At university, engineers are taught formulaic, technical knowledge and to think directly about problems instead of laterally. We are taught to deal with physical laws and consider mathematical or spatial relationships. And then we are unleashed on the world!
Sometimes missing from the toolkit of an engineer is a real-life application of those skills, and a personal connection which helps to understand the problem, the solution and the impact of that solution. In the real world, if you work on a hospital or a tunnel or a railway station, you are one of many in a big team and don’t necessarily see first-hand the impacts of the design on the end-user.
One way to achieve a greater focus on end-users in the design process, is to challenge teams to focus on a small problem first, rather than the big picture, to hone their skills in human-centred design. Once they learn how to fix a small problem, specific to an individual, this enables them to apply this design thinking to projects as a whole.
One organisation is applying this principle in universities and schools, challenging learners to find a problem specific to an individual, create a diverse team and then undertake a process of ‘fixing’ the problem.
The Fixperts learning framework was established in the UK by not-for-profit FixEd in 2012, and is now active in over 30 countries around the world. The programme challenges designers to "create ingenious solutions to everyday problems" and to share their stories to inspire and challenge others to do the same.
Fixperts stories are inspirational – they remind us of our sense of purpose, to help make a difference. They are also stories that show us how powerful a human-centred design approach can be in providing a solution to a problem. Design solutions have included a device to help an MS sufferer put in her earrings and a writing aid for a man who had not written for 15 years after being paralysed in a rugby accident.
As the first engineering company to be involved in the Fixperts Challenge, Aurecon decided to take an unconventional approach to human-centred design by challenging teams to develop a much deeper and personal relationship with a problem being faced by an individual and finding a solution to fix it. And so the Aurecon ‘Fixperts – Engineers at the Edge’ challenge was launched.
For many, the luxury of laying on a comfortable bed or sitting in a cushioned chair is taken for granted, yet for Aurecon’s first Fixperts partner – Phana, a 15 year-old boy with Cerebral Palsy, these simple actions cause great pain. Phana has never been able to sit and has spent his life lying down, with little intervention to improve his condition.
The challenge was to develop a positioning device for Phana – a specially shaped, adjustable chair that enables him to learn to sit and eventually participate in sitting activities, ultimately improving his quality of life.
Aurecon’s Ho Chi Minh City team, in collaboration with partners from Fimilab, devised several prototypes, before developing a tailored adjustable chair to help Phana learn to sit.
The process required unconventional, human-centric thinking to understand the problem, and to establish the important criteria and constraints to further develop the design solution for Phana’s challenge.
For the team involved, this thought process required new thinking and a different approach to their usual mindset on projects, where they can be constrained within a framework and often not able to communicate directly with the end-user.
Our day-to-day job can be quite process driven. We often work in a team of architects, developers and clients. We might provide one service on a project but don’t necessarily have the opportunity to talk to the people who use the building, or infrastructure, or product that we are designing, so we don’t see the benefits to the people who will be the ultimate end-users.
The Fixperts challenge to help Phana demonstrated first-hand to our engineers how they aren’t just a cog in a machine. Engineers are actually the people responsible for making a difference and through this experience, the fruits of labour are visible and tangible.
By investing time into solving the problem, we saw the benefit of the solution. In the Fixperts process we regularly connected with the end-user – Phana – which was a very powerful experience, as we saw his life change because of our solution.
You can watch the story of our work with Phana here.
Having a first-hand understanding of the problem, helping a person in need and simultaneously giving our people an opportunity to use the skills they’ve learnt at university – and throughout their careers – to help fix a problem that is personal, and utilises these speciality skills in a way that is much more fulfilling and rewarding, achieved Aurecon’s Fixperts challenge goal.
This human-centred design approach is at the heart of the world’s most successful projects and is crucial in an engineer’s toolkit. Designers sometimes rely on history, or hearsay, but things change over time and the expectations of people change too. Being able to understand what the challenges are, or what’s impacting the ability for someone to use the product or the asset we are designing gives our people an essential design skill which is about putting people first. It also gives them the ability to ask questions about what isn’t working and what could be done better.
Fixperts is also teaching us many lessons which are being applied in our everyday roles at Aurecon – predominantly around understanding what the end-user wants for the ongoing benefit of our clients and long-term success of projects.
Be it via experiences such as Fixperts, or on a larger scale by linking Aurecon’s advisory expertise to have up-front conversations with end-users, we are helping our engineers to better understand, and live, human-centred design and to see how their solution can make life better for people.
Our experience with Fixperts also lays the foundations to take these more ‘non-traditional’ human-centred engineering skills into universities and schools, and embed these techniques into curriculums, changing the perception of the engineering profession and attracting more people into our field.
Tim Spies is Aurecon's Global Service Leader Mechanical Engineering and Client Director Commercial Property – Australia. Tim is passionate about making human-centred design the centrepiece in exploring how technology and design can be leveraged to enhance projects.
Adam Peacock is Aurecon's Structural Offshoring Team Leader in Vietnam and is equally as passionate about the application of human-centred design to enhance project outcomes. He played a key role in Aurecon’s ‘Fixperts – Engineers at the Edge’ challenge.