Growing up I have always demonstrated my love for tech and creative thinking. I would spend hours on end modelling the latest tech products out of card. This hobby soon passed, however my insatiable interest for the world of design and technology did not.
Whilst studying at college, I fell in love with the Bauhaus and Memphis design movements. Its playful nature, silhouettes and colour schemes paired with its almost impractical, physic defying engineering was exciting to me. I took inspiration from this for my early design pieces, which included reading lamps, sideboards, kettles and speakers cast from concrete (yes really!). My style soon progressed into being inspired by the likes of Philippe Starck and Dieter Rams with their almost unobtrusive and utilitarian design language. I knew I wanted to be involved in the creative industries, I just wasn’t sure in what way at this point.
I studied Product Design Technology at Brighton University, where I had four very inspiring but hard working years. The course allowed us to explore a range of topics and project briefs around real-world problems.
My final year project spanned over six months. I had to wear lots of hats with understanding everything from research methodologies, CAD and electronics to material science and ergonomics. This is the multidisciplinary nature of a physical product designer.
What was consistent throughout the degree, was that the projects always began through the lens of the user. Through understanding problems from the core, this enables us to design the best solutions. This has been a theme that still remains in the centre of my current job and the work we do here at ASquared.
You might be wondering how I ended up working in digital product design. During my final year project, I was introduced to the world of UX design, and in particular, designing for mobile native experiences. This was something I never had considered, but I realised there was more to it than I had realised. After spending the year before this on placement working for Thales UK as a proof of concept designer, I took the plunge into looking for full time roles in UX and UI design. I’ve spent three years now working in the digital space in Brighton as a Product Designer. In this article, I will highlight some of the differences and similarities that I’ve found between physical and digital product design.
1. Iterative process in design
Despite the different mediums of both disciplines, both pass through different fidelities of prototyping. In physical product design, a concept is usually born from a sketch off the back of an idea around a real-world problem. This progresses into a prototype, usually from card, blue-foam or even in 3D printed form. From here, the design can be fine tuned, developed and tested with users until confidence is high in a chosen solution. This not only builds trust in a design with users, but also de-risks any potential technical failures. The same can be said for digital product design. For digital products, it starts with a sketch, we then build out wireframes and then link them together to create a clickable prototype before settling on a chosen path. This then progresses to full hi-fidelity UI. It is important for teams, stakeholders, and clients to continue to see the value in this process to enable the best possible outcomes.
2. Understanding the user is central to building the best experience
“You cannot understand good design if you do not understand people. Design is made for people”. - Dieter Rams. In both fields, the end goal is the exact same, we want to create a great product that meets our users needs. The medium we use to achieve this might be different, but the goal remains the same. In my experience, with tangible design projects, there is a greater emphasis on user research and validation at all stages, but this is dependent on budget and timeframe. What is similar is that empathising with the user and identifying unmet latent needs is the foundation for both digital and physical design projects. We advise our clients to have faith in the user centred design process for ensuring we build the best experience.
3. Collaboration is essential
In my experience, your team and the people you work with is fundamental to the best outcome for the end product in both fields of design. Although some designers are widely lone creatures, they thrive on open discussion, brainstorming and collaboration around problems. In the digital world, designers work closely with project managers to scope out product requirements and construct user stories. Interface designers also co-work with developers from everything from conceptualising solutions to understanding the “art of the possible''. The same can be said for the physical design world, where designers work closely with user researchers, engineers and marketing teams to perfect the end solution. For both disciplines, teamwork makes the dreamwork.
1. Pace of process feels integral to modern software design
During my degree, we followed a process and methodology which is reflective of the physical product design industry. This process is labelled “RIDL” which stands for Research, Ideation, Development and Launch. Those familiar with software development could draw comparisons to the “Waterfall” project management style, where-by each phase would be finalised before moving onto the next stage.
Since working in software, I have been adapting to a different frame of mind which is globally labelled as “agile”. This is a typically faster pace of working that enables development teams to ship features in weekly “sprints”. It requires product teams to sometimes work in parallel when they might be at different stages of the conventional development framework. Many designers may argue that agile doesn’t work for design teams, but the process we have fine tuned over the years here at ASquared enables clients to ship design and development in parallel.
2. Focus on designing for emotion
Designing for emotion is a school of thought championed by the likes of Don Norman. Its aim is to evoke emotions which result in positive user experiences and foster attachment to a product. This can be reached on three cognitive levels; by the visceral, behavioural and the reflective. Physical products are rarely one product that suits all. Products that morph to a user or are customised by a user usually remain used or kept by its owner for an extended period. I would argue that often designing for product attachment is missed by digital product teams as a valued aspect of the design process in contrast to traditional industrial design. By designing for emotional attachment, it enables improved user satisfaction and leads to long term user retention, which is something I discussed in a previous article.
3. Greater inclination to experiment with software
When designing physical products there are risks with expensive processes and materials. Manufacturing for example, requires perfection - without perfection the product will not work as intended and may result in costly mistakes. In software development however, there is arguably less real-world risk to trying something out in either a clickable prototype, or trying out a new feature with your users live in the app. The benefit here is if something doesn’t work out as planned with your user base, this can be amended and pushed out as a new build into the app store patching the mistake or experiment. On the other hand with physical products, mistakes or creative experiments are near impossible to rectify once it is in the hands of users.
Here at ASquared, we still follow a rigorous user and product validation phase and fully test prototypes before even considering bringing them to life with code. This isn’t to say we aren’t shy of trying something new if we can prove it works for your users!
There are many parallels between the two mediums but also many differences. Although I never had true experience with industry-level physical design, I have really enjoyed my time spent in both disciplines. The pace of process and the ever-evolving way of working is exciting to me with digital design. The importance of truly understanding the user is fundamental to good design and this mindset still shines true in the world of mobile app design. I look forward to spending many more years building exciting new digital products.