December 2020
Product Design Lessons Learned: Connecting The Dots
<a href="" target="_self">Jeevak Badve</a>
Jeevak Badve

Principal, and Director of Strategic Growth

Product Design, and Industrial Design overall, are all about making connections – “connecting the right dots” so to speak. Correctly combining knowledge and insight from many diverse areas to develop an ideal user experience is the key to great product design. As Charles Eames once said: “Eventually everything connects – people, ideas, objects…the quality of the connections is the key to quality per se.”

Many industrial design studios will talk about their expertise in “connecting the dots”, but what does this really mean? What are some examples of the kind of dots we need to connect as designers to create great products? And how do we know we’re connecting the right dots? Read on to learn how to create products that are successful on the market, and solve real pain points for real people.

Connecting the right dots using the Product Design Context:

You’ve probably heard it said that “Context is King”. The same is true when you’re designing any product or service. Understanding the context of its use, the demographic and psychographic positioning of the people using it, and what forces those factors exert on your product will make the difference between success and miserable failure on the market.

Ultimately your product has to survive on its own and prove itself in the real contexts of people’s homes, company workflows, or job sites. All the great marketing in the world can’t save your product once it’s out there “in the wild”. You must do rigorous design research up front to understand and account for all these contextual factors that affect the product-to-human interaction. If you succeed in this, your product will integrate seamlessly with its real-world ecosystem and create a delightful, frictionless user experience worthy of claiming your customer’s loyalty.

Understanding the truth is not as simple as asking someone what they think. You have to extract the truth from them by gathering information about their behavior, wants, dreams, pain points, and habits. A simple misunderstanding can have a huge impact. Even in Design Research, as you’re extracting the voice of the customer, conducting focus groups, developing surveys and beyond, beware of assuming that you understand your user’s needs simply because you’re listening to them. Listening to your users VS. understanding what they mean, and extracting the ideal product experience from that, are woooorlds apart!

I was born in India, and worked there for 7 years with Tata Motors before coming to Detroit 19 years ago. Since moving to the US, I’ve learned to ask plenty of clarifying questions in all situations. Even now that I’m completely used to American idioms, there are still nuances in everyone’s personal experiences which shape them and build in them different mental models. We perceive situations differently and communicate differently because of these different mental models. Therefore, even within one culture, these minute differences mean that Design Research must also be nuanced and use a robust process to extract correct insights from what the user says, does, thinks, and feels.

As the Canadian designer, Marshall McLuhan said: “Everybody experiences far more than he understands. Yet it is experience, rather than understanding, that influences behavior.” We put this principle to work at Sundberg-Ferar too. Our Design Research team has a big toolbox of qualitative and quantitative research methods and strategies to uncover the most relevant information from your target users about their needs, wants, dreams, and aspirations. Then we synthesize the information into practical insights that are actionable for your team with a list of functional and emotional attributes your product needs to include.

Connecting the dots between Stakeholders with Design Research:

I’ve been talking a lot about understanding your “user”. But who is your user?

Most product managers know that they should understand their end user, but what about all the other stakeholders in their product supply chain?

I can tell you for certain that your product will be just as likely to fail if it doesn’t meet the needs of one of your stakeholders as that of your end-user. The end user will always want all the features for free, but you have to understand how to make it a win-win-win for all your multi-users in the product’s form function and emotion. Design Research, therefore, needs to also include everyone who will be touching your product at any point in its lifecycle. Does it work for manufacturers? Does it work for your sales & marketing team? Does it work for your C-level executive’s company strategy? Does it work for those who have to do periodic maintenance on the product? Does it work for those who have to dispose of the product in a sustainable way?

Connecting the dots between Product Elements:

Product Design is not just about designing a product. It’s designing the configuration of a system.

A product is not just the sum of its materials, construction, and framework. The product is how all these factors come together in a new and compelling way. How does the product achieve a purposeful blend of hardware, digital, and service elements? Only gracefully combining all of these together will make your product successful. If you focus on any one of these in isolation, rather than marrying them all together seamlessly, the product will fail.

You simply can’t reduce a product down to just one of its elements. You have to analyze the individual parts while also not losing sight of the whole, and the overall experience you’re trying to create with all these parts coming together. For example, you can’t think of the Rocky theme song without thinking of the Rocky movie, and you can’t have the Rocky movie without the song. That’s how it should be with products: Software + hardware + service, all joined together in a perfect union.

Eames said that “[the details] make the product”. That’s true. However, only after you first determine the overall “macro” ideal user experience you’re trying to create can you focus on the “micro” details to make sure they further that overall goal. Design is never successful in isolation. You have to carefully craft all the parts of the product together.

Connecting the dots across the Design Process:

Steve Jobs famously said, “The design is not just what it looks like and feels like. The design is how it works.” I would add that design is also the whole process of masterminding how the product is crafted from concept to production. The quality of this process depends on the quality of connections between the designers, strategists, engineers, etc. who work together on it, determining how it will be made.  At Sundberg-Ferar our multidisciplinary team is all under one roof at our one location in Metro-Detroit for exactly this reason. ( Don’t worry, we’re also working seamlessly in the virtual world, with clients thousands of miles from us, using our robust remote working tools) We make sure that our design process is continuous with no loss in translation between the different stages and disciplines. Industrial designers, engineers, innovation strategists, design researchers, GUI specialists, and model-makers all have an important say in our design process.

Connecting the dots between Your Company and Your Product:

As you probably are well aware, how your product is physically made also casts a halo on your business profitability through manufacturing costs, sourcing costs, sustainability and more. On top of connecting the dots between 1) the real-world context of your product, 2) its multi-users, and 3) the process by which it’s developed, you also have to connect that with the needs of your business. Will the product be profitable, beneficial, and sustainable for your business?

Every company has their own unique objectives, goals and aspirations, as well as a unique starting point from which they’re building. For example, not every company wants to be an Amazon or a Tesla. It depends on your company aspirations. The question is knowing your starting point and your desired future state and then using all the tools of design to map out your own ideal journey or roadmap to that desired state.

Connecting the dots: Cross-connecting Knowledge to Optimize Your Product:

All fields of study and knowledge eventually connect somehow, and there is beauty to be appreciated in all those fields, as well as ways to use that knowledge in your product. This is a key element to great product design that a lot of designers don’t take the time to leverage. However, this element of curiosity to make new connections between seemingly disparate fields leads to the kind of innovation that takes your product from good, to FANTASTIC.

For example, I can still remember loving my first Math professor who began our course by simply letting us appreciate the beauty and design of the Taj Mahal and then pointing out angles and geometry that created that beautiful design. Buckminster Fuller used pure math to design his famous geodesic dome. Antoni Gaudi designed The Sagrada Familia cathedral in Spain using elemental geometry structures that he derived from curves made by strings & weights, which he then blended with natural forms – essentially biomimicry. Once you get deep enough, biology, chemistry, physics and mathematics; business, engineering, design – it all connects.

As designers, we need to constantly cultivate our curiosity and immerse ourselves in these worlds to learn and retain ideas. That cross-pollination of ideas and perspectives (which is one of our strengths at Sundberg-Ferar as a multidisciplinary design team) means that when the right product challenge comes along, we’re equipped to solve it by making the right connections.

Connecting the dots to Change The World!

I’ll leave you with a case study on Baseball, where a simple design changed our nation as we know it today.

When the sport first began, it was typical in that era for American fathers to be busy at work for most of the week and have little time for father-son bonding. After a hard week’s work, when they finally had time to play with their sons on the weekend, more and more fathers and sons began throwing a baseball together. Next thing you knew, sons were dragging their dads to their baseball games.

That’s where the design of Baseball became an impetus creating one of the most formational venues of idea exchange and idea-breeding in American history. Why? Because as the nation’s kids were playing baseball, their fathers who were watching the game had the chance to meet other fathers there, talk together, make connections that they wouldn’t have otherwise made, and create ideas together. Just like that, a simple design, the sport of baseball, had a huge effect on American culture, as an assimilator of various ethnic groups together; It wasn’t just a pastime, it was fuel for the American innovation economy.

Perhaps the inventor of baseball didn’t have all of this in mind when he/she started. Maybe they just “got lucky”. But whether you’re designing a product, service, experience, or something else entirely, when you use all these principles to make your product complete, leaving nothing to chance or misinterpretation because you’ve done all the upfront work to account for its context, users, business sustainability, and the rest of it – then you stand the best chance of creating a product that could truly change the world!

Right now is the time to invest in Product Design. Now is the time to ask what the new needs are and wants of your users in the emerging pandemic realities and respond with new and relevant products. If you haven’t already, it’s time to pivot. As we’ve seen, this new normal isn’t going away anytime soon, and it’s time to start thinking about design as not insurance but as an investment. We’d love to talk with you about how you can leverage industrial design thinking and innovative product design in YOUR business strategy to fuel growth in these times!

Looking for a design partner to help plan or realize your own innovation roadmap?
Drop us a note! We’d love to talk!


Jeevak Badve

Principal, and Director of Strategic Growth

Jeevak, Principal and Director of Strategic Growth, brings energy, passion & curiosity to his role at Sundberg-Ferar. With his unique blend of education and experience in industrial design, engineering and business, he is a rallying voice for the alignment and optimal inclusion of the end user’s un-met needs, and unspoken wants in the core value proposition of a company’s products & service portfolio to generate sought-after shareholder value.

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