Lessons learned from engineering design projects

My group and I have been brainstorming for our final year design project for the last few weeks. It’s been a good exercise. I’m lucky to be in a group that doesn’t procrastinate much, because I have a bad habit of doing that sometimes. Anyway, this will be our 3rd design project and I wanted to jot down some things that I had learned in previous years. I’m doing this for my own reference, and it may help some freshmen.

Problems > Ideas

It’s amazing how many times I’ve made this mistake, and I see people working backwards all the time. You’ve probably done this: You show a link to some API and say “wow this is cool, let’s make something with this”. We should really be saying, “What are some problems we want to solve”, and “what is the best way to solve that problem”. It’s less cool, but more effective. Whenever we have a brainstorming session, I ask my group members to suggest problems by starting with “A problem I’ve encountered is..”.

Cool vs. Helpful

I’ve been thinking globally lately. In the first-world, we don’t have many problems. I look at developing nations (not Africa really, more like India, China, etc.) and I see tons of engineering problems that can be solved. The issue is, those problems aren’t cool. I wonder how important it is to work on a cool problem… I would definitely find it more interesting to work on something that’s cool, but in the end, I don’t think making a table-top touch interface for the living room (just an example) will help many people. I’m hoping to strike a good balance here.

Polish > Prototypes

I’m probably in the minority here, but I hate prototypes. I don’t think they demonstrate the solution envisioned by the design team. I’d rather design a uni-functional product, and polish the hell out of it, than make a prototype of something ambitious. In my past projects, I’ve gone both ways, and my experience tells me that simple* product with polish beats fancy product with rough prototype anyday.

* When I say simple, I don’t mean easy. It still must require technical ingenuity. I just don’t think we should sacrifice polish for feature creep.

So there you have it, those are my three big take-aways. I may add to the list as this brainstorming process continues.

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