Design Evolution Powered by ME, UX and ID Integration

Differentiating ME, UX and ID

With all of the back and forth, it’s sometimes difficult (particularly for an outsider) to see the distinctions between the Mechanical Engineer (ME), User Experience Design (UX), Product Strategist and Industrial Design (ID) roles. But that also reveals a strength: businesses blurring those lines are master collaborators, and in the end, collaboration is the key to building better products.

To help us understand these distinctions a little better though, we spoke to a few of our in-house MEs at Altitude – Spencer Boone, Lee Powers and Amy Loomis.

First, some clarity around the roles: Industrial designers and User Experience designers have a specific feel and function in mind, one that speaks to the end user needs – and they advocate for this vision to be realized throughout the process. Mechanical engineers make that vision a reality, while working within physical and technological constraints.

Where the Industrial designers and User experience designers will say “I want to do this or I want it to look like this or I want it to feel or function like this,” you’ll see the MEs bargaining with, “okay, we can give you this, but we can’t give you that.” It’s a constant compromise, along with a little push and pull, with an end goal of creating new experiences that users want. And it’s both an exciting and a very delicate balance.

At Altitude, these roles are a bit different, as Lee shares: “Mechanical engineering at Altitude is a complementary, and, depending on the project, equal function to the design group, and the experience group. We complement each other. When there are things that we lack to make a product real, the designers may have — and the things that designers lack, we can often provide.  We can research new technology and introduce how that technology would interact with the user.  And we work on the configurations of parts, so if we’re doing a traditional industrial design and they were going to put a housing around something, we work with them on what the potential configurations of those internal components could be. But even earlier than that, before design is even involved, we may be testing those configurations, and later in the design phases, we’ll provide design for manufacturing support – helping them both on individual parts and on assemblies.  We’re responsible for sorting out what is possible, what is not possible, and what is required.”

Importance of Preserving Design Intent

It’s important to understand the underlying goal MEs are tasked with though, shares Amy: “When a project that started in Strategy, ends up in our laps, as engineers we’re not just preserving design intent of the Industrial designers, we’re also carrying the context forward that the Product Strategists imbued this product concept with. We have to keep the heart and soul of the product, as we typically hand it to somebody else to actually make it.”

Preserving the look and feel that inspired a consumer-researched product design is a challenge for any manufacturing team. Companies attack this challenge in a variety of ways. Some accept the function over form trade-off as inevitable, and do little to struggle against it – with consumer input seen as important, but pliable. And other companies, like Altitude, seek to capture the most complete approximation of their user research.

Design functions overlap here, and so do ID and ME functions. “We’ll continually go out and talk to people so that we get grounded in what we’re doing – and we repeat this again and again,” shares Spencer. “We’re always checking in with each other, to make sure the intent holds true.”

The end result from each speaks for itself, but let’s see it in progress with this example Lee offered around packaging electronics:

The Product Design Ecosystem & Process Flow

We know that there is going to be a battery and a screen and a circuit board, and maybe some other proprietary technology from the client. So as the first step, the mechanical engineers will lay out those components in the shop, literally on a piece of plywood – we call it a bread board – and look at all of the different ways that those could be organized.  We will also probably do it in CAD, in 3D, in CAD software.

Then we’ll give those configurations to the designers and say “the battery can go in these places, the screens can go in these places.” And they come to us with their ideal from the users’ perspective: they want the battery here, they want the center of gravity there, they want the screen to be this big. And so we start to engage in this sort of push and pull on where all those components go.

Once we’ve agreed on one or two or three different options on how those internals can be configured, then we start to talk about how the housing can be put around them or whatever the user interaction points are; how they would interface with the actual internal parts.

Next come the prototypes. We may need to build many prototypes to test as we progress, and that again requires a collaboration between the designers and engineers, because the engineers are going to make the prototype, but the designers need to tell us exactly what part of these abilities they are trying to test.

Once they’ve got a design that covers all these interaction points of the final product, we’ll sit down with them and review it for manufacturability. We’ll ask:

  • Is it actually possible to make it in this number of parts or with these surfaces?
  • How would it be assembled, and what would the assembly cost?
  • How easy could these parts be made, what material would it be made out of, what finish would it have, what does it all cost?

These questions, their answers, and most importantly – the end result from all of it, depends a lot on the environment they’re asked in: A Design-led business vs a Technology-led business.

Design-led vs Technology-led & Why It Matters

There are products that are beautiful, but it’s obvious that very few engineers touched it, because although it looks right, it doesn’t function very well.  And there are products that function really well, like the classic enterprise solutions that are just that disgusting gray, looking like it was built back in the 1990s. That’s something an engineer likely built with little design input.  It functions really well, but it doesn’t account for the user.

You can definitely see who has a lot of engineers on their team, and some designers, even designer engineers, and who has only designers.

“The design-led companies fueled the technology we have today,” shares Spencer, “because the designers said ‘I want this scenario to happen in two years and then the engineers go to work for two years to design a technology to do just that. It’s what happens at Apple. They’re far, far ahead of the competition because of it.”

Though they sound – and are – quite different, both design and tech led companies are able to create collaborative situations. The real trouble comes when “companies are set up where they have walls, either literally or metaphorically, between the groups.  And in those cases, neither one is really leading, they just keep throwing the product over the wall back and forth.”

Tossing Ideas Over Walls & Other Innovation Killers 

In an environment where there’s little to no collaboration, there’s really no leadership. Each “side” does as much as they can when they have it and then it’s handed off to the other group to do as much as they can when they have it. The result is disjointed, at best.

“Throughout the history of Apple they were obsessed with having the manufacturing plant right next to the designers,” shares Spencer. “Having like information systems that allowed them to send a 3D model over to the manufacturing plant and saying right at the beginning of the design process ‘hey, can you make this?’ And that’s why they were able to make game changing decisions ahead of anyone else.”

As a product moves from design to engineering to manufacturing, if you can remove that wall and maintain integration of the manufacturing needs then you have an even better product.  And this is where Altitude excels. Please contact us to see how we can help you.

Gretchen Hoffman

Posted By: 

Gretchen Hoffman

VP Marketing