Designing is about improving; so all design projects start by studying the way things are.
Everyone designs who devises courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones.Herbert Simon, The Sciences of the Artificial
Moving to a preferred state implies knowing enough about the current state to be able to define what is preferred. You can't improve if you can't measure what you've already got.
The first step of any design project is therefore to study and deeply understand the current state of affairs within the context of your design brief.
It is important to note that:
Exercise for the reader
Let's say you are approached by a potential client, and asked to design them a ladder. There are three kinds of responses that you can make. Some are good; others not so much.
Rate these responses from best to worst, and explain why you ranked them as you did.
As engineers, we focus only on the technical aspects of resolving imbalances, but recognize that there are other non-technical aspects that are equally important; those other aspects will be treated by other experts we will have to work with IRL.
Besides some project management tasks involved in setting up a project (which go mostly beyond the scope of this course), project initialization is about understanding what already is, because without that, you can never get to something better.
Design problems can emerge from a wide variety of sources. The designer's job is to make sure that the origin of the “problem” is well-defined, well-understood, and well-documented. The design task associated with this is scoping a design situation.
Most design engineers do not get to choose their own projects. Instead, a design brief will be developed by managers, clients, consultants, and designers; the brief defines in general terms what the goal of the project is.
For andragogic purposes, design briefs in engineering courses are typically assigned to student teams without any input from them.
However, given a design brief, responsibility for the project is immediately passed over to the team as soon as the team is formed. From then on, they must not only solve the design problem, but they must manage themselves.
Consider the following quote of Irving Zola on the impact on designing the right solution to a problem.
More than 30 million American have some disability or chronic condition that prevents their full participation in social living, according to the Department of Health and Human Services, yet their rehabilitation as well as integration into the mainstream of American life has been slow. The causes of this paradox are to be found in the contradictory implications of certain American values, our over-reliance on technologic solutions to personal and social problems and our continuing reluctance to fully admit patient-consumers as partners in their own rehabilitation. from an article in Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation.
Here's another example:
A Japanese company wanted to make a machine to make bread that tasted as good as the traditional, hand-made bread. The company sent the engineers charged with designing the machine for extensive training at the best bakeries in the area, so that they could properly embody the knowledge of bread-baking. Given that, the engineers now had the knowledge necessary for the engineering of the machine. from a presentation by Robert M. Bauer.
It's important to remember that users and clients do not necessary know what they want. Users and clients are not designers; they are often biased toward what they already know, and will think in terms of things they already have or have seen or - worst of all - have been told they want or need. For instance:
The solution to this paradox is that the user/client doesn't necessarily know what they want. So when a user or client tells you want they want, be very careful. What they are actually telling you is what they think they want to fix some problem or imbalance that they perceive.
This idea has also been expressed by many innovators:
From a design point of view, the tasks that are involved in initializing a project through scoping are (as given in the design roadmap):
The results of the initialization phase of a design project is documentation (we call this the Product Strategy Specification) that will serve as a reference throughout the rest of the project, and that captures a detailed description of the current state of affairs with respect to the scope of the brief.