Bringing Design Thinking into product development: An interview with Chris Cheung

Former lead designer/product owner at Alias/Autodesk and Entrepreneur identifies the challenges and opportunities inherent in bringing Design Thinking into the enterprise.

By Randall S. Newton

Product design processes have been transformed by the digital revolution. Or, they should be. Every manufactured product from juicers to cars are expected to be programmable, responsive, and connected. Consumers expect state of the art, and will abandon brand loyalty if they find it elsewhere.

To cope, many companies are trying to incorporate the increased use of design and engineering techniques — Design Thinking — throughout the organization. In recent years firms such as consultancy McKinsey & Company, Autodesk, and IBM have made appointments at their most senior levels for designers. The rise of mobile apps as the front end of services (rides, rentals, food delivery, consultants, and more) largely came about because of Design Thinking.

Chris Cheung is no stranger to industrial design and the rise of design thinking in the enterprise. He is best known for his product development work on the Alias Wavefront line of automotive design tools and then Autodesk SketchBook Pro. His speaking gigs have included a TED Talk and two minutes on stage at an Apple new product announcement. Now running his own design consultancy Mighty Dynamo, Cheung is a champion for the emerging recognition of Design Thinking as a business model.

Chris Cheung at DEVELOP3D Live in Coventry UK, 2017. (Source: X3D)

The following is an interview — edited for clarity — with Cheung on the rise of design thinking and what it means to product development today. After the interview is a YouTube link to the presentation Cheung gave at DEVELOP3D LIVE in the UK earlier this year.

Randall Newton (RN): There is a lot of discussion today in the business press about “design thinking.” What does it mean to you?

Chris Cheung (CC): From a business standpoint, I think most people see it as a means to compete and to differentiate in product development by achieving incremental functionality improvements. Most ‘design thinking’ definitions focus on process: empathize; define the problem, iterate, prototype, test. This approach to “design thinking” is a decent framework, but it is only as good as the people who use it.

RN: How would you expand this definition?

CC: The iterative nature is at the core: gates in the process, points of validation meant to help the decision making process, convincingly increase the chances of success, and de-risk a project.  

I personally think of it as systematic and dynamic problem solving.

RN: How has the product design process changed?

CC: Products are fundamentally getting more complicated; there are a lot more dots to connect and the quest to make things ‘easier’ tends to be more difficult to achieve. The roots of industrial design was like the intersection of end-users, engineering, and business.  Much of the design focus was on semantics, ergonomics, manufacturability, form, fashion and function. Today, UX [user experience] and consumer engagement transcend physical design parameters. We can pack tech virtually anywhere now… onboard computing, sensors, 4k displays on everything is not only viable, its expected.

RN: How should manufacturers respond?

CC: Businesses have to adapt and stay competitive.   One path is to innovate by integrating more tech in the product or the  process.

Industrial design has always been a profession that bridges disciplines. Being a jack-of-all-trades gets much more challenging when there are connectivity requirements. There are more domains to deal with, each with a parallel development processes.

The business must mirror what product teams deal with because the impact is not exclusive to design and IT, it affecting everything; cost of goods, legal, accounting, infrastructure, and so forth.

RN: How are companies and designers coping?

CC: The barriers of entry for bringing technology into a product portfolio has gotten low.  Think of sportswear manufacturers getting into wearables.  Under Armour’s tact was to buy the brands, technology and expertise it needed. Yes, you can buy your way in via acquisition, you can hire your way in, or you can outsource your way in.  There are lots on on ramps.

For individuals, there’s no shortage to learn, but access has never been better.  You can get deep in virtually any topic with simple online research or  networking. We live in a time with incredible accessibility to knowledge and resources. A guy who has never programmed before can conceivably self-train via YouTube tutorials.  You don’t have to become a master to leverage that knowledge to experiment with side project to immerse yourself into emerging technology.

Just recognizing how intertwined it all is when you are creating an end- user experience, is vital.  You can come up with a beautiful design in one vector, but fall apart due to a poorly conceived back-end or  3rd party component.

RN: How can design thinking improve such situations?

CC:  The prototype and testing approach is meant to identify and allow for resolution of issues.  The idea is to start with inexpensive techniques that adequately simulate concepts to allow feedback, progressively with more detail or fidelity.  This would be done for all or as many elements of a project as possible.

This sounds easy, but it needs an organization’s commitment.  If time isn’t properly factored for it, or results of testing simply disregarded, it kinda all  falls apart. It takes discipline to do this.

Today, active feedback and data gathering can carry through to final products.  In the past a business would have only had a few touch points; retailer input, sales figures, and limited direct consumer feedback. Sensors turn that all around. We now have the possibility of unprecedented business intelligence. It is possible to cultivate an intimate relationship between the business and its customers.

RN: That requires a significant shift in thinking, right?

CC: Yes. One part is adopting an adaptive mentality and the other is simply deciding what is important for the business. Industries are increasingly disrupted by progress across the board; fewer and fewer products are immune. For a business, it isn’t just disruptive technology and manufacturing techniques that change. There are sudden changes in business model. Consumers can shift spending patterns and adopt something from left-field.  So, it isn’t just about a business responds to change, how prepared are they to shake things up.

In the old-school days, I remember it was a big deal to get  designers and engineers working together. Now, there are that many more players to coordinate with tech-dependent products.

You work with what you have. No one has to be a jack-of-all trades. In our ‘uber’ culture, “there is a guy for that.” I can hire a kick ass game UX designer and pair them up with a contract developer, to work with a freelance product designer while outsourcing the engineering and manufacturing. The talent is out there. Knowing what you need, herding the cats, and validating the outcome is the hard part.

Chris Cheung explores the dynamics between hobby, freelance, start-up, and enterprise in a wide-ranging, thought-provoking presentation at DEVELOP3D Live at Coventry University, UK, April 2017. (YouTube)

Be the first to comment

Your comments are welcome