Those who have a relationship of use with design solutions—defined as “users”—play an important role in engineering design projects. User needs form the foundation of engineering design problems, and user requirements outline the functional and physical characteristics that potential solutions must have. Previous literature has shown that access to users substantially influences how designers think about design problems and how well their proposed solutions align with user needs. In addition, other studies have indicated that novice designers vary substantially in how they perceive the role of users and integrate user information into their designs. Few studies, however, have explored in detail 1) the factors which motivate novice designers to incorporate user feedback into design projects, and 2) how novice designers solicit user feedback in authentic design situations. Thus, this study explored how novice design teams interacted with users in practice as part of a capstone design course.
Nine students across 3 different design teams participated in this study. Each team was required to develop an assistive device for a specific individual user as part of an on-going multi-semester project. Data included semi-structured interviews with the teams (10 hours) and recordings of meetings that teams conducted with their user or other individuals who knew the user personally (8 hours). Meeting recordings were analyzed to identify different ways that teams interacted with stakeholders. Similar interactions were then thematically grouped into specific behaviors to allow for comparison across teams. These behaviors represent successes and challenges that teams exhibited when building relationships, involving stakeholders in design decisions, exploring stakeholder perspectives and developing mutual understanding.
Despite strong similarities in initial project goals across teams, each team demonstrated a different approach to interacting with users and incorporating user feedback into their designs. One team met with their user regularly throughout the semester and consistently sought to build connections and solicit genuine feedback. This team recognized in retrospective interviews that involving their user was vital to the success of their project. Another team met with their user at the beginning of the semester to evaluate the user’s physical capabilities and develop user requirements. This team primarily focused on the technical details of the project and did not meet with their user again until they were ready to validate their final concept. The last team never met with their user, although they did solicit some feedback from their project sponsor. Rather, this team trusted the user requirements developed during the previous semester and evaluated success based upon how well they met these requirements. These cases illustrate three distinct ways that novice designers view the role of users in design projects, as well as how these perspectives translated into design process and outcomes decisions.
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