As a member of MAYA’s Human Sciences team, I’ve configured pressure sensors for material tanks, set up home monitoring systems, walked around a cement plant checking motor health with a portable data collector, played with in-car entertainment systems, traded stocks online, managed physician transcription records, and attempted to use a stylus to control software on a tablet PC while being driven in a Mini Cooper over cobblestone roads near MAYA’s office.

My colleagues and I have visited car shows, post offices, convention centers, paper mills, military bases, water treatment plants, industrial gas distributors, skyscraper control rooms, and the countless homes of people who are generous enough to let us spend time observing and talking with them.

All, as Henry Dreyfuss1 said, in the name of research!

Henry also said that “life would be easier, but probably not so interesting, if we didn’t have to do these things…if we could invoke some mysterious wizardry to disclose the design the consumer will accept…”

And he’s right on both counts about the role of research in product design. When I put in the time and effort to dig into our clients’ products, services, and environments, and spend time with the people associated with them, it isn’t always easy, but it certainly is interesting. And it’s also my responsibility.

To design a usable, useful system, I need to get beyond the level of “information” and move up to the level of “knowledge and understanding.” For example, it’s not enough to know that a software application helps engineers monitor and troubleshoot a particular system. I need to get to a point where I can say, “Hey, to do some problem solving here, I need to see an historical report of transmissions for the last month, and compare it to the battery voltage as well.” In other words, I need to be able to apply the information I’ve learned. And further, I’ve got to understand “why.”

Frankly, I’m just plain uncomfortable with the inherent risk that comes with designing in a vacuum. So, here’s a toast to Henry, and to designing well.

1: Henry Dreyfuss, famous U.S. industrial designer, 1904-1972.

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