Engineering Design: The Hard Stuff is the Soft Stuff…

Design is one of the most important activities engineers do. It is the actual process of creating solutions for a given problem or a certain set of requirements. With my research group, I design space instruments to make crucial measurements of nature. Shoes are designed for comfort, warmth—at least the shoes I am wearing this week—and for looks.

Engineering designs dominate many things around us and we often don’t think about them, until we try to improve such a design. That’s of course what many entrepreneurs do. They are convinced that they are addressing a pain, something that’s wrong with the current designs, or something we do not yet have designs for, and for which designs are needed.

Every engineering department has classes that address designs and how to use engineering principles. These classes are important, and often the coolest classes in the entire curriculum. People learn process diagrams, and they are very good and useful.

Yet there is one very important lesson we all learn either the easy or the hard way: the most difficult aspects of design are not easily grasped by engineering or mathematical principles because they relate to issues we often do not think about, such as communication, likes and dislikes, the ability to listen, and many other crucial elements which we often summarize as “soft skills”. Therefore, in engineering design, interestingly enough, the hard stuff is often the soft stuff. I would even venture to say that more designs fail because of the soft stuff, than because of the hard stuff. Certainly that has been my personal experience.

I was struck by this fact when I read a recent paper in the Journal of Engineering Education. In this paper, the authors prioritize the most important activities in design. They do so by polling highly experienced design experts from different disciplines. Interestingly enough, they agree on many of the key priorities. In priority order, here are the three main inputs into engineering designs according to this study:

1) Understanding the problem

There are hundreds of books written about that issue. Often, problems are not what they seem. I also know that there is a danger to not spending enough time on this topic. After a cursory look, the eager engineer is ready to start designing, drawing and building… But, she may not have even understood the problem yet, or only half of it. There is a lot of time and money wasted because of inadequate emphasis on this point!

Consider, for example, a recent lesson from the design of cars. I still vividly remember an automotive executive who told me, “We will not design hybrid vehicles because they never make enough money.” The executive worked in a US car company, as you might have guessed. The problem, it turned out, was not whether or not Toyota made money on the Prius. But, the Prius became Toyata’s icon car which became synonymous with progress, green, and high-tech. In contrast, the GM icon car was the Hummer which looked to many people like the cellular phones on Miami Vice—huge, clunky and dated. I am sure they looked cool in the eighties…but I don’t remember why. One of my friends in the cellular phone business tells me that there are millions of perfectly functioning cell-phones that are being destroyed every month for one reason only: they are too big.

2) Identifying constraints

There are a lot of soft elements in this one. Some of them are hard. In cars, they have to do with the safety of drivers and passengers, but I would again argue that many or even most of the constraints are soft. People who can tune into their customers’ needs are valuable and rare! What will people like? What’s the feel they want?

And many constraints are absolutely hidden in the first cursory look. From experience, I know that the easiest way to learn about them is when you ignore them. All of a sudden, you feel like a bear walking into a trap. It hurts because you know that it’s too late. I hope that my friends have this experience with a project that is not career-ending.

I once lost a huge project because of a single legal constraint and it was not at all obvious. I would have never guessed that this could even matter. Well, did it ever! We were the leading proposal with regard to technology and a single legal criterion put us on our backs. Game over!

3) Communication

There are all kinds of communication channels that need to be opened and maintained during a design. The simplest ones are between people of the same background and education: engineers to engineers, marketing personnel to marketing personnel. But, the design will only be implemented successfully if there’s communication between groups and functions,  from manufacturing to sales and from designers to customers.

There is one element here that is worth mentioning. Great communication relies on a very accurate understanding of language. Most people have that command only in their native tongue. This is one of the things pretty much all engineers will have to learn: “It does not so much matter what you say – it matters what your colleague thought you meant.” I still vividly remember designing an instrument. We had done the entire thing end-to-end. Everybody loved it. That is until we noticed that I was working in centimeters and my engineer was working in inches! I could not understand that anybody would ever think in different units. There is a rule in my group now: there are always units, always!

There are also misunderstandings that are more subtle. I remember how my wife got angry when I suggested that her half-brother was not cute. I thought, cute meant baby-like or adorable, and no guy I know would want to be described like that. Well, I was wrong. And, he really is cute, by the way.

My language is better now. I no longer think that to knock up means waking up by knocking at the door. But, I still find surprises every once in a while. Every non-native English speaker has friends who help him and who correct him. It’s very important in order to be successful.

This issue is not just affecting a few of us. You either are a non-native English speaker, or you will work with one. So, be aware to communicate until you know that the partner understood, really understood. In my experience, drawings are great, meeting notes are useful. Solving communication problems is a huge part of design.

Just for reference, if we name the next two elements of this design study, we find 4) brainstorming and 5) seeking information, again both with many soft elements.

In engineering design, the hard stuff is the soft stuff!

One final thought: The College of Engineering at the University of Michigan has started three programs which are ideally suited to address these issues. The Entrepreneurship program is one of them, Multi-disciplinary Design, and International Programs are the other two. The most important benefit of these three programs for our students is, in my opinion, precisely that they address the hard stuff!

Make no mistake, you need to know your thermodynamics, E&M, or fluid theory. Otherwise your career will be like the guy showing up for the hockey game without the stick. He looks like a hockey-player, he may even skate like a hockey player, but he does not have the essential tools. However, showing up with a hockey uniform and all equipment does not make any player a star; it’s all these other things, the conditioning, the teamwork, his communication skills, his perseverance and many more qualities that are hard to measure.

Similarly, showing up with all the classes and even great homework sets and finals do not make you a great designer, a star engineer, a super scientist, or a great entrepreneur! Because, the hard stuff is the soft stuff!

Comments (3)
  • Website Constructions

    June 17, 2011

    I studied Engineering at college, but I don’t think enough time was spent on Engineering design concepts. I am now interested in using some engineering principles in some aspects of website construcition.

    Great Post, thanks.

  • John

    September 14, 2012

    I am currently finishing Engineering course. Thank you for the very clarifying article.

  • Sara

    October 19, 2012

    I studied also engineering but I am currently working at the tradeshow exhibitions branch… Thanks for the nice posting.

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