Working with engineers and other challenges: CoID x PdP

by Rūta Šerpytytė

I had heard about the Product Development Project (PdP) course even before I started my studies at Aalto. PdP lasts all academic year and is about interdisciplinary teams, real-world challenges, tangible prototypes, and industry partners. Even though it is one of the most popular courses in our university, it has its challenges. After attending an online PdP Gala at the end of May 2021, I decided to chat with my peers from CoID about their experience in this course. Below you will find stories from Wangting Wu, Csongor Hőnich, and Shuaijun Zhang.

1) In the Product Development project course, you work with real companies and their challenges. Tell me about your brief and proposal.

Wangting: We collaborated with a Finnish company called Safera. We had to develop an environmental monitoring system for construction sites that helps managers, safety officers, and worried residents to follow air quality, protect workers and comply with new regulatory limits. We built an environmental monitoring system called Dustsense including the product, cloud, and website. They work as the system, collecting, processing, and visualizing the data to the users.

Csongor: Our sponsor Heureka is a science exhibition center in Vantaa. They are opening a new exhibition in 2022 on the topic of artificial intelligence. We were working on designing one specific element for this exhibition – a kinetic sculpture using Artificial Neural Network (ANN). The overall goal was to design an interaction that could bring the future generation closer to this developing technology.

When kids are approaching the structure, they see a screen telling simple instructions. They can draw a number between 0-9 on the screen and follow the calculation with their eyes until AI shows them its best guess of the recognized number. If they pay attention carefully, they will see how ANN divides the handwrite into small parts, pixelates them and runs a diagnostics according to its memories before making the guess.

Team Plexus and kinetic sculpture. Photo: George Atanassov

Shuaijun: Our brief was provided by Luke – Natural Resources Institute Finland. Our project was focused on their research in the fishing industry. At the moment, the fishermen who have a contract with Luke use traps to catch fish, but they are quite expensive as well as inconvenient – fishermen have to manually check how many fishes were caught. Our task was to build a smart iteration for this trap – a device that would count the fish for them, thus saving time and resources. Our proposal was a device that is attached to the entrance of the trap and can sensor different species of fishes (salmon and white fish) by their size. The device can count the number of caught fishes and communicate it via an app. 

2) This course invites students from all Aalto schools and beyond. What was the experience of being a designer in such an interdisciplinary team?

Wangting: As the only interaction designer in the team, I was responsible for all the design work related to the website, including user research, UX, and UI design. Thus, it was quite challenging for me because I had to consider needs from different groups, like the client, the consumers, and also my team. Luckily, all of my team members, especially my project manager, supported me quite a lot. It was an inspiring and encouraging experience, with all their trust and help.

User research on site. Photo: Wangting Wu

Csongor: The hardest but also the most fruitful part of our teamwork was the diversity we had in terms of expertise. During my studies, I mostly worked with designers, but in this course it was different. It was a challenge and an exciting journey to work and create a complex and unique outcome together. 

As a designer, initially I was responsible for the concept creation part. I was in charge of prototyping the construction methods, testing the design solutions and also for the final half-scale working prototype. By prototype I mean the full journey of the outcome from the scratch: doing the drawings, renderings, consulting with the company, material suppliers, workshop masters, assembling the 2,5 meters prototype and preparing it for the Gala. Apart from this, I was doing visuals for our presentations, and a video teaser for the Gala which is based on 3d animation. It was unquestionably a quality experience of a real-life product development during which I have learned more than I could have imagined during that very first lecture of this course in September 2020.

Welding the inner metal structure. Photo: Huahua Tian

Shuaijun: As the only designer in the team, I was mostly in charge of the app – I built it using Figma. Also, the most intense part for me was our last phase, when I had to visualize our project: prepare a report, representational videos, digital stands and other communication material for the online exhibition – Gala. Coming from a design background had its challenges – at times I had difficulties catching up and understanding the engineering terms – some of those I was hearing for the first time, especially in the English language! To add to that, I had to take the role of overseeing the whole process and communicating between different sectors. Different people in the team were focusing on different parts of the project, so I needed to understand the whole process and give comprehensive reports to the client. It was a good experience since I gained plenty of project management skills.

3) How do you think this project compliments your portfolio?

Wangting: There’s no doubt that this project greatly compliments my portfolio! Before this, my portfolio was mostly about service design and interactive product design, and no project focused on building a whole new website. This project filled up this gap and gave me a great chance to design for B2B business. The biggest and most direct outcome is that I got a satisfying internship with the help of this project.

Csongor: In terms of portfolio, I was lucky because our project required a design mindset both for the concept creation and for the execution. Several challenges had to be solved, such as how to integrate the ANN into an object, how to define the interaction, what shape would serve the user experience the best. Apart from these, all the technical problems had to be solved, namely how to manufacture the structure combined with all the electronics and other features. We created loads of visual data in each phase and had a lovely Gala where we showcased our outcome. If everything goes as planned, Heureka will manufacture our design and install it at their AI exhibition in 2022, which would be another validation of our product.

Shuaijun: I have gained practical app design skills and such a tangible outcome will definitely compliment my portfolio. But even more importantly, I have learned how to communicate with a team of engineers, how to overcome the obstacles like language and terminology that is used in the team. However, even if it is still a school project, it is a year-long real experience of working, and the outcomes are more evident than in any conceptual project.  

Prototyping the sensor of the trap. Photo: Shuaijun Zhang

4) What were your biggest learnings?

Wangting: The first biggest learning is the whole product development process with a real company: how to improve team collaboration, how to better organize the process and tasks, and how to communicate with the client.

The second learning is more from a designer’s point of view. I learned how to better communicate with project managers and developers, and have a say in a team, at any phase of the project. My reflection is that a good designer is not just finishing the given tasks, but also being a facilitator between user needs and the development limits, while actively engaging in the whole process.

Csongor: I feel that working in such a diverse team has taught me many things. In our team, the collaboration of the different subteams such as interaction design, structure design, electronics, coding, and user interface design was crucial. Since I was partly responsible for the overall timing of our work – to make sure we get everything done till the Gala – I had to understand their workflow which made me learn many things. This teamwork made me realize that it always takes more time than we expect to finish certain tasks because we are not only taking care of our part, but we have to make it work together.

Shuaijun: Surely, I have strengthened my app-building knowledge. Since we were working in B2B sector, the things you emphasize in app design are different than in B2C – instead of designing it in a way where you want to attract the user to browse and revisit the app, you have to build a practical tool, which would be easy to use and the needed functions would be reached as quickly as possible. I have also already mentioned my other learnings, like working with engineers and project management skills.

Building an app. Screenshot: Shuaijun Zhang

5) Whom would you recommend to take this course?

Wangting: For people who haven’t got much practical experience and want to work with a Finnish company. But here’s a tip: be careful of your chosen company and project brief. If you want to be an UX designer in the future, then choose the project that includes the related design task in the brief.

Csongor: I recommend this course for those who are open to step out of their comfort zones and see hard work as a key for quality collaborations. For those who want to work on real-life tasks together with various companies as well as collaborate with students from different backgrounds and parts of the world. Lastly, for those who want to do all of this in a supportive and quality environment continually for nine months.

Shuaijun: I would recommend this course to people who want to be a part of a bigger-scale project, rather than focusing on the design part only. Another evident value is a practical experience of how to make an actual, tangible product, which includes technological challenges. And the last thing, if you want to gain skills beyond design, like coding or engineering this is a good course to take!

You can find more about this course in their website: https://pdp.fi 

Team Safera