The Role of Industrial Design in Meeting Users’ Needs

Products do not exist in a vacuum.

They serve a purpose. They solve problems. They make someone’s life easier. Or faster. Or more joyful. Or even allow someone to accomplish something they otherwise couldn’t.

Products are generally not intended to be manufactured and then be locked in a room to never be touched by human hands. Sometimes the contact is more limited than others but someone, at some point in time, does something with the product. They use it.

And that is because products have a user.  

Sometimes that user is fully engaged. For instance, someone using a hammer.  Other times the user is more passive, as in the case of something like a computer server where there is set up involved and possibly interaction for maintaining the product. The majority of the time, if the product is performing as intended, it operates independently.

But in both instances there is interaction between human and product.

Sometimes the product is as straightforward as a salt shaker, while other times it’s as complex as the Space Shuttle. But complexity does not determine worth.

A coffee cup is certainly not as complex as a personal computer, but it deserves thoughtful design nonetheless. It serves a purpose and it has a user. There are decisions to be made in designing that coffee cup that are going to affect a person’s level of satisfaction with the product, for better or for worse.

The criteria that each person uses to evaluate their level of satisfaction with a product is going to be very individual, often dependent on the target audience and market intent. But, consciously or not, people will make a decision as to how successful the product is. Or isn’t.

The foundation of product development

This is where industrial design comes in.

Industrial design could be described as the foundation of product development. Industrial design is the process of developing products that blend function, aesthetics, and value for the benefit of the end users and the people that make them.

Industrial design establishes a product’s form, how the user interacts with the product, and helps define the products features. It starts the process of making decisions on material choices, environmental impact, and manufacturing methods. And it can even influence entire business strategies.

The process starts with a question: Why?

What is the reason for the product’s being? What problem is being addressed here?  What user need are we trying to meet?  

The answers to these questions can be a vast continuum of interlacing criteria. The answers are often driven by a range of criteria from filling a hole in an existing corporate product line to starting an entirely new company centered around a new product that will save a person’s life in a medical emergency. The reason can be to create or improve or optimize.

Industrial Design finds solutions to the questions

Think a little further about the coffee cup example above. There could be a lot of answers to the question “why”.

  • Is the intent to design a coffee cup that is more impact resistant?  
  • Does the target user have dexterity issues that mean ergonomics play a bigger roll?  
  • Does a manufacturer simply needs a lower cost product to fill a gap in their product line?  
  • Are we trying to solve a problem with sanitation issues, maybe washing the cups in a large volume institutional scenario?  
  • Is cup to be mobile?  
  • What about hot and cold?  
  • Or maybe the main focus is simply whimsy. Something to bring a smile to someone’s face on a Monday morning.

Whatever the reason for being, in the example above or for any product, the best product design is user driven and should start with insights gleaned from careful observation and understanding of the scenarios in which the target users interact with the product.

Everything is built on solving the problem

Beauty is important, but a product can’t be only skin deep. The most beautiful product in the world won’t succeed if they don’t function.  

Technology is great. Technology is cool. Technology is fun.  But products that are simply developed because “we can” often fail because they eventually result in people asking “did I really need this?”.  

Aesthetics and technology, whether it’s making things beautiful and enjoyable or making things easier to use, should be applied to serve the user. There always needs to be a “why”.

Industrial designers are user advocates

In practice, industrial designers can be viewed as the conduit between the manufacturer and the end user.

They are able to blend all the different aspects of product design, layering aesthetics on top of function, applying appropriate uses of technology for the end use scenario, leading to a product that people love because it works, it does what they need it to do, it’s a pleasure to use, and it does so in a responsible manner.

Industrial designers are adept at finding the balance between all these criteria. Some products have higher functional requirements that others, and some are closer to pure aesthetics. Some products may have very little aesthetic necessity, but completely fail without meeting functional needs.

Industrial designers are also great at speaking all the different languages of product development: design, engineering, marketing, and manufacturing. This makes them great members of interdisciplinary teams, and they are great facilitators in any creative team you assemble.

User-driven product design increases your odds to long term product success because the products do what people actually need them to do. They solve a problem.


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Jeff Bull – Partner

Jeff is an experienced product designer with a demonstrated history of leadership in developing real world solutions. An inventor on over 40 patents, Jeff is skilled in Design Strategy and Innovation, and is committed to user-driven product solutions.

You can connect with him on LinkedIn.

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