Editor’s note: The RTP Product Pipeline is a recent addition to WRAL Local Tech Wire. Its purpose is to help entrepreneurs, business leaders, educators and inventors better understand the product commercialization process. Montie Roland and Vass are co-founders of the RTP Product Development Guild, Inc. Roland is also the president of the Carolinas Chapter of the Product Development Management Association. Roland is the President of Montie Design, a product design firm in Morrisville. Their column appears weekly.

MORRISVILLE – J.R.R. Tolkien wrote in the first book of his trilogy that “All that is gold does not glitter, Not all those who wander are lost …”. As Americans, we tend to associate the word “wandering” with the word “aimless”. However, wandering in a methodical way can be a valuable tool for a product designer, or engineer.

The precursor activity to purposeful wandering is brainstorming. Brainstorming is an group activity that occurs for a fixed amount of time. During this period, group members generate as many ideas and concepts as possible without concern for their practicality or even usefulness. Brainstorming is a tool that is most successful when group members are comfortable freely expressing even the most outlandish, or trivial ideas. Sometimes the ideas generated in these sessions turn out to be strong product concepts, or use cases. Other ideas (what we call “space shuttle” ideas) lead to more practical ideas that ultimately become part of the product. Brainstorming is generally for a fixed time for two reasons. The first reason is that many people need a pre-defined sandbox where they can let down their professional “guard” for a few minutes and play at brainstorming. At some point the brainstorming exercise has to come to an end to give time for the design team to filter through the ideas generated in the brainstorming session.

Creation of a brainstorming “sandbox” allows the design team to metaphorically shed the encumbrances of performance and role expectations to enter a realm of “work as play”. How can we enable designers and engineers to continue playing design games throughout the project? The first step is to teach design games as skills. Design games come in many types. One example is an exercise called “Personas and Personalities”. Shimon and Claire-Juliette from Touch360, in Chapel Hill, taught a session on how to use this tool at a recent meeting of the Carolinas Chapter of the PDMA. This is an exercise where the team creates fictional personas and then designs a product to fit a chosen, fictional persona. This exercise is extremely powerful because it allows design teams to concentrate on designs that are specialized for one user, thus establishing a vision for the product that is not hindered by over-generalization.

Purposeful wondering is a concept that we are working to develop into a tool. The tool is designed to help during the middle stages of a project. The tool is meant to provide engineers, and designers with an instantly available sandbox. This sandbox allows the design team, or a single individual, to push the boundaries of the current design by examining what ifs (even wild, what we call “space shuttle” ideas) and then applying those new ideas back to the project. It also allows for the expansion of the project vision as new information becomes available. The tool allows the user to have a framework for generating evaluating ideas and concepts (possibly as a solution to a current design dilemma), while avoiding mission creep. Purposeful wondering isn’t necessarily about adding new features, it is more about making the current features more valuable by considering a wide variety of options, then using the information gained to improve the current design.

This is a topic that I hope to explore in future articles as we develop the tool at the RTP Product Develop Guild and at Montie Design.

Editor’s note: he opinions of the author are his own and do not necessarily represent those of WRAL Local Tech Wire.

Questions? Comments? Send them to Rick Smith (rsmith@wral.com). Smith is editor of WRAL Local Tech Wire.

The RTP Product Pipeline is a new feature for WRAL Local Tech Wire. Its purpose is to help entrepreneurs, business leaders, educators and inventors better understand the product commercialization process. Montie Roland and Vass are co-founders of the RTP Product Development Guild, Inc. Roland is also the president of the Carolinas Chapter of the Product Development Management Association. Roland is the President of Montie Design (product design firm in Morrisville, NC). Their column appears weekly.