Probing for innovation : how small design teams collaborate

Abstract: Ongoing globalization is placing greater demands on industry. One strategy to stay competitive is to move from supplying only hardware to supplying total offers, e.g. thrust on wings or power by the hour. The total offer is a combination of a product and service, a product service system. This approach to the product development process focuses on the function of the offered system, i.e. functional product development. The function provider retains the ownership and responsibility of the function carrier, i.e. the hardware. This makes for greater risk, but also greater revenue. To deal with this new reality companies are collaborating to supply these types of total offer. Another aspect of retaining ownership of the function carrier is that through continuous innovations, companies can improve the product over the life cycle of the offer. In an industrial context, and often in a global setting, designing is primarily performed through collaboration in teams, e.g. a group of people possessing distinct competences respectively contributing to the task. Hence, with the deployment of a functional product development strategy, the team is given the challenge to collaborate as a global team, i.e. the individuals of the team are spread over a number of companies, sites and countries. Yet another challenge is to increase the innovation in the team. Consequently, with these diverse teams the ability to express thoughts, ideas and different point of views is important for team-based design. The team must not only solve a design task, but also understand and define the task. This kind of design is by default ill-defined and thus referred to as a ‘wicked problem’. However, it is in these wicked design tasks that new and breakthrough products are most likely to be found. But to reach the goal of innovation, the team must allow and embrace ambiguity, as well as act in a supportive environment. The purpose in this thesis is to illustrate activities in design teams when confronted with wicked design tasks. The focus is on how the team explores and communicates problems. The thesis also addresses how physical spaces affect the creative process. Insight into these issues will deepen the understanding of the design processes and enable development of new tools, models and methods, and thus improve the performance of team-based innovation. The cases are studied primarily through observations of small engineering design teams engaged in distributed and co-located collaborative work in early development. The research indicates that designers experience difficulties in communicating notions, such as ideas or thoughts, by solely relying on the usual approach of using sketches, writings and mere utterances. In team-based innovation, designers tend to use their own body, forming embodied representations, to fill in the blanks. Designers embody the future product, e.g. by envisioning themselves as the proposed product, or putting themselves in the users’ position to interact with a future product or both. Hence, the embodied representation becomes a form of prototyping. The designer occasionally incorporates an everyday object to add another dimension to this kind of prototyping activity. Normally, in the manufacturing industry, prototypes are refined and in a state of pre-production. Thus, they limit ambiguity and do not lend themselves to prompt designers to add new ideas. To support the team’s communication of ideas, the prototyping process has to allow the designers to explore the problem, change and propose new ideas, and aid their communicative and collaborative efforts. From the studies, a model derived for an iterative prototyping process in the early design phases is proposed. The model has its starting point in probing, which allows both the problem and the solution to be explored. Probing can incorporate a question, an idea, a concept, or an embodied representation. The design team acknowledges and interprets the probe, creating a shared or contrasted understanding. Still, it is in the differentiated and contrasted understanding that team members find the inspiration to ideate and create additional probing activities that provide for innovations. By looping this process numerous times, the understanding becomes shared and the product concept becomes more refined. However, the main value of the prototyping process is not the prototype per se, but rather the value in the process as such, since it allows the team to reflect in practice and experience through prototyping. The activities of a design team may be supported or hampered by the environment where the activities occur. A room and furniture, specifically designed to prompt a collaborative and creative mode, are suggested and demonstrated in this thesis. Insight from observing design activities in these creative environments provides a basis for further research.