Sunday, June 5, 2011

SDM foundation course introduces product design and development - SDM Pulse Summer 2011

By Maria Yang, Robert N. Noyce assistant professor of mechanical engineering and engineering systems
Editor’s note: Assistant Professor Maria Yang was this year’s instructor for Product Design and Development, a foundation course in MIT’s System Design and Management Program.
Maria Yang

One of the major advantages of MIT’s System Design and Management Program (SDM) is that it emphasizes a systems approach to complex problems, allowing students to explore the product design and development process from beginning to end.

Product Design and Development (PDD), which I taught this spring, is a key element of the SDM curriculum, designed to familiarize students with each of the multiple functions involved in creating a new product, including marketing, industrial design, engineering, and prototyping, as well as finance and entrepreneurship.

Robert McKellar, SDM ’10, demonstrates the Ant,
which his PDD team designed to enable people
to work more comfortably in confined spaces.
Our goal is to help SDM students come up with thoughtful, big-picture solutions that connect with customers and users. Whereas typical graduate-level engineering courses—and, indeed, engineering practice—often zero in on very specialized, technical issues, PDD asks students to also think about the broader aspects of the business. In this course, students consider such “front-end” questions as: What markets do we want to target? and How can we uncover and address user needs in a systematic way?

The course is practical, not just theoretical. Its centerpiece is a semester-long project in which teams of three to five students develop a marketable product. Each team must determine the market opportunities for their product, assess user needs, design and build a prototype solution, and develop a business case for design.

The goal is to come up with a solution that addresses a real need in the marketplace—not simply a technical solution that meets predetermined specifications. For that reason, the bulk of the first part of the semester focuses on helping students discover what people really want and need. They conduct interviews and surveys, but they also observe and take photographs—because people often say one thing and do another.

PDD class members Vivin Nath and Naveen
Ranganath (both SDM '11) work on their
presentation while teaching assistants
Rutu Manchiganti and Avi Latner look on.
This point was brought home in a guest lecture by Danny Braunstein, a principal at Design Continuum, a Boston-area product design consultancy. At Continuum, all members of each design team begin with deep observation of their users’ environment.

So, if they were designing a new medical device, they visited hospitals, doctor’s offices, and labs so they could see how users actually got their work done. Often, they found that people don’t use devices they way one might expect.

To help the students focus their projects, we provided a theme for them to work with. This year’s theme was healthcare and healthy living—and students chose to interpret this theme in a number of different ways, focusing on user groups as diverse as first-time expectant mothers, people who want to keep their teeth clean while on the go, and cyclists who commute to Boston.

Working from the needs they have identified, teams proceeded to generate concepts and solutions through brainstorming and other methods, for example, using Pugh Concept Selection to choose among alternatives. Although we do not expect exhaustive benchmarking studies, teams do some market research in order to discern what general solutions exist in the marketplace or if there is existing intellectual property. (The students conduct market research and user-need finding more or less at the same time.)

Once students have completed their market research and generated preliminary concepts, it is time for them to pick one product to pursue, then begin designing and protoyping. We emphasize the value of building fast, low-fidelity (less realistic), iterative prototypes that inform the team about specific aspects of their design. Each team must prepare a list of target specifications for the product, as well as a schedule of project work that includes design work, vendor interactions, prototyping, testing, redesign, and preparation of the final presentation. Throughout the design process, students are encouraged to consider, with the help of a practicing industrial designer, the product’s aesthetics.

Finally, each team presents its product to a team of judges drawn from industry. An effective presentation includes a live demonstration of the hardware or software and mirrors the kind of presentation a team would make to persuade management or a venture capitalist to fund its final development and launch.

It’s always tremendously satisfying to watch the final presentations because you can see the teams go from literally nothing to a prototype in just a few months. Even more, these presentations evoke compelling visions for each product, including branding, graphic design, logos, and future product lines. The prototype is just the starting point.

SDM students come away from PDD with a broader understanding of product development than they had as engineers working to meet a set of design requirements. What we ultimately hope to teach in PDD is that by being part of the upstream process, you can come up with better requirements and better, more successful products.

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