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Trends, Esthetics, and Functionality in Product Design – Interview with Tanguy Prevot

Photo credit: May Wilson and Tanguy Prevot

Trends, Esthetics, and Functionality in Product Design – Interview with Tanguy Prevot

What are the main trends in product design and what remains constant? What is influencing the creative process when designing life-saving products? What are the challenges? 

Honeywell’s product designers share how their highly awarded products were created and their vision for the future of product design. 

Tanguy Prevot, Lead User Experience Designer at Honeywell, the designer behind many respiratory products awarded the Red Dot and iF Design Award, discusses the innovation process and his latest projects for Honeywell. 

1.      How do you blend user needs with business goals?

The two are not necessarily opposite. In B2C (business-to-customer), you need to please the customer, who is most of the time the end-user. In our game, it’s B2B (business-to-business), so the end-user is not necessarily the decision-maker. That's where it becomes more difficult because, for example, in the context of protective equipment, you need to provide safety and compliance. And compliance is not necessarily what the end-user is thinking of. 

You can make things mandatory, but you also need to make sure the end-user has no good reason to reject the protective equipment. You make it comfortable, easy to use, easy to maintain, easy to store, and all these things, and then maybe integrate it in a system, so that the health and safety manager on the customer side can get notifications if something is wrong, or can have a really good overview of the status of the equipment, from asset management to maintenance scheduling to being informed if an event has happened. 

It's not enough to just think of the end-user. And it's not necessarily a conflict either to satisfy different stakeholders, but sometimes it is a paradox. 

2.      How do you make sure you understand the need of the end-user customer?

You need a lot of sources of information, from the marketing organization, the offering management organization, but the best information is firsthand. We use VOC (voice of customer), so you visit the customer, you observe how they are doing their job, you ask questions, and try to figure out what's going on. 

The absolute best is that you do the job. For some of the things in my personal past experiences, I've been using or not using the appropriate respiratory protection, for example, so I know very well how tempting it is to do the job without PPE and I know now that I did some really foolish things in my youth. 

Of course, we cannot ask designers to be firefighters and factory workers and welders, etc. You cannot have firsthand experience of everything. The next best thing is to be on location, observing. Also, going online is not so bad.   You can easily find people who are proud of their job and show you how amazingly dangerous their job is. Especially in construction, people who build skyscrapers make videos about how they do it. I watch it, I look at everything around, I look at the details in the background, or what equipment they have or how they use it. Although I'm not there, at least I have information about some of the behaviors and attitudes related to the equipment. 

This is a good start to have a basic understanding of the mindset and the tasks they do, and then you go there and can ask questions to dig deeper.

3.      What is your process when imagining a new product, after you find out what are the true needs of the user?

I try to find the pain points. A pain point is either something that the worker openly complains about or something they do when they improvise, or work around some obstacle that they have always known. They don't always complain about it because they think it is part of the job, but you notice it and you can, maybe, solve that problem.

Then we rank those pain points by priority. And then, that's the magic that is harder to explain - constantly zooming in, zooming out, looking for solutions for each of the pain points. I look for several ideas on how I can solve that problem, and then zoom out to see if my solution is not creating another problem, or negatively impacting another pain point or another aspect of the product. 

It's a process of having ideas and killing ideas until you don't find a way to kill the idea. It takes many iterations, honestly, and it's inevitable because we do complex things, and we want those things to be simple. They have to be simple for the user. It has to be a simple decision for the decision-maker who will purchase those things. That doesn't mean that developing it is simple.

It's highly iterative, a lot of prototyping and testing, especially when we talk about comfort. What is comfort, how do you define it? I don't have a unit to measure comfort. A good beginning is that there is no pain. Another one is that it doesn't create obstacles, for example in head or hand movements. I don’t design gloves, but there are jobs where you need dexterity and also protection against sharp objects. One problem makes you expect that the glove should be thin and the other problem that the glove should be thick. Our job is to find the right balance between those two things. And that's basically what we do for any pain point, we first try to remove the problems, then we try to contribute, even help, instead of just protecting. 

I dream that, with some designs, I can help workers become better at their job. We're not in the business of making tools, but, in a way, we should think like that. We are in the business of making protection, but my mindset is, for example, how can I make a welding mask that helps a person be a better welder. 

4.      You also get to create innovative, cutting edge products, with a design so beautiful that it leads to design awards. How do you make sure you keep brand consistency when you're innovating?

This is a really good question, especially for Honeywell, because of the size of its portfolio. We probably have hundreds of products in each line of business, and it goes from shoes to components for aircraft. The art is to create guidelines that apply to everything. They have to be tight enough because if you give too much freedom, every designer will want to satisfy their taste. But if they are too tight, then it just doesn't work for some product categories.

We have businesses with different cycles. Ideally, for footwear, we should have new offerings every season, or year. But the respiratory products are launched and stay on the market for several years. 

For some aircraft components, performance and usability are practically the only things that matter. At the other end of the spectrum, esthetics is critical when things are worn, like a helmet, a pair of glasses, a pair of shoes, because people build their self-image with how they look. If you are a worker and you're embarrassed to be seen by your colleagues because you have that ridiculous helmet on your head, then you're not going to wear it. And then accidents happen. So, for each line of business, the importance is different. 

Coming back to how we make guidelines that work for everybody, it's teamwork. To define those guidelines, you need people who have tried footwear, respiratory protection, etc., and saw what works and what doesn't. These guidelines refer to basic principles, like keeping to simple fundamental shapes. We don't design highly ornamented things; we try to keep shapes honest. If something looks like it rotates, then it should be rotating; if something is about winding a cable, then it should reflect that rotation somehow.

And it's about communication between designers. When I designed the PA900, the headgear for respiratory protection, I knew I had a colleague designing earmuffs for hearing protection. I got in touch with her so that I could make sure that those earmuffs fit with the helmet because there are people who need both types of equipment.

5.      What trends did you see in product design lately?

I have been with Honeywell for six years, and I've been working for 20 years now. When it comes to design trends in general, first of all, technology allows complexity. 20 years ago, I was designing physical objects. I'm still designing physical objects but more and more, we are discussing offerings that are a combination of a physical object with sensors, display information, and remote information. It's a complex combination of physical and digital.

And designers are trying to simplify this complexity, since nobody enjoys feeling lost with their equipment. There is the trend to try to make things clear, honest, simple, self-explanatory. Usability is a big trend. Back in the ’80s, a lot of design was ornamental, it was about making things cool and pretty. Nobody was calling themselves UX designers. The categories we had at school were product design, transport design, and interaction design. The interaction design was more geared towards the on-display and app and digital side of things.

And now you have a completely new profession, with thousands of people in the world doing that job. And they are not designing products, they are designing an experience and working with industrial designers like me to create those products. Their job is to understand how to make that thing usable, useful, and desirable for the user. There's the trend of caring about how things work and how to use them, not just for esthetics or status. 

And I would say there is another trend on top of that, which is carried by the younger generations, it's environmental sustainability. I grew up in Western Europe; we talked about global warming when I was in high school, but it was perceived as something that would be happening in a long time.

Now you have a complete generation of people completely aware and informed that this is important, and that we need to fix it. They have a very strong impact and that's a trend that cannot be ignored or denied. We need to leverage that, because, at the end of the day, we are making plastic components. I have the advantage of feeling good about the fact that my plastic things are saving lives. But I cannot deny that, at some point, they will need to be either recycled or transformed in some way. 

6.      Have you considered more environmentally friendly materials, like sugarcane plastic?

Everybody's interested, but there are several aspects. One is that we need materials that can be transformed, recycled, reused, and so on. We also need designs that are easy to dismantle and sort out. But unfortunately, the limit is sometimes the performance of the material. Something strong enough, flexible enough, whatever performance we need, at a price that is reasonable. 

The immediate health and safety of the wearer of the protective equipment is the current priority , and we need to find sustainable ways to do this.

An interesting view is that protective equipment should be the last thing. If people have a job in a factory, it's the factory that should be designed in such a way that they cannot get hurt, and then they don't need protection. Let's face it, if there was no noise, we wouldn't need to design hearing protection. If there was no way to get your fingers cut, we wouldn't make resistant gloves, etc. So maybe the way forward is to think in terms of complex systems and as much as possible, upstream - why do we even need this, can we avoid it? 

7.      What are you currently working on?

I'm working on protective equipment. Right now, we are discussing things that are coming in on our lines of business, we are preparing the future generations. We talked about trends, and it's part of that - it will be physical and digital things going together, trying to make things safer, to drive productivity. 

 

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