Design Language for Engineers, Part 2

Part 2: How does Design Language help your engineers?

by Gray McCord
March 2012

Overview

In Part 1, we defined the value and purpose of Design Language. (If you haven’t done so already, please click here to go back and review it!) In his article we follow that up with information that executives responsible for product development can use to better understand how it benefits engineers.

What Motivates Engineers?

Before delving into how Design Language can help your engineers, let’s first examine three motivations that I believe many engineers share based on my experience in product development. Like the rest of us, engineers are individuals and are propelled by other needs as well, but these three seem to be very common.

  • Engineers Need to Solve Problems

    First and foremost, Engineers are problem solvers. We live to create solutions to challenges.  We constantly look for better ways to implement designs. Constraints? That just makes the challenge more interesting. Needs invention to make it possible? Bring it on. To many, this is what being an engineer is all about.

  • Engineers Need to Design

    Second, engineers want to design products. That’s what we trained for and the opportunity to do more of it keeps us interested and engaged. We work like dogs on a tough project so we can get the opportunity to work on the next tougher project. Nothing will drive an engineer away from your company faster than being stuck on a project that never ends and never delivers; or even worse, having nothing to do other than non-engineering tasks.

  • Engineers Need Positive Reinforcement

    Finally, engineers (like all of us) value positive reinforcement for their efforts, and one way that need can be fulfilled is with positive feedback from the people who use and talk about the products we design. Not to say that stock options, patents, and cash aren’t important, but they usually don’t do the trick unless the product itself succeeds.

As a product development leader, your challenge is to stack the deck in favor of maximizing these three motivations for your engineering team members. From a business perspective, you also want to enable them to be as productive as possible so that they can develop as many products as possible in as short a time as possible. What this implies is that you must help them focus their problem-solving energy on the right problems. The right problems are the ones that the engineer is trained to solve, motivated to work on and that lead to desired business results. If you don’t get this right, your engineers will be forced to prioritize challenges on their own, and may spend too much time solving problems that they are not trained to solve and miss something critical they are trained for. This can be a very costly, frustrating, and inefficient use of your engineering talent.

How does Design Language help?

Engineers usually design to a set of constraints and requirements. This helps focus problem solving towards a solution that meets the needs of the many stakeholders critical to the success of the product being developed. Stakeholders can include your manufacturing team, sales people, regulatory agencies, product service and support, governments, marketing, finance, stockholders, and of course users. When constraints and requirements are fuzzy, incomplete, or perhaps non-existent, your engineers will be forced to “fill in the blanks” as best they can, which might cause a lack of focus on some of their engineering tasks. This almost always results in products that miss the mark in some way. As a result, the positive reinforcement may not happen and the engineers probably spend too much time on tasks that aren’t engineering-related.

Enter Design Language. As defined in Part 1, Design Language consists of a set of guidelines that express your brand promise while meeting the technical, business, and human needs of the product. Design Language addresses a set of product needs that aren’t necessarily related to product functionality, but are still critical to stakeholder acceptance. While a Design Language is not prescriptive, it is still a set of requirements that must be met to achieve product success. From the engineer’s perspective, Design Language is viewed as another set of constraints.  Just as engineers currently consult specialists for other parts of a design (i.e. regulatory, manufacturing process, etc.), they normally work with an Industrial Designer to interpret the Design Language appropriately to meet the product’s goals.

So how does Design Language benefit your engineers? Simple: improved focus and efficiency.  Design Language enables your engineers to do more of what they are great at doing which leads to better product results. Having a Design Language in place prior to designing a new product allows your engineers to focus on what they do best, problem solving, on the items they are best at accomplishing, technical design. They no longer spend significant time inventing the user interface, color, button location, and branding application for every product they create. With a Design Language in place, these are normally tweaked-in by simply consulting an Industrial Designer.  The result is that engineers can focus more energy ensuring that the remaining product needs are met and less on activities that they are likely not trained for.

No longer do they need to re-invent a product’s front bezel for every product version they design. Having a Design Language makes that task trivial. Endless meetings to determine button placement, the type of display needed for user interfaces, and indicator LED colors become a thing of the past. They can spend that time innovating ways to reduce cost, improve performance, or improve quality instead. Overall product development accelerates.

Scaling an existing product into a new product is now a simple interaction with an Industrial Designer, not hours creating CAD followed by endless cycles of customer validation and refinement. The efficiency of your engineering team goes up, which means they can now work on more products for a given budget and timeframe. Everyone wins.

This efficiency also scales dramatically with the size and complexity of your business. While engineers in single product-line companies certainly benefit, large multi-divisional / multi-national organizations with complex organizational structures profit exponentially as duplication is reduced and re-use of design and sharing across teams increases.

Conclusion

Your engineers ultimately benefit from Design Language because it helps you enable three motivations they consider important. They can focus on solving more of the challenges they are trained to solve. They are able to contribute to more projects more often. And of course, since the Design Language improves the overall user experience with the products they create, they will most certainly receive greater positive reinforcement from people who buy and use their successful designs.

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About M3 Design
Founded in 1996, M3 Design is a product development company located in Austin, Texas. M3 is a team of world-class designers and engineers that challenge convention to help their clients maximize business opportunities by creating exceptional products and experiences with them.

One Comment on This Topic

  1. Armando Busto on said:

    When did artists became designers? And when did designers became engineers?

    I think somewhere during our timeline artists, designers and engineers were all the same person. Take for example Leonardo da Vinci, besides the Mona Lisa (an artistic masterpiece), he also drew/designed the first submarine, a flying device (helicopter) and even a perpetual motion wheel. So, does this makes him an engineer? This brings me to believing that we all have a little bit of everything. Engineers need to imagine things just like a designer in order to make it a reality; designers need to stay in touch with their artistic side to make things more likable; artists need geometry in order to make perspective look real.

    If we could all understand our inner artist, designer and engineer, we would be open to more possibilities and working with multi-talented groups would be easier. I think we need to learn (at least) the basics of all three fields to be able to develop innovative products.

    We should all speak the three languages:
    Design Language
    Engineering Language
    Artistic Language

    Thank you Gray for such a good article, from an engineering designer.
    Armando Busto

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