tech-enabled products, such as smartphones, are less expressive stylistically — much of their design lies beneath the surface. But their geometric forms combined with users’ expectations that objects be “smart” are setting the stage for multi-sensory features to become the primary differentiators between brands.

Aspects of the product that are invisible to the eye — haptic, kinesthetic, gestural, AI — will become more critical. Color, finish, and materials will continue to make first impressions, but life-long emotional connections will result from branded multi-sensory signatures.

4. Know Your Emerging Technology & Trends

With so much new technology readily available on the market, designers will play the increasingly important role of arbiters.

Designers will need to decide which technology makes the most sense in the context of new products. Industrial designers have the expertise to know that choosing technology is a matter of enhancing brand experience — and to avoid implementing technology for technology’s sake. In a world where most devices will be smart, this differentiation will be key.

At the same time, product developers and consumers alike are getting smarter about sustainability. Consumers will soon demand more meaningful sustainability achievement, and regulators may have a say as well. But only a few of the leading consulting firms have developed expertise in sustainable design.

We foresee things changing in one of two ways: either designers will proactively enable sustainable product development on a cultural level, or new regulations will force change. Either way, sustainability will become a requirement for industrial designers, and we hope the majority will embrace that change.

Take Away: Go With The Flow!

The pace of change in all realms has accelerated, and in the next five to ten years, the speed of the traditional product development process will increase tenfold. The challenge for designers will be how to manage that hyper-drive in the midst of so much other global flux. Those who recognize opportunities and are able to adjust on the fly will stand the best chance of success.

(Read more in my Design Your Future series, and let me know how you’re designing your future!)

About the author: To Mathieu, design is not just about fixing complicated problems — it’s about evoking emotion. And he believes emotional appeal can be rationally and analytically designed. This is the foundation of everything he does at Bresslergroup.

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At Anvil Studios, we pride ourselves on creating products which people love to use. Given our passion for great design, it makes perfect sense that we’d be fans of using 3D printing in the design process.

Early on in my career as an industrial designer, it became apparent to me that 3D printing sped up the development process and mitigated risk. I was working on a product that had articulating parts and a lot of components that needed to fit together with precision. The tooling estimate was around $100,000 for production.

The owner of the company was eager to get the product into production, but was understandably apprehensive about paying the quoted $10,000 price for a 3D printed prototype (it was the late ‘90s). I told him, “if we pay $10,000 now for the prototype, it will save us a potential $100,000 tooling mistake later.” He was immediately sold.

A week later we had the prototype in our hands. The mechanical engineer and I were able to evaluate the design, function, and performance and to make the minor necessary modifications. We were ready to go into production.

These days, 3D printing continues to allow designers to evaluate their design ideas early in the design process, but now it’s even quicker, cheaper, and more precise.

Unlike traditional prototyping methods, such as CNC milling, 3D printing is an additive process that allows for incredibly complex geometries to be created layer by layer and without multiple set-ups or steps. A traditional CNC milled part might take nearly a week to fabricate, while the same part 3D printed could be produced in only a few hours.

3D printers not only get the job done faster, but they can boost consumer satisfaction. By using 3D printing, designers can iterate faster and deeper to refine their concept.  A better thought-out product makes for a better product experience, and a better product experience leads to a more satisfied customer.


This was the first prototype we created of a job site speaker we designed for Milwaukee Tool. This first version helped us verify size, scale, and the initial details.


The second 3D printed speaker prototype, with all details incorporated, such as screw holes and grill pattern. This was to verify the final design intent before handing off the CAD file to the client.


This third iteration is an appearance model that utilized 3D printing for all of the parts. After printing, each of the parts were sanded, primed, and painted to replicate the final look of a manufactured product. This model was then used for marketing purposes (including photoshoots) while the product was being manufactured. This specific model was such good quality that the marketing team mistook it for a production sample and drug it behind a pick-up truck during a photoshoot (to show off it’s durability), which is why it is so banged up!


These 3D printed end-caps showcase the various stages of models created through-out the process of the Milwaukee jobsite speaker.


Greg Janky is co-founder, with Treasure Hinds, of Anvil Studios in Seattle, WA. Greg is very focused and passionate about design and the benefits it brings to his clients and end users. Greg is fluent in rapid visualization, and employs tools such as Photoshop, Illustrator, Alias, & SolidWorks as a means to communicate his design vision. Greg resides in the Pacific Northwest with is wife and two daughters. He is an avid automobile enthusiast and international traveler.