Thursday, January 14, 2010

A Faster Horse

Engineering is the process of discovery - - we are in a constant struggle and search into what society, communities, and individuals want and think they need. Traditional ways of doing this, such as focus groups and surveys, rarely yield important insights. In most cases, these techniques simply ask people what they want. Have you ever been with a client and ask them the “What do you want” question and received in return the “I really don’t know what I want” declarative statement? Conventional research can be useful in pointing toward incremental improvements, but those don’t usually lead to the type of breakthroughs that leave us scratching our heads and wondering why nobody ever thought of that before.

Henry Ford understood this when he said, “If I’d ask my customers what they wanted, they’d have said a faster horse.” Although people often can’t tell us what their needs are, their actual behaviors can provide us with invaluable clues about their range of unmet needs. Engineering and engineers need to come up with a better starting point – such as a journey into the real world and observing the actual experiences of our customers and clients. Become a technology anthropologist (this would be a great major and career - - part engineer and part expert on social and cultural experiences - - with the ability to spot and document trends and insights between society and technology) and observe, study, and learn the many linkages between technology and humanity.

We live in a multidisciplinary world with multidisciplinary problems and opportunities. Invite other non-engineers on your discovery journeys to serve as interpreters and cultural guides. Inquires regarding the interface of technology and humanity will be more complete and informative as we increase the range of ways we describe, interpret, and evaluate the world of engineering and technology. Look at your customers and clients in a holistic manner - - take the time and observe what other systems they interface with on a daily basis that can be improved to help them become more efficient and productive. Shadow a customer or a client for a week - - this builds credibility, trust, loyalty and ensures deeper understanding of the “What do you want” question and issue. Through these types of activities and endeavors one starts to get ideas flowing into the inspiration space - - where people start to see the problem or opportunity that motivates people to search for solutions.

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