The Human Factor

Article excerpt

Students' designs benefit from experiences with real clients.

DESIGN IS a central activity of engineering and one of the core criteria for evaluating and accrediting engineering programs. It also poses many challenges for faculty. That's particularly true of incorporating human-centered design approaches-which require engineers to focus on the people for whom they are designing. The approach has been shown to increase productivity, reduce errors and development costs, and improve quality. But it requires designers not only to keep pace with technology, but also to understand how technology can be integrated in a way that keeps the stakeholders' diverse social, cultural, and ethical considerations at the forefront.

In today's global economy, developing effective design skills during the undergraduate years is more important than ever. But what does it mean for undergraduates to demonstrate a human-centered approach to design? Tb answer this question, we conducted a phenomenographic study to explore the qualitatively different ways in which students understand and experience human-centered design.

Students from a variety of design experiences, including traditional courses, servicelearning projects, internships, and coops, participated in semi-structured interviews where they reflected on their "designing for others" efforts. The transcripts were compared and contrasted, revealing seven unique categories of how students perceived human-centered design. Five related categories were nested hierarchically, from users viewed as a source of information to deep understanding of user and context, then mapped against the design process and integration to plot an "outcome space." (Two additional categories represented ways of experiencing human-centered design that were distinct, because they either did not include users in developing an often technological solution or, like some service projects, did not involve design methods.) Our analysis found that the least comprehensive category in terms of outcomes reflected a linear design process where user information was considered only at the beginning. The most comprehensive category reflected an "empathie design" approach, where student designers demonstrated a broad understanding of stakeholders, interacting with them informally and deeply incorporating their aspirations and other information into their designs.

The findings have many educational implications. …