The Two Non-Problem Solving Skills You Need to Tackle Difficult Design Projects
As engineers and designers we solve problems. It’s what we do. Often to the great dismay of people in our lives that are perfectly content with the setup of their home TV systems or who just want us to “listen”. But if you want to put a person in space, or a cheese like gelatinous substance into an easily dispensable pressurized vessel you come to us. Sure, we can figure out a way to turn compressed orange oil into a space propellant. Wait, you didn’t ask us to? You see, what we are not necessarily always so good at is picking the right problems to solve. We tend to gravitate towards the most interesting/challenging problems as a way to flex our mental muscle and show off our technical know-how. These are not necessarily the best things to be working on if the goal is to be moving the ball forward and helping the greater good. The right problems to solve are the ones that produce the most results. Take for example the classic story (myth) about the space pen and how many resources NASA put into the technical challenge of making it work in a zero gravity environment. Meanwhile the Russians used a pencil.
"Keep it simple, stupid" The KISS principle states that most systems work best if they are kept simple rather than made complicated; therefore simplicity should be a key goal in design and unnecessary complexity should be avoided.
Classic American rock band known for their theatrics and face painted stage personas.
So how do we put aside our egos for altruism? By taking a step back from the how and looking at the why.
It is important throughout the design process be consistently asking “What is the problem we are really trying to solve?” Is the problem trying to figure out how to pressurize ink, or is the real problem finding a way to write in space quickly and cheaply? This may seem so blatantly obvious as to be aggravating. But the reality is, if we are truly honest with ourselves, so many of us don’t do it.
It is common to be working on a design that is an iteration of a previous design. The previous generation was based on initial assumptions that may no longer be valid, based on new knowledge, or simply evolving technologies. In fact, those initial assumptions may never have even been valid in the first place and may have simply been based on arbitrary decision making or someone's opinion. Over time those seemingly inconsequential decisions have a way of going from being penciled in to being carved in stone. Thus false design constraints are put in place and any constraint can be the roadblock that prevents a radical and game changing design.
It is also typical that during the design process, a problem will arise and the designer will create a fix for it; but as an unintended consequence, the fix actually causes some new issue that requires a new fix and so on and so on. I call this phenomenon “Problem Stacking”.
A configuration that, while inelegant, inefficient, clumsy, or patched together, succeeds in solving a specific problem or performing a particular task.
Now, I love a good Rube Goldberg machine as much as the next person. And if you have the opportunity to incorporate a chicken and a candle into your design I strongly encourage you to do it. But clumsy, over complicated designs are going to be bulky, expensive, and fragile, which is not a recipe for sustainable results. Meaning some Gary can come along with a much simpler solution and sink your ship.
To avoid false design constraints and problem stacking, one must get to the root of really understanding the problem and history. You know the five year old kid that keeps asking why? Why is the sky blue? Because light from the sun reflects off of air in the sky. Why is there air in the sky? And so on. Be that kid. Ask why are we doing things this way? Then keep rephrasing the answer as a new question until eventually the head of the coworker you are asking starts to shake side to side at an extremely rapidly rate, and smoke comes out and your suspicions that they are a Cyborg are finally proven correct. When you arrive at that dead end, that is your starting point. From there you can begin research or testing to validate what the real constraints are. If this seems like a lot of work, and you are sure it would be easier to just keeping fixing problems as they pop up you should know one thing. Those fixes you keeping stacking are actually just Jenga pieces pulled from the bottom of the stack.
Take the time to look at the problem holistically and understand and rechallenge initial assumptions. Don’t be annoying about it and certainly don’t hold up the process but be persistent in doing what is required to truly understand.
What you are designing is likely an assembly made of subassemblies made of parts made of atoms made of fairy farts. And it is very likely that some kind and generous company out there has been thoughtful enough to already unknowingly have designed some of those parts or subassemblies for you. Thereby alleviating a lot of your technical burden and consequently saving you a lot of time. In addition to time they also took on the NRE and tooling costs and therefore are likely selling the item for cheaper than you could make it yourself, at least for prototyping. So generous.
Definition: Commercial Off -the-Shelf (COTS)
An adjective that describes products that are ready-made and available for sale to the general public.
Finding the right COTS items for your design can be huge. The challenge is that there is a whole universe of companies and things out there, and it can be difficult navigating the dark reaches of the galaxy to find the one thing you need. Good news, you have a portal on your desk that can lead you to a lot of these places if you smash your hands on the keyboard in the correct order. A good place to start is our friend McMaster Carr. Another great resource is thomasnet.com. If what you are looking for is something more specialized, you have to hone your web sleuthing skills by trying a myriad of keywords, searching google images, and reading articles. Forums can be helpful as well but be careful as those portals tend to lead to far off planets inhabited by trolls.
Nowadays, I start to get a Spidey sense when there is an item I need that I feel must exist. I ask myself “If I need this item for this purpose and the purpose is somewhat common then someone must have taken the time create and sell it”. Often times this is the case. But the good news is that when the item I am looking for is truly not available anywhere, then all the better, you may be onto something new and even patentable.
Some people, for whatever reason, insist on designing every part. Listen Ug, if you want to spend your time reinventing the wheel that is your prerogative. I however prefer to get from point A to point B in as efficient a manner as possible, so I can get back to laser cutting mustaches.
Spend a thorough amount of time in this role, as there can be huge short and long term payoffs, but don’t get stuck here. It is also easy to get side tracked as your research uncovers interesting things, or get in a psychological trap of staying on this step to procrastinate.
The main take away should be: don’t get so focused on the specific design task that you lose sight of the real problem. There can be a perception that taking the time to go back and rechallenge assumptions is slowing down the design process, but in the long term it will end up both saving time and producing lasting results. It may seem like a lot of fun to try to build a better mouse trap. But if the real problem you are trying to solve is getting rid of mice, the best solution may be to remove their access to cheese by keeping it in a can.