Thought Leader Thursday: The Art of Communication

In March of 2015, I sat on a panel with five other executive design and engineering leaders to discuss a topic that is critical to the success of any product or service – Communication. The title of our talk in March was “How to Bridge the Communication Gap and Talk ‘Designer’”. The opening remarks from the facilitator Bob Grace, principal of Bob Grace LLC and former 34-year B-to-B veteran of Crain Communications Inc., went like this: “Design. Engineering. Marketing. Together they comprise the three legs of the proverbial product-development stool. Remove one, and the project is likely to teeter and fall.”

He added, “Good communication and collaboration between these disciplines is vital to delivering the types of products and user experiences necessary to succeed with today’s demanding customers and consumers. And yet, these links often fray, if not break, resulting in cost overruns, launch delays, and unseemly compromises in the appearance or function of the final product.”

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Why does this happen and what can be done to avoid it?

When there is a breakdown in communication between the disciplines, it is often attributed to a lack of understanding of what the other does or where their discipline fits in the development cycle. It is assumed that marketing is usually connected with selling and promoting, engineering with function, and design with the look or styling. While all of these are somewhat true, they are only one aspect of the overall function and concern of each discipline. In reality, marketing is usually responsible for the customer and the appeal of the product, product line, cost, distribution, and promotion – is it Viable? Design usually has the responsibility for the end user satisfaction with the product, user behaviors, ergonomics, and human factors – is it Desirable? And finally, engineering is usually responsible for the function, manufacturing, testing, budgets, and schedule – is it Feasible? The product development team should always be asking one another these three questions – is it desirable, viable and feasible? If the answer to any one of them is no, then the team should consider pulling the plug on the project.

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Collaboration is an absolute must

Today the role of each discipline has expanded far beyond what it was years ago. There is an overlap of responsibilities between disciplines that can be very powerful, if handled correctly. The inherent friction that can be caused could either cripple a team and lead them to failure, or empower them to achieve great innovations and successful products and services. If at all possible, the development team must avoid a linear approach to product development. Open communication must start early on and all disciplines should be on board throughout the process and conversation. There should be no passing information over the wall, bringing groups on when it is “their turn,” or withholding information because they are nervous about what the other discipline will do with it. The team must trust. Input from all, and early on in the process, is more powerful than working in isolation. It is also very important to speak in concise terms without complicated jargon so that everyone is informed. This seems like a no brainer. However, miscommunication happens all the time and can cause teams to become reactionary, territorial, and thus, less productive.

It is also important to understand that “creativity” is not owned by any one discipline. The entire team should think creatively. Many engineers are creative and many designers understand the technical side. It is important and powerful to get as many points of view as possible. Designers will often challenge assumptions and current standards. As a result, this would challenge the technical team to push beyond their comfort zone which often is needed for breakthrough innovation. This same scenario can also work for challenging engineering design or marketing. Maintaining focus on the primary goal and defining up front how each area will contribute to the end success is essential to avoid breakdowns later on in the development process. While each group needs to clearly define what position they will be playing, it is imperative that none of the groups become “territorial” and instead look for ways that they can leverage or enhance the other discipline.

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Trust is an absolute must when it comes to good collaboration and communication between marketing, design, and engineering. There are many pitfalls that teams often fall into when it comes to trust. Some common examples are:

  1. Marketing assigns a shortened due date because they think the team might drag their feet or move too slow. This shows that marketing does not trust the team and in turn, the team will not trust marketing. When trust is broken it can lead to bad experiences on the next project.
  2. Engineering withholds technical information because they don’t want to take a chance that the design team will “get crazy with it.” Once the truth is exposed, trust is lost.
  3. Design excludes engineering from an immersion session because they don’t want any negativity or talk of “it can’t be done” during their meeting. Once again, trust is breached and it will be difficult to work as a team again.

The examples go on and on! We need to think of this collaboration somewhat like a marriage. There is certain information that you should share with your significant other, even if it may cause an argument. Not sharing will surely lead to bigger problems down the road.

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Why is it essential for the product development trifecta to work in harmony?

Nowadays, consumers have more options than ever. The landscape has changed significantly in the last few years. They now have information at their fingertips. With the internet, consumers are more savvy and informed than ever. Social media allows news to reach consumers at lightning speed. Praise and complaints about a product can go viral in seconds. Our products compete on a global scale well beyond just our direct competitors. It is not uncommon for consumers to use the brick and mortar retail for nothing more than a place to physically see the product before they order it online at a better price.

So what does all this mean? The market is highly competitive and consumers have choices. It is more important than ever to do everything we can to get it right the first time when a product goes to market. This must start with the marketing, engineering, and design teams working seamlessly together toward a common goal.

Kevin Shinn
Kevin Shinn

About Kevin Shinn

Kevin Shinn is the Vice President of Industrial Design at Altair Thinklabs. The Thinklabs studio is a global creative company that helps businesses succeed through human-centered design. Kevin joined the company in 2013 to lead the division. He has a proven track record of successfully integrating design into corporate strategy as a key competitive advantage. Prior to his current position, Kevin led design at Dow Corning Corporation and was the Head of Industrial Design for Rubbermaid Home Products. He has an extensive background in consumer, toy and automotive products. Kevin is currently the IDSA Chair of the Membership Committee.