In Hardware, Usability is Key

Four examples of hardware entrepreneurs and inventors that prioritize usability:

1. Leah Buechley celebrates 10 years of her invention the Lilypad Arduino, an affordable, easy-to-use electronics platform for prototyping wearable technology.

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image via adafruit.com

 

2. Hardware startup Moxxly is acquired to redesign the breast pump experience

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image via designerfund.com

 

3. The Bare Conductive team makes tools that make prototyping electronics easy and fun. Check out their latest project here: bare conductive lamp project on kickstarter

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image via @BareConductive twitter feed

 

4. Heather Kerrick, Senior Research Engineer at Autodesk, explores usability issues for future products and users. Check out this rad interview

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image via adafruit.com

 

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Ithaca is a Maker City

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image source: Maker City by Hirshberg & Dougherty

This past weekend I was invited to share stories about my city, Ithaca, NY, on a panel at World Makerfaire in Queens. The panel was moderated by Peter Hirschberg, a well known urban innovator and co-author of the new book Maker City: Urban Manufacturing and Economic Renewal in American Cities. Hirschberg co-wrote the book with founder of Makerfaire and Make Magazine, Dale Dougherty. They wrote it to capture the momentum from the Maker Cities initiative that was issued by The White House in which mayors all over the country, including our very own Svante Myrick, signed an agreement to support maker culture.

But what is a maker culture? And what does it mean for our city? I have my hand in a few parts of Ithaca’s maker culture and admire it’s many other parts. My sense is that Ithaca has a lot of the pieces in place to elevate the spirit of creativity and invention that is already so deeply embedded here. Let me list some of these pieces that are already here to help us connect the dots, starting with organizations that serve youth to ones that support artists, tinkerers, and inventors–and those that support hardware startups and manufacturing.

We have organizations like The Science Center, Ithaca Physics Bus, and Xraise, who are working hard every day to make sure our young people grow up seeing themselves as STEAM innovators. We have a rich tradition of art and hand craft and music (fun fact: the Moog Synthesizer was invented here). We have Ithaca Generator, a high tech community makerspace right in the heart of downtown and Hammerstone School Carpentry for Women. We have higher education, like Cornell, Ithaca College, and TC3, who foster the integration of creative thinking, technology, and problem solving.

We have programs like Challenge Workforce and Fingerlakes Reuse that train people with disabilities or other job challenges to do product packaging and electronics repair. And we have co-working spaces and business incubators like Rev Ithaca that houses a prototyping lab and hardware accelerator. As far as manufacturing goes, we have contract manufacturers like Wicked Device and Incodema 3D that have manufacturing expertise and specialized tooling.

In addition to our rich maker culture, Ithaca is a walkable city with trails along three waterfalls that run through downtown. We have a flourishing local food scene and arts and culture festivals year round.

So yeah, we’re on the Maker Cities map. Creators and inventors, come check us out. And if you already live here and are interested in invention, be sure to appreciate all that we have because the startups or inventors that have succeeded here didn’t do it alone. They were lifted up by the creative community that we have here in Ithaca. It’s a great place to live and create.

This post was originally posted at IthacaGenerator.org

 

How to Run a Process Critique

A process critique is a short meeting in which you present your work-in-progress with the goal of gathering feedback. It’s a tricky thing to navigate because many of us feel more comfortable presenting finished work where we sell every decision we’ve made with confidence. But a process crit requires us to be vulnerable. And that’s not comfortable.

I learn the most when I’m out of my comfort zone. That said,  knowing how to navigate a process critique puts us in a better position for listening and thus getting the most out of the experience.

A process critique has three parts:

  • Presenting the Work
  • Soliciting Feedback
  • Interpreting Feedback

 

PRESENTING THE WORK

  1. The Big Picture. Start off with “the big picture” but keep it short. A one page diagram accompanied by a one sentence description of what you are working on will do the trick.  The big picture provides context and orients the listener.
  2. Tell Us Your Problems. Point out in the big picture diagram one to three problem areas that you’ll focus on for the crit. Focus on only one to three because if you call out too many problems, your listeners will lose you. If you don’t highlight problems, your listeners may not focus on the feedback you want.
  3. Share Your Process. Summarize how you’ve navigated, or engaged in, these problem areas. That is, once you articulate a problem, tell us about your attempts to solve it (and whether you succeeded or not). For example, “Customers weren’t finding this button so we tried making it red, we tried making it bigger…” and so on. This gives your listeners a glimpse into your problem solving process.

 

SOLICITING FEEDBACK

  • Write Everything Down. Write it down. Write it down. Write it down.
  • Ask for Specific Feedback. If you have a problem that you are stumped by, ask for suggestions on how to approach it. If you are unsure about how a part of your project is being perceived, ask for feedback on that part.
  • “I like it” isn’t enough. Don’t  ask the question, “Do you like it?” In the same vein, don’t be satisfied with the response “I like it.” If someones says they like it, ask them to tell you more.
  • Don’t be Defensive. Resist the temptation to defend your work. A Process Critique is an opportunity for you to listen and learn. If someone says something that feels negative, rather than defend your work ask, “Can you say more about that?” Train your ear to find the underlying problem that the speaker is responding to.

 

INTERPRETING  FEEDBACK

  • Perspective Matters. The critics are no longer in the room. Look at your notes and pay attention to who said what. If a piece of feedback came from an expert in a certain area, take note of that. If feedback came from someone who is a target customer or strategic partner, take note of that too.
  • Distinguish Prescriptive from Descriptive. Some of your critics offered you solutions. That’s called prescriptive feedback. It sounded like, “You should do this.” Others offered you their responses to your work: “This piece over here feels unresolved.” That’s called descriptive feedback. They pointed out a problem but didn’t tell you how to solve it. The type of feedback you prefer is a personal choice. Just don’t confuse prescriptive feedback for an action item, because you may be led to consider changes prematurely.
  • Back to Vision. Once you’ve mulled over the feedback, you can decide what to do with it. Now that you’ve received feedback, your job as the designer is to find the sweet spot between your vision and your user’s comfort zone. Too much “vision” and you risk losing your user. Too little vision and you haven’t achieved anything interesting.

 

It’s important to get feedback on your work while you’re creating it. But it’s also important to use that feedback wisely. I hope these guidelines help.

 

3D Printing – what’s the big deal?

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this post first appeared at IthacaGenerator.org

It’s likely that you’ve heard of 3D Printing by now. But for some, the technology still seems mysterious. You may have questions like, “What exactly is 3D Printing” or “Why does 3D Printing matter?” Below are some answers.

HOW THE TECHNOLOGY WORKS. 3D Printing is kind of like a hot glue gun that has the brains of a MRI. Each printer has a heated nozzle in that is fed filament. The heated nozzle extrudes hot plastic  that quickly cools into a solid form. But a 3D Printer isn’t guided by a person’s hand like a glue gun is. A 3D Printer is guided by the X, Y, and Z coordinates of a digital 3D image. It uses these coordinates to move the nozzle and print bed so it can recreate accurate, tangible 3D objects.

A TECHNOLOGY DEMOCRATIZED. 3D Printing has been around for years. But recently the technology has experienced a “democratization.” What does that mean? It means that the technology has changed in two ways:

  1. It’s become really inexpensive
  2. It’s become pretty easy to use

When a technology becomes cheap and easy to use, more and more people get their hands on it and start using it. Thus, it becomes democratized.

WHAT DOES THE TECHNOLOGY AFFORD? For what 3D Printing lacks in speed, it makes up for in customization. If you have a broken part on a stroller, for example, you can 3D scan the broken part, repair the part in 3D software, and print a new part. So it keeps us from having to throw out an entire product just because one little piece is broken. Another custom application we are seeing is the printing of custom prosthetics for children. Before 3D Printing became cheap and easy to use, prosthetics weren’t attainable for children because they would be outgrown at a pace that made the cost not worth the investment.

WHY DOES 3D PRINTING MATTER? It matters because in a pre-3D Printing world, if you wanted to design, make, or distribute a product or part, you needed access to expensive software, machinery, expertise, and distribution channels. Those barriers are dissolving. Now all you need is access to the internet and a device to work on. You can literally design a product on your phone and upload it to a 3D Printer anywhere in the world for manufacture. This opens up the field of product invention to everyday people. And as we’ve seen with previous democratizations of technology like video, everyday people make a lot of cheezy stuff (cat videos), but they make important stuff too (citizen journalism).

HOW CAN I LEARN MORE ABOUT 3D PRINTING? We have two 3D Printers at IG. But better than machines, we have a wealth of expertise. At present, IG Board Member Chris Westling is teaching a class on 3D Printing. He also takes the 3D Printers out on the road: Chris was recently a hit at STEM night in Caroline Elementary Schooland I bet you’ll be seeing him at Ed Tech Day at Ithaca College. Additionally, on Tuesday nights he hosts an open house at the makerspace. Come on down and check it out.

If you’re more of a “learn on your own” type, we recommend you have a look at thingiverse – an open source library of 3D objects. Then hop over to tinkercad and do some of the tutorials to learn the basics of 3D software. Then come on down to IG to print your file or upload it to a service bureau like shapeways.

Do you have an invention you’d love to design and create? If so, share it in the comments!

image from: https://www.etsy.com/shop/wearableplanter?ref=l2-shopheader-name

Generative LCA for 5th graders

This time last year I did a workshop with the 5th graders at Fall Creek Elementary on Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) in the context of toy design. LCA is a tool used by sustainability engineers to assess the impacts of industrial products, services, and systems on the environment and on people. Even though I don’t normally work with kids, I love working with this bunch. It’s such a great exercise to prepare content for 5th graders. It forces me to be clear and to get to the point!

Last year I started the workshop with a belief I have: I believe that kids can make better toys than the ones they can buy in stores.

I made three discoveries during this workshop that confirmed my belief. I’ll list them here, then flesh them out below:

1. All of the students picked up LCA quickly

2. At least half of the students knew what a 3D printer was

3. One of the students made an amazing insight about USE phase of LCA

1. INTUITING LCA.  To teach LCA to this group, I held up a plastic french fries toy and asked “How did this come to be in the world?” Their answers sounded a lot like the phases of LCA: Design, Pre-production, Manufacturing, Sales, Distribution, Use, Durability, End-of-Life (EOL). Of course I had to give them prompts every once in a while, but overall, it came from them intuitively. All they needed was to be asked the right question.

2. 3D PRINTERS. You may wonder what 3D printers have to do with kids making toys. Well, up until very recently, if you wanted to manufacture something, you needed millions of dollars and connections to all kinds of equipment and services that were hard to access. Plus, even if you made something, you had no way of selling or distributing it to the people who wanted it. Enter the desktop manufacturing revolution. Today kids have access to the tools of production and distribution. And many of them know it. They expect to be able to come up with an idea on the computer and manufacture it on a machine in their garage, online service bureau, or local maker space. So not only can kids come up with better ideas for toys, they can actually manufacture and sell them. Incredible.

3. USE PHASE of LCA. So the use phase of LCA looks at the energy or resources that a product uses while in the hands of the consumer. A great example is a washing machine. If you are assessing a washing machine, yes, all of the other phases of LCA are important, but “use” is huge because the machine is used daily for many years. Thus, we want to know how much energy and water is used in each wash. But with a plastic french fries toy, it’s hard to assess the use phase. Except for one student who said, “What about the message that the toy conveys while in the hands of the user?” I almost fell over. Yes, plastic french fries promote values about nutrition, don’t they? The values that an object conveys while in use is huge and I’m going to cover this explicitly in this upcoming workshop.

All of that said, when I asked them to come up with an idea for a new toy using at least one phase of LCA as inspiration, that connection didn’t happen for a lot of them (at least not during the 50 minute session I was working with them). And I get that, it’s a lot to synthesize in a short amount of time. So this year I might prepare a pair of worksheets to help them synthesize more quickly. One worksheet for the plastic french fries (the before) and another worksheet for their toy invention (the after). I’ll ask them to highlight the LCA phases they took inspiration from on the “after” worksheet. A lot to pack in to a 50 minute session. But they are young and full of creativity. I think they’ll do great.

related:

LCA on EPA.gov

online 3D printing service

Marketing fast food to kids