Great question to pose and it will be interesting to hear the community's response. I'm also curious how much of that brainstorming and feedback is being transferred over to some of the newer collaboration technologies and Web-based platforms as opposed to happening in face-to-face meetings with pen and paper in hand. My guess is that since engineering teams no longer sit side by side in the same building, there needs to be some sort of forum for early ideation, and technology is certainly evolving to support that objective.
One of the issues in design is the question of when a "project" is started. Most of the responses you mention assume that the "customer" has a solid list of requirements. In projects involving mostly hardware that seems to be the case. The "customer" takes the time to figure out what they want. In the software world that is often not the case. There are various methods used to deal with this situation. I hear tell of them making their way into the engineering world. I am not sure that is a good thing.
As a small company, and the chief technologist (old engineer) I like to gather all the known specifications from the client, make a few suggestions, have them consider some limitations or restrictions, and then push him/her to nail the specifications/requirements down a solidly as possible. Then I have something to work with that isn't a moving target.
Then I take out a blank sheet of paper (my favorite part) and start putting subassemblies together to see how it might just come together.
Great point, naperlou. Before I read your comment, I was about to offer kudos to those who voiced the needs of the customer. But your comment reminds me of all the times I've interviewed engineers who said that their customers often didn't know what they wanted. Sometimes, it not as simple as it first appears.
It might not be simple, but incorporating the voice of the customer in critical and should be the responsibility, in part, of the development team to address in some fashion. Maybe they're not asking the right questions or even the right people. But developing in a vaccuum has been the death knell for many a good product.
When the project starts is different for each of us. Some of us may have a written specification...... OK, a startling few of us will be afforded that luxury, but if we are designing for an OEM they probably have a written specification. If I have a written specification the first process is to determine if the specification makes sense, and do I understand what the customer wants. I have found that the User Interface is often confusing in customer specifications, and what seems like a good idea on paper becomes very confusing when people really start pressing buttons.
Most of my projects today are new technology and the specification is conveyed over a phone call, "Hey, is there any way we could do this?" For those projects I search for any prior work that can be helpful and also signal any patent problems before the development goes any further.
Somewhere in between are the projects that turn into real products. There is no written specification, but it's an appliance that is familiar enough to design into a prototype that can be handled by everyone involved in the development so that the minute details of the design can be completed. Yes, a written specification is better, but getting a prototype into the hands of people really brings the project to life.
I wholeheartedly agree, assuming the ultimate goal is to sell a product and get $$$ from customers for doing this. To understand the problem to solve you have to understand customer needs. And what's the first step in problem solving? Making sure you understand the problem. A good marketing organization will be in touch with this (sorry Battar, I disagree with your first point). And on a larger scale the "customer" could be in fact a "market" (a market is a group of customers with a particular set of needs). Needs become requirements, then research for solutions, which becomes a block diagram, a design proposal, then finally a design, all while verifying with the customer (or market) it will satisfy the need. Engineers often find the customer knows they need something but can't put their finger on it so they need a little help (again, a good marketing organization...). And yes I do agree with Battar, at some point you really do need to stop designing.
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