Product Designer
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Stanford ME310/SUGAR

What is ME310/SUGAR?

Stanford ME310/SUGAR is a masters level program where students from Stanford and other international universities in the ME310 network (called SUGAR) collaborate to solve design innovation challenges for global corporations. The course teaches students how to use the IDEO/Stanford design process of product development, focussing on interdisciplinary collaboration and learning by doing. Teams begin their projects at Stanford University where they meet their global teams and learn the fundamentals of human centered design by participating in activities and workshops at the D.School. At the end of the year, final proof of concept prototypes are presented at the D.School at the Stanford Design EXPE Fair. 

 
 

The "fuzzy front end" of innovation

During this project we operated in what is known as the "fuzzy front end" of innovation. This period is categorized by uncertainty, ongoing research and identifying patterns and gaps. We were encouraged to "embrace ambiguity" and not settle on an idea too soon but rather diverge, explore the problem space and come up with as many different avenues as possible (often the crazier the better!) We did not converge on a final concept until the last stages of the program. 

The Process of Design: Damien Newman

The Process of Design: Damien Newman

Our challenge

As part of this program, my team was asked to find a new market opportunity for a liquid dispensing technology known as Flair®. The corporate sponsor Visy wished to develop a new solution that was commercially viable and environmentally sustainable as well as meeting the needs of end users. Flair® is a double layered plastic bottle with a one way valve at the bottom and nozzle at the top. When air is forced through the one way valve, the inner layer contracts, expelling the liquid inside. 

 

This video explains how Flair works.

 

Benefits of Flair® include:

  • Dispensing liquid in any direction
  • Air tight - valuable for fluids that are susceptible to oxygen degradation
  • Liquid is dispensed consistently (in both quantity and quality), including measured doses
  • Propellant and VOC free
  • It can be used for high viscous products
  • Good for high value products (as it leaves little to no waste in the package)

Design process

We undertook a human centered design process during this project. This process was iterative and cyclical and based on the Stanford/IDEO design process.  Over nine months we investigated a wide variety of liquids and dispensing methods to discover user needs and gaps in the market. 

 
 
 

International Collaboration

Our interdisciplinary team consisted of students from across the globe with backgrounds in mechanical engineering, industrial design, communication and digital/UX design and business. Promoting the idea of "T-shaped" people, diversity was greatly encouraged to bring different skill sets and perspectives, increasing the changes of breakthrough innovation. While in separate countries we collaborated remotely using a variety of methods including Google Hangouts, Google Docs, Facebook and video recording team updates. While it had it's challenges, it was also a great opportunity to learn from different cultures and experience working on a global scale.

 

This is an example of a recorded update which was shared with the other half of our team in Helsinki. In this video we are discussing design requirements. (Sub-standard Finnish included).

 

Initial brainstorming to determine research areas

We conducted several brainstorming sessions around liquids which could make use of Flair's benefits (viscous, highly valuable, those susceptible to oxygen degradation, requiring measured doses and benefiting from 360 degree dispensing.) These liquids formed the basis of our research explorations and included areas such as food, cleaning liquids and liquids in healthcare among many others. 

Brainstorming liquid ideas

Brainstorming liquid ideas

Research methods

After establishing potential areas of interest, we conducted a wide range of benchmarking and needfinding exercises to identify market needs. We used a variety of design research methods during this process including:

  • Product tear downs (breaking products apart to discover how they work)
  • Site visits and expert interviews at Visy and AFA understand blow moulding, bottle and plastic types, recycling techniques and understand how Flair® was manufactured
  • Observing how people use liquid dispensers in different contexts
  • Conducting in-context interviews in people's homes and places of work
  • Surveying people on how they use different liquids
  • Creating cultural probes to document how people use liquid dispensers in the home (specifically in kitchen and bathroom contexts)
  • Conducting usability tests with different liquid dispensers
  • Conducting usability tests with Flair®
  • Testing Flair®'s functionality with different viscosity liquids
  • Usability testing rough prototypes with different groups of people. 
  • Affinity diagramming to synthesize research findings

(In an effort to summarise this process, each design research method will not be described in detail but can be expanded upon if the reader has further questions).

 

Research Example: In-context interviews and observation

We conducted interviews and observational research to see how liquid dispensers were used in different contexts. One area we researched was liquids associated with babies, including baby formula. We chose this area to explore because babies require sterile feeds (a sealed air-tight system made use of Flair's benefits). We found mothers found it difficult to prepare powdered baby formula, especially when they were on the go so one prototype we created dispensed pre-made formula. 

Brainstorming and ideation

We brainstormed different ideas as a team based on our research findings. We found this an easy way to generate many ideas quickly and analyse them as a group. We evaluated ideas in several ways including SWOT analyses, technical feasibility, viability and through prototyping and testing. We also voted on favourite ideas using sticky dots.

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Prototyping

A key deliverable was developing several "quick and dirty" prototypes per week under the premise "build to think not think to build". These prototypes were created to test out selected ideas and themes. We used a variety of materials including items from product tear downs, cardboard, glue, plastic and unused medical equipment. As well as prototyping ideas that came from research activities, we also created ideas and prototypes based on specific themes such as known product requirements and "dark horse prototyping" (developing out of the box ideas) and prototyping for extreme edge cases such as blindness. These were tested with users to gain feedback and we incorporated learnings into future prototypes.

 

Some of our prototypes included:

  • Drink delivering drone
  • Smoothie machine for kids
  • In-flight drink dispenser
  • Sprayable whiteboard
  • Cocktail making game
  • Wine dispenser
  • Drink dispenser for the blind
  • Magical art supply dispenser
  • 3D painting pen
 
Prototyping a DIY smoothie machine for children

Prototyping a DIY smoothie machine for children

Convergence: The problem with paint

Through this process we identified that paint was a liquid we could investigate further as it made full use of Flairs benefits:

  • Air tight - valuable for fluids that are susceptible to oxygen degradation
  • Liquid dispensed consistently (in both quantity and quality), including measured doses
  • Ability to use with high viscous products
  • Good for high value products (as it leaves little to no waste in the package)

While investigating the painting process and speaking to a DIY painter we discovered some key insights. We observed the process of setting up drop sheets, tin, trays and brushes and the user's frustration at the time involved. This lead us to begin more concentrated research and experimentation around paint, and finally converge on this problem area. Further targeted research into paint packaging and the painting process included:

  • In-context interviews and observation of DIY and professional painters
  • Guerrilla interviews with staff and customers at hardware stores
  • Engaging in DIY painting ourselves
  • On-site user tests - asking participants to paint a wall
  • Benchmarking existing paint packaging and tools (including product tear downs)
  • Reviewing existing patents associated with paint/painting.
Conducting painting experiments

Conducting painting experiments

Staff at a paint store open and close the tins with a hammer!

Staff at a paint store open and close the tins with a hammer!

Key findings

Once we had conducted this research, we summarised our findings into key problems: 

  • Painting is time consuming to set up and clean up
  • People are frustrated over the time and effort involved
  • Opening a paint tin requires tools and can be difficult if the paint around the rim has dried
  • Pouring paint from a tin is messy and difficult due to the inverse lip on the rim
  • Paint is often wasted through spilling
  • Estimating accurate amounts of paint to pour into the tray is difficult
  • Paint is often wasted because too much is poured into the tray
  • Paint tins cannot be recycled
  • During clean up, paint is often washed down the sink = bad for the environment
  • Stacking paint tins in store shelves or palettes for transport = large amount of dead space because tins are cylindrical.  

Impact on design

Fleshing out the specific problems associated with painting allowed us to form a set of design requirements for ideation. These included that it needed to decrease set up and clean up times for painters, be easy to open, dispense paint without spilling, only dispense required amounts of paint at one time, reduce the impact on the environment and be stackable to reduce dead space. These requirements formed the basis of ideation and prototyping. 

Ideation and prototyping around paint

Using our key insights as a base, we began a process of rapid prototyping and ideation to solve specific problems around painting. Rough prototypes were useful in exploring ideas and gaining insights as they were tested with potential users. Using "Wizard of Oz" techniques (simulating the experience of paint dispensing for participants) were useful as we did not have a fully functioning prototype to test with in these early stages.

A paint rolling paint dispenser prototype

A paint rolling paint dispenser prototype

Prototype testing

We conducted usability testing with our final functional prototype at Aalto University in Helsinki, Finland. This involved surveying participants, setting up walls for participants to paint and informally interviewing them about the experience during the test. Our findings from this testing were that the overall concept was a success - participants had an overwhelming positive response. 

Prototype testing at Aalto University, Helsinki 

Prototype testing at Aalto University, Helsinki 

Our pop-up stand for prototype testing & gathering feedback

Our pop-up stand for prototype testing & gathering feedback

 

FINAL SOLUTION: PAINTPAC

 
3D render of Paintpac (Alex Graham)

3D render of Paintpac (Alex Graham)

Paintpac is a small cardboard box with a plastic bottle inside and a paint tray on top. When you push down on the tray, paint comes up. Paintpac solves the core problems associated with DIY painting and can be sold at any hardware or homewares store at roughly the same price as a paint tin.

 

Pitching to Aalto University, Helsinki before heading to Stanford

Steps to use Paintpac

Steps to use Paintpac

Paintpac packaging

Paintpac packaging

Tool for developing future Flair products

As an addition to our project deliverables we also developed a tool for Visy to use when considering how to develop future products with Flair, as seen below. The tool covers Flair benefits, suitable liquids, suitable needs, users and contexts and shows the spaces explored during this project.

 
 
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Stanford Design EXPE

In June 2014 we presented Paintpac at the Stanford Design EXPE at the Stanford D.School. This was the most incredible opportunity to share our design journey with an audience of professors, global corporations and students. EXPE comprised of a formal pitch presentation and a stand promoting our final concept and demonstrating our prototype. 

Outcome

After presenting our final concept and prototype at Stanford D.School our IP was handed over to Visy. They engaged in talks with major paint manufacturer Dulux about taking our product to market (with further R&D development) but put further discussions were put on hold. 

Want more information?

If you want to read more about the journey we took to arrive at Paintpac, our project documentation is available for download below. 

 
 
 
 

My Role

During this project our roles were not distinctly separated, allowing team members to cross over and function in a truly interdisciplinary way. My role involved designing and conducting research activities (interviews, shadowing, surveys etc), synthesising findings, ideating around specific pain points, engaging in regular brainstorming sessions, creating physical rapid prototypes using a variety of materials and techniques, conducting usability testing, leading the design of the EXPE stand and leading project documentation. I also presented to key stakeholders and presented our pitch at the Swinburne Design Factory Gala in Melbourne. 

Tools Used

  • Whiteboard and markers
  • Pens and paper
  • Cardboard
  • Masking tape
  • Glue guns
  • Box cutters
  • Mix of prototyping materials
  • Foam cutters
  • Paint and paint brushes/rollers
  • Illustrator
  • InDesign
  • 3D Printer
  • Arduino
Presenting at the Swinburne Design Factory Gala

Presenting at the Swinburne Design Factory Gala