Colin White Interviews Steven B. Wilcox

Steven B. WilcoxAt Invetech, we believe that good design leads to more successful products and improved business growth. With ever increasing competitive pressures, it is no longer acceptable for a new product to simply work from a functional perspective; it must create a rewarding user experience. However, when looking at new product development processes, there can be a tendency to overlook design, which seems a missed opportunity for increasing market share.

Enter Steve Wilcox, a pioneer in user-driven product design. Steve is the founder of Design Science, a firm specializing in providing insight, research and UI design services to drive organic growth for companies developing new products. Steve has published more than 65 articles and book chapters on the topic of design and serves on the advisory board of the Carnegie Mellon University School of Design. Steve is particularly well known in the healthcare community for his book, Designing Useability into Medical Products, co-authored with Michael Wiklund.

Today, I am pleased to be catching up with Steve as part of Invetech’s series on growth, and to discuss how good design can fuel market success when developing new products.

Colin: Steve, good morning, thank you for your time.

Steve: Good morning.

Colin: Steve, I would like to start by asking you to clarify some of the language used in this sphere: Human factors, design, usability engineering—are these things all the same? And what is the best way for lay folk to think about these terms?

Steve: Let me start by defining Human factors. The discipline of Human factors is the application of knowledge of human beings to the design process. It’s kind of an adjunct profession to designers. We Human factors folk typically partner with product designers and developers.

Human factors is generally defined as the application of knowledge about human beings to design, and there are two parts to that. One is the cognitive part: knowledge about thinking and memory, applying information to make the product easy to learn and easy to remember. The other side is physical human factors: studying the shape and size of the body, as well as strength and movement, working on problems like how to make controls easy to use.

That is the body of knowledge, but like many disciplines it’s also a methodology. So one method involves finding information—from this body of knowledge—about human beings that applies to design. Setting that aside, the two most important methods are observational research—sometimes called ethnographic research—where we go out into the field and study how things are used and find opportunities for improvement. The other is usability testing, where we take a prototype, stick it in front of a person, have them use it, and see what kinds of mistakes they make in order for us to improve the product.

That’s human factors, and that’s the term that is used for this discipline most often in the U.S. Some other terms that are commonly used are usability engineering and ergonomics. Ergonomics is the British term, so it’s a synonym of human factors but is more commonly used in the U.K.; we tend to use the term Human factors in the U.S.

Colin: It seems to me that the topic of human factors—as you say sometimes called ergonomics—is certainly one that is getting a lot more airtime with management these days. What is your perspective on the underlying drivers of that?

Steve: Well, the trajectory I’ve been watching unfold for the last 30 years as I’ve been doing this work is that a new product category appears that’s largely driven by some kind of new technology, or some fundamentally new idea that is protected by some kind of intellectual property. Then the battle for market share is based upon the technology and the new product doesn’t really have competitors. So regardless of usability, the product is still sold. Then the technology begins to mature, and all of a sudden, usability becomes one of the key methods of making a successful product. The way one product differentiates itself from another is Ergonomics.

“Then the technology begins to mature, and all of a sudden, usability becomes one of the key methods of making a successful product.”

Specifically in the case of medical devices, it’s against the law not to apply human factors to medical devices. So that’s another big driver. If you want to get a medical product approved—at least in the U.S.—you have to demonstrate that you have gone through a process to address usability.

Colin: How about into the future? Do you see those two drivers being the drivers going forward? Or are there other things that will be creating motivation for applying these methodologies to product developments in the future?

Steve: As we move into the future, some important things are going to be happening: continued distribution of manufacturing to China means that the traditional role of the designer—at least in the U.S. and the developed world—is getting undermined to some extent. Designers are going to find themselves working more on user experience issues as design moves to those places where the manufacturing is going on. That’s one thing.

The other thing is the rise of 3D printers. That’s another manufacturing issue that I predict will let people produce a lot of products in their own homes.

“So the role of design and Human factors will change as we give advice directly to the user about what products to develop with their 3D printers, as opposed to providing them with pre-manufactured products.”

One other trend is a disappearance of products, that is, that products are becoming invisible. For example, something that we have been working on is an artificial pancreas. Right now, if you suffer from diabetes, you have to learn how to use your pump, or your injections and your blood glucose meter. The present focus is on designing a good user interface, but if we move to the model of an artificial organ that does a lot of that automatically, the user interface just disappears. That is going to be an increasing trend in a lot of product categories: the idea of product is one that becomes transparent.

“The traditional role of the designer is to make stuff look cool, so the whole mentality changes dramatically when the goal is to make the product disappear.”

Colin: Certainly those trends are things I too have seen, where overall there is a strong push to try to simplify things—that is, build more into the technology and take away the human interface. Certainly getting consumers involved in key design decisions, with the ultimate example being where the person is printing their own product.

In working in a consulting environment, you get the opportunity to see the approaches of many different organizations. What are some best practices that you’ve encountered from companies excelling at incorporating design into the new product development from a process perspective?

Steve: To me, one of the real keys is integration, truly integrating the different disciplines. That’s one side. The other side is applying specialized expertise from different fields.

The trend over the years has been that engineers did everything. Products were developed by engineers, and the engineer would look at the industrial designer’s job and say, “Hey, I can do that!” They would look at the usability issue and say, “Well, we’re all humans; we can do that too.” The truth is that when you use an industrial designer, the results speak for themselves.

“It’s the development of respect and working together that really makes the difference.”

The next step was to add human factors to industrial design, but the difficulty with these different disciplines is for them to work effectively together, rather than to pull in different directions. There is a natural tendency for everyone to think their discipline is really hard, and everyone else’s is sort of trivial. It’s the development of respect and working together that really makes the difference. If there is one best practice, I really think it’s that.

Designing Usability into Medical Products
Designing Usability into Medical Products by Michael E. Wiklund & Steven B. Wilcox

In terms of the training of the individuals, my late friend Bill Moggridge use to talk about the “T-person.” What he meant was a person who has a lot of knowledge and skill in a particular field (representing the vertical part of the T), but who also had a little knowledge in a lot of different disciplines so as to communicate effectively and respect the other disciplines (that’s the horizontal part of the T). I think there is really a lot to that. To me, that’s the most effective team and is overall the best practice.

There is one other thing: have good information. Good information is what speeds the product development process because, when you don’t have good information to refer to, you’re in the realm of opinion… and when working in these interdisciplinary teams, everybody has a different opinion. If there is not a good solid factual body of knowledge to adjudicate this variation in opinion, the whole thing just gets gummed up and stuck in these loops where everybody insists that their particular approach is the right one.

“The way to cut through that is to have good, solid information so that design decisions can be based on the evidence… as opposed to opinion.”

Colin: Excellent advice, there is no doubt that if you bring together a group that has key people who have solid data, and is well integrated, then you are well on your way.

What about on the other side of the coin? I assume you’re a bit like me and have seen certain organizations with approaches and mindsets that hamper getting to the best outcomes. Do you ever reflect on what those mindsets and approaches are and how they can be avoided?

Steve: It’s obvious to say that the inverse of what I have just said also applies; that is, there are teams where people don’t actually respect each other. If you’re working in an interdisciplinary team and everybody on the team says, “I can do that,” they make decisions as amateurs: the engineer who is really an amateur in industrial design, or the marketing person who is really an amateur in engineering. They’re making decisions that are not optimal. That really stems from egocentrism, a lack of respect for other disciplines.

The other one is where you don’t have good information; it results in that logjam that I talked about previously.

“You’ve got to have magic if you’re going to do really excellent products, and it’s not perfectly predictable.”

Another problematic mindset I see is, “You’ve got to have some kind of a system; you can’t just have chaos in product development!” You’ve got to have rules, but sometimes they can go overboard. The upper management has an obvious desire to rationalize everything. So you have these various types of Six Sigma systems that involve a kind of lock-steps systematic approach to product development, and sometimes that stamps out the creativity. You’ve got to have magic if you’re going to do really excellent products, and it’s not perfectly predictable.

You’ve got to have time to explore different approaches. Some of these Six Sigma programs use up so many resources with paperwork as opposed to those things that actually result in excellent products. So that is something to watch out for as well.

Colin: I agree, structure in product development is incredibly important, but structure that undermines creativity is definitely going too far.

From my perspective, I have certainly seen a pattern during the development of many of the more technically advanced products where R&D is typically driving the development and the focus is very much on capturing requirements and delivering the product functionality. In your experience—as it’s very hard for the user to have a voice in that process—how do you intervene? How do you give the user a voice through all of that?

Steve: It’s all part of a product trajectory. You know inevitably there’s going to be a lot of that function-driven, technology-driven quality to the early development of a category. Then as it matures, it becomes crucial to focus more on the user. The other thing, though, pertains to the sophistication of the company. A traditional start-up problem is where they don’t know what they don’t know—they think they know everything. When they know what they don’t know, there is no reason why you can’t integrate Human factors and industrial design at the beginning of the development of the product, but obviously it costs a few bucks and you’ve got to have some basic understanding of it.

“These days, we find more of the smaller companies know what they don’t know and are able to approach product development in a more sophisticated way.”

Colin: I think you made an excellent point before about having respect for difference disciplines and calming your own ego about what you may or may not know, and bringing in professionals who are seasoned in this type of activity.

Steve: The other really simple cost-effective thing to do is to just bring a couple of target users of the end product into the design team. Have them sit in on meetings so that you get some representations of the end users of the product. That is a very simple and cost-effective way if you don’t have the budget or the time to go out and do several weeks of observational research.

Colin: I think you touched on a very important point about investment, about doing the job properly, building the facts­—it does take some investment.

From my own experience, I’ve seen designers get frustrated when their role is reduced to tactical implementation of individual design elements, without a more strategic view to the total work flow or more strategic elements like brand loyalty. I sense that some of that frustration is often born from different perceptions of ROI and how to justify a return on investment in design activities. How do you make sure that programs are well supported by budget and from a business case perspective?

Steve: Sure, I’ll tell you how we approach it and think about it. You can talk about it in terms of margin, but just to make things simpler, let’s talk about it in terms of volume. So we ask the question: how much of an increase in percentage of sales can we expect from our services? So if we do the best job we can, what percentage increase in sales of the product could we expect? Then the payback for our services is the marginal profit associated with those extra sales. If you say we are going to increase sales by 10 percent, then the question is, what is the marginal profit generated by that extra 10 percent of sales?

“When we have performed ROI calculations, we find that the break-even point is typically about 0.05 percent increase in sales, but many of the products we’ve been involved in have been wildly more successful than the sales projections.”

So from that perspective, the return on our fees is dramatically greater than a multiple of 10 or 50 or 100, depending on the nature of the product.

The only part of the equation that you don’t have hard data on is what the sales would have been without our participation. So you have to make some assumptions there. But even there, conservative assumptions show a healthy multiple of payback on our services. And when I say “ours,” I mean all of us who do a good job in product development.

Colin: I started out the discussion today by drawing that link you are making between strong product design and success in the market. Is there anything else you would like to say about the connection between those two elements?

Steve: Well, this is just an example: we were working on a medical device that cost $300,000 and our total fees were about half a million, and the marginal profit was about 30 percent. So all the company had to do to pay our fee was to sell an extra five devices. With a product like that, the volumes are in the low thousands, so it doesn’t seem like an outrageous claim that you can help the client sell an extra five or ten products.

Colin: As a final question, give some advice to product managers who want to maximize market share. What would be the two or three golden rules they should pay particular attention to in the design and human factors realm?

Steve: Well, integrating Human factors and industrial design from the beginning, and fully integrating it into their activities and into the product development team.

“What that means from the point of view of the consultant is that we are the most effective when we develop a real partnership with our clients.”

The clients we have worked for 10 to 20 years, we really understand and integrate with their activities. This is far more effective than when you’re coming in cold with a new client working on a particular project. So I think real partnerships like that pay off.

Colin: Absolutely would concur with that!

Steve, it has been great to talk to you today. I think your book still stands as one of the best texts in this field. Thank you for your time, it has been a privilege to talk to you.

Steve: Thank you, Colin!