(Part 2 of 2) Whether we code, weld or stitch products together, everything we make for our users contains design problems to solve. How we solve these problems can, at the very least, minimise time-to-market and maximise innovation returns. What development techniques do designers use when designing and testing physical products? Can the design of textiles shine light on (systems? software?) development? Conflux spoke to one-person startup Sarah Giblin, founder of Kickstarter success RiutBag, to discover her unique and effective approach to product development. This article is part two of two. Read Part 1 on metrics and co-creation.
Q3: Could you describe your prototyping process? What methods are you using to capture your changing designs?
Pencil and paper
I use the same methods I started out with. I work with the data that I’ve accumulated over the last 5 years - quantitative responses, qualitative text or verbal feedback, my experience at the factory and using the RiutBags myself - and then I put pencil to paper. I puzzle over design problems in my mind and in sketch pads. I can do this anywhere: on a bus, a plane, waiting at the airport. Some problems can be clarified in seconds and others take months, small models and prototypes to solve. When I feel the new designs are ready to manufacture, I send photos of my completed designs to the factory. If there are details that I’ve missed out, they ask me to fill in the gaps.
I don’t work with CAD or try to render the RiutBags in software. This is helpful for hard and solid objects. However, there isn’t currently software which can model the complex ways in which soft, flexible, woven materials move that are stitched together in different panels. I want to see how my particular materials act when you stick a heavy water bottle in the side and the RiutBag is empty, or half full. I’d love to see that. In time it might be possible. But currently, drawing out my designs, using my best guesses based on past experience and then prototyping in the right materials is how it currently works.
Once I’ve sent my new designs to my factory via WeChat (Chinese Whatsapp) if all materials are available, the prototype can be made within a week, expressed from China to Europe in a week and I’ll redesign based on the failures and successes of that prototype.
The design or prototyping phase is not the longest part. Once we’re ready to go, manufacture takes up to 4 months. I check the RiutBags one by one for about 14 days. They then take another 30 days to move by ship from Xiamen in China to the UK and few more days to get through customs and reach my warehouse. Perhaps you can see why adding a few extra weeks on to the beginning for the critical testing phase with real prototypes doesn’t feel like a big deal.
Q4: What did *not* work for you when developing RiutBag? What will you avoid doing in future?
I’ve found, every time I veer from my user-based design philosophy things go wrong. I once made a range of colourful RiutBags because a public relations person said more newspapers would feature it if it weren’t black. I know! That is not designing by the Revolution in user thinking philosophy. They sold extremely slowly, nearly grinding my company to a halt.
Developing products focussed on my users, scaling organically and not trying to compete with the world’s largest companies are lessons I had to learn. As a small company, making large productions is a dreadful idea. If I want to make a new production of RiutBags, it’s much better to make a small production, see the response, get initial user feedback, go straight onto the next production with new changes and go to the factory for three more expensive productions, rather than one enormous production where the unit costs are just a little less expensive.
Q5: What excites you about innovations in the materials and manufacturing process at the moment? How are digital approaches helping with product innovation?
Manufacture will change
The thing that really set my imagination alight in the last few years was a company, which I believe now no longer exists, called Electroloom. I have a piece of their material hanging on my wall. They were making seamless cotton-polyester shapes with a form of additive manufacturing similar to 3D printing for textiles. Most people forget that every item of clothing and textiles we wear, see and use has been stitched together with thread by humans at sewing machines. If we can get machines to do this reliably there will be huge and unpredictable structural change in the global industrial supply chain. There is not a machine in the world right now that could make a RiutBag. It will be like the invention of the loom all over again. I’m terrified and excited just thinking about the impact on the world and the possibilities it would open up.
We feel we live in a digital age, where the innovation is defined in terms of the digital. There is a dominant subset of innovation which is technological and digital in character, yet we often ignore how physical our reality is. As our world changes - working and travel patterns in urban spaces, often because of technological innovation - we need to notice whether all design is still fit for us, our dynamic world and our relationship with it. Seriously: doors, walls, knives, forks, windows, bins, chairs, backpacks, clothes, cups. There is space for design innovation almost anywhere. It may be digital, but it may not be.
As it happens, I believe this sort of problem is the kind that we users can spot and solve ourselves. We don’t have to wait for the world’s biggest companies to fix them for us. Imagine if we, as 7.5 billion people on the planet, remember to look out for complaints and problems, think of simple solutions to them and make them happen. I had no experience in the backpack industry before 2014. It’s hard but others can do this too. This is another form of the Revolution in user thinking, or Riut, which platforms like Kickstarter enable.
Innovation vs reality
Until we as humans are truly digital or at least no longer biological, three dimensional beings, there will remain the need to create physical aids to our body. Clothing, towels, food, umbrellas and of course backpacks to hold our physical belongings until we can teleport our stuff to other places. In our physical world, a backpack lasts longer if it is washed of the sweat, dust and dirt that gets into its woven structures - these are part of our reality. So for me, we need to develop innovative materials with an eye on the world in which we actually live. I’ve learnt the hard way that a cool concept and making a backpack that can be used reliably for years are two different things. I’m not excited about innovative materials and designs that aren’t compatible with water and machine washability. We have to design the (im)possible things we want to create for this world, respecting the physical realities which we as users actually face every single day.
Thanks for inviting me to share an introduction to the Revolution in user thinking, the way I work at www.riutbag.com. This is how I design and work with my users to make thing to help them when they travel.
Come and be a part of this! Support my designs on Kickstarter, use my secure travel products, challenge me and work with me to develop them over time to meet real travel needs. If you want to talk more about the analogies between your industry and mine, hangout and chat with me on Twitter and Linkedin.
Watch the founder of RiutBag - Sarah Giblin - speak about her product design experiences at TEDx Brighton: