inventing for the future consumer
“Think one hundred years in the future, and ask ‘what will people wish we had done?’ ”I first read that quote when I was waiting for a meeting at the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta. It’s posted on the wall behind the Smallpox Eradication exhibit, and attributed to William Foege (who is something of a legend in the global health world). Reading that statement, it’s hard not to be excited about the work that lies ahead for me. In fact, that exhibit and the ensuing conversation inspired my research during my last year at Tech (for those that are interested, since I allude to this a good bit, the title of my working paper is “Defining The Process of Innovation: Common Themes in the Development of Biomedical Technologies for the Developing World”, advised by Thomas Barker in the Coulter department of BME at Georgia Tech).
As many of you know, I design. Specifically, I design medical devices, and although my work doesn’t yet cater to the developing world, it is nonetheless challenging and often frustrating to design for future consumers. For one, current consumers don’t know what they want or need. Henry Ford once said, “If I had listened to my customers, I would have built a faster horse.” Market research has a place, don’t get me wrong, but as I’m finding out now, the feedback you get from the market is more a blur of mumbled whispers than it is a conclusive cry of need.
Given the confusion of customer opinion, it’s frustrating to balance the need of the current user with the pressures of the future marketplace. The more removed you are from your user, the more difficult this gets. When you’re dealing with consumer goods, you’re designing for an everyday person not dissimilar from yourself, and your release cycles are typically short (less than a year) – and your feedback is still mixed. When you get into more complex markets, such as healthcare or aerospace, you’re designing for more than one user, and often a purchaser that’s entirely separate. For example, when I design a device, I consider the user (a clinician or nurse), the object of use (the patient), and the purchaser (a hospital GPO or contract manager). Add that to a release cycle of 18 to 24 months minimum (without clinical trials), and you can see how challenging this gets – trying to predict the preferences and needs of three distinct use profiles at least two years in the future in the face of rapidly changing technology.
I wish I had more insightful commentary on how to do this. It’s been a focus of mine for a while, as a young engineer trying to learn all that I can about customer preferences and how to meet needs through design. Designing for people in the future is something I’m struggling with – heck, designing for people in the present is challenging enough right now. Tim Brown of IDEO suggests “structured brainstorming”, but I think that it also requires a leap of faith, and in some ways, younger designers who better relate to future consumers are at an advantage, especially those that are scripted in systems thinking.
Maybe I should have been an imaginary engineer after all.
(and sorry Shan, for a post without a picture)