Tuesday, June 8, 2010

SDM students learn what it takes to market successful products - SDM Pulse Summer 2010

By Qi D. Van Eikema Hommes, research associate, MIT Engineering Systems Division

Research Associate Qi D. Van Eikema Hommes
teaches Product Design and Development.
Excitement, drama, and laughter filled the Bechtel Lecture Hall on May 7, 2010, as 14 judges from industry, venture capital, and academia watched students from the Product Design and Development (PDD) class showcase such creations as a new adhesive, a new grill accessory, and a new chef’s tool—the results of a semester of hard work in this required course in MIT’s System Design and Management Program (SDM).

The judges were impressed by the quality of the products that the students developed, and so was I. As the lead instructor for this class and a new faculty member of the SDM program, I felt very proud of what our students had achieved. I can see how SDM provides the interdisciplinary knowledge and experiences that students need to meet the challenges in today’s world—and that’s very exciting.

PDD is an interdisciplinary class that gives students a full experience of designing and developing a new product. Many SDM students come from technical backgrounds and are good at solving technical problems or designing technical systems. However, many do not have significant experience in considering user and market needs. The most important lesson that students take away from this class is that a product is only successful when it answers real unmet user needs. The class teaches them how to look for unmet needs, collect user and market information, and allow the knowledge of both users and markets to guide product design and development activities.

For example, one team in this year’s class started out with a technology—an RFID tracking device—rather than a need. Team members wanted to design a web-based system to track everything from documents to parts and information. In class, the students were urged to find out why the world would want their system. Using techniques learned in class, they interviewed and observed people, ultimately identifying a need among parents who sometimes lose their young children in busy areas. The team felt that these parents would like anyone who finds their child to be able to contact them quickly. Based on this need, the students developed an attractive RFID
bracelet for kids and a companion web-based tracking system. The team is now exploring the possibility of collaborating with Verizon to produce such a system.

As a new member of the SDM faculty, I was impressed by the degree to which the diverse backgrounds of SDM students greatly enriched the learning for everyone. The group’s industry experiences and real-world knowledge has brought all class discussions to a higher level. Some students knew more about marketing research and were able to use more advanced marketing research techniques and tools to help pinpoint product attributes their team needed to consider. Others contributed expertise from manufacturing sectors, helping their team build realistic prototypes. Some students brought software and web skills to the class and developed websites and iPhone apps for their products. This diversity of skills and backgrounds enabled teams to move quickly through every stage of the product design and development process, starting with understanding customer and market needs, ideation, then prototyping, manufacturing, and advertising.

In addition, students gain a wealth of knowledge from seeing so many different projects developed and presented. Through midterm and final presentations, the whole class is able to follow the evolution of a fascinating mix of products through the process.

As in past years, many of the products designed in this class have high potential to become commercial successes. Several teams are planning to pursue intellectual property rights to their creations.

In summer 2010, I will be teaching SDM’s systems engineering class. After experiencing all phases of the design and development of a small product in the PDD class, students will learn about what to do when the product is a large and complex system. The class will showcase the latest systems engineering research and teach students to think critically about existing methods and tools. Research Associate Qi D. Van Eikema Hommes teaches Product Design and Development.

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