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Designers didn’t mix that much with Engineers. That got me thinking.

by Adriano Galvao

A lot of people talk about the need for establishing more connections between design and other disciplines, such as engineering and business administration. As a result, many schools have put together graduate programs to think about the way in which design can combine the best of creativity, imagination, and alternative approaches to come up with novel ways to make things.

Such programs are well received and can be found today at universities such as the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT), Stanford, Northwestern, and Harvard, to name a few.

When I was doing my doctorate degree, in the early 2000s at the IIT Institute of Design, I was particularly interested in understanding the intersection of design and engineering and how taking a multidisciplinary mindset might improve a project development process involving each of these core functions. Based on the work I was doing at Motorola and the academic literature I was reviewing at the time, it was clear to me that design and engineering professionals were working alone in their own islands, with engineers brought in for one piece of the project and designers for another. Only a few companies, like Apple and Google, were leading a visible effort to leverage the duo of design and engineering to produce meaningful results. Thus, it felt like the right time to ask, “Is there a better way to bring both disciplines of engineering and design together? Can collaboration between these disciplines be better facilitated?”

The answer to these questions resides in the Function-Task Interaction™ method (FTI), initially conceived while I was completing my Ph.D. at the IIT Institute of Design. FTI is a three-step approach that combines task analysis and functional modeling to establish common ground and language between designers and engineers. Task analysis, often performed by human factors and ergonomics professionals, is the process of learning about users by observing them in action to understand in detail how they perform their tasks and achieve their intended goals. Its main job is to break down complex (even simple) behavioral sequences into steps so that the meaning and relation between tasks is made evident. Functional modeling, on the other hand, is typically performed by product engineers during the conceptual design phase and its main job is to provide the graphical tools necessary to develop a complete model of a product. When functional modeling is performed, engineers have at their disposal terminology to describe and experiment with technical functions before any money is spent on building prototypes.

The idea of bringing together the step-by-step goal-orientation of task analysis with the experimental building capabilities of functional modeling was well received by design practitioners who tested this approach. But I really knew I was onto something when my academic paper on this approach received the XEROX-ASME Best Paper Award at the Design Theory and Methodology Conference, which is organized by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers. I attended that conference with the intention of sharing my early research findings and ended up the grateful recipient of this prestigious award. My Ph.D. advisor, Keiichi Sato, was proud of our work and I was thankful that I had the opportunity to fully enjoy that moment.

Since that time, my research and writings on this approach have been published into a book. The book, “Design Relationships: Integrating User Information into Product Development” includes three case studies of FTI in use. Also specified in the book is a computer-based tool to link technical functions and users’ tasks. Tom MacTavish, who was Vice President of Human Interaction Research at Motorola Labs at the time, said this about the book, “Dr. Galvao has produced a well grounded methodology for making and managing design decisions.”

For me, the most exciting part of designing a unique method is to see it being used in the real world to solve real problems. Clients of Sylver Consulting have received great benefit from using the Function-Task Interaction™ method.

Specifically, FTI is a method to consider if you need to:

  • Assess how new functions or features of a product may impact, and potentially alter, the mental model for how a user may interact with your product.
  • Understand how and where to gain task efficiencies for users. (We’ve found this one particularly relevant in B2B contexts where significant cost savings are being sought by the streamlining of product and process workflows).
  • Improve the design of a device or product and identify what other non-efficiency benefits (i.e. health, safety, aesthetics, etc.) consumers associate with each improved design function.
  • Increase the levels of collaboration between your staff’s designers and engineers.

Curious to explore if FTI is a right fit for you and your project? Get in touch to schedule a “Clarity Call.” In this call we assess if your current need is a best-fit match for Sylver’s FTI method.


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