User-centric design ‘has to be in the DNA of engineers’

The global challenges of tomorrow will be solved by engineers – but what skills will they need to tackle them? We’re answering that question with Future Skills week. Running until Friday, the online series of daily articles will explore the…

The global challenges of tomorrow will be solved by engineers – but what skills will they need to tackle them?

We’re answering that question with Future Skills week. Running until Friday, the online series of daily articles will explore the techniques, approaches and mindsets that engineers should adopt to stay ahead in the field. Look out for four expert case studies from people who are already putting these vital skills into practice, such as Alexandra Mather from consultancy WSP (below).

Today, we look at how user-centric design is putting new demands on engineers. Today, concepts such as user-centric design or human-centred design are probably best associated with software development. However, the term ‘design thinking’ was not popularised by a coder at Google or Uber, but by a professor of mechanical engineering at Stanford University in the late 1950s. In his book Creative Engineering, John E Arnold advocated a more human-centred approach to industrial design, which involved reframing the design process as a problem-solving exercise – one that fundamentally requires creativity and an understanding of human behaviour. According to Canterbury Christ Church University Professor Mohamed Abdel-Maguid, modern consumers are not merely purchasing an artefact when they set out to buy a new car or piece of high-spec machinery. They are actually buying the experience of operating it, too. “As human beings, we expect whatever we buy to work our way and deliver what we want,” he says. “That is a major change in terms of design philosophy – but it’s required if I want to put a competitive product on the market.” Even NASA started hiring user experience (UX) designers at its Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California around 2013. The aim of the space agency’s Human Centered Design Group is to create intuitive user interfaces in support of space exploration, as well as researching potential modes of human-robot interaction. While a UX designer is not necessarily an engineer, engineers must approach a project – whether it’s building a suspension bridge or a spacecraft – with end-users in mind. Changing the DNA “Many people won’t know what processor is in their MacBook or iPhone – they’re focused on their experience, because that’s what they’re buying, not the technical specs,” says Abdel-Maguid. “So user-centric design skills are now quite crucial. They have to be in the DNA of the engineer.” Case study: Alexandra Mather Engineers working on large civil projects must be especially mindful of accessibility and inclusivity – ensuring that infrastructure works for all people who use it. This is why Alexandra Mather, a graduate civil engineer working on the bridges team at the Manchester branch of the consultancy WSP, is passionate about diversity in the engineering workforce. She is currently working in the project management team for the delivery of a set of railway asset inspections and assessments for Network Rail. “Because civil engineers are designing things for the population, which has a 50/50 gender split, the workforce designing these projects should also have a 50/50 split,” she says. “But that could also extend to every identity group – including different races, religions and disabilities.” A fascination with “very mechanical, traditional engineering” led Samuel Smith, now a mechanical engineer at the Ministry of Defence’s AWE research facility, to the sector. “Similar to a lot of engineers, I was attracted to the profession because of a fascination with how things work,” he says. Although he’s admittedly most interested in the design side of the field, he urges other engineers to connect concepts with industrial realities. “I’d say my most valuable learning experience to date has come from getting to closely observe the manufacturing process,” he adds. “Skills in using design and engineering software will only become more and more vital in the future, but so will the ability to visualise and understand the manufacturing of a component.” Join IMechE and Professional Engineering at THE virtual fair for early engineering careers and find your perfect job! Register for EngRec 2021 FREE today. Content published by Professional Engineering does not necessarily represent the views of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers. Share: Read more related articles Careers Management Manufacturing Professional Engineering magazine Current Issue: Issue 5, 2021 Future Skills: preparing for tomorrow’s challenges Flying lessons from the UAS Challenge Electrifying the army View all Professional Engineering app Industry features and content Engineering and Institution news News and features exclusive to app users Download our Professional Engineering app Professional Engineering newsletter A weekly round-up of the most popular and topical stories featured on our website, so you won’t miss anything Subscribe to Professional Engineering newsletter Opt into your industry sector newsletter Related articles Exclusive member offers Services for home and work Heritage awards Recognising engineering excellence Support Network Financial help and personal support Improving the world through engineering About us Contact us © 2021 Institution of Mechanical Engineers. IMechE is a registered charity in England and Wales number 206882 Sitemap Privacy policy