Inside the head of an Engineering Designer

What have I learned from a story of a lost Ph.D. Student and genius Engineering Designer?

Posted by Start Bootstrap on November 3, 2017

What does design mean for us?

When we think of design, we usually think of fashion show runways with people wearing fancy futuristic clothes, interior design or user experience of their new iPhone.

But very few people think of the technological back-end design behind their device. This is the area where design meets engineering, and it is done by quiet geniuses like Kevin Reilly, a tinkerer who pushes the boundaries of technology every day one tweak at a time. Today we have a unique chance to get inside of the head of engineering designer Kevin Reilly and go through his thought process step by step.

Who is Kevin Reilly?

As a kid, Kevin took apart anything he could get his hands on. It took a decade of experience in research, design, manufacturing, and a Ph.D. in engineering to teach him how to put everything back together. His love of pulling apart things and building creative solutions lead to him founding two start-ups to bring clean water to developing communities and disaster relief missions.

I met him at our department’s foosball table while staying late to work on my thesis. We started a conversation and a little game of foosball. He told me about a company that he had already founded while being a Ph.D. student. We had a great chat that night, but I haven’t seen him after that for a while.

At that time he had gone to China to work 120 hours weeks to develop a prototype for his water filter company. He had to go through 51 prototypes to reach the one that actually matters. After he had built his prototype, he left China to go to Haiti with nothing except his clothes on his back and suitcases full of water filters to help to tackle the environmental catastrophe.

Right now, Kevin is a co-founder and CEO of a start-up that is revolutionizing the way athletes track their fitness and performance. He also runs a product design firm that tackles a wide range of problems, from food packaging to medical devices.

Here are the top 6 rules of design by Kevin Reilly:

1) Always, always think about the problem you are trying to solve!

Imagine this; my grandmother really likes to cook! But alas it is harder and harder for her to cut and dice the vegetables. They are slippery; you have to peel them and, maybe you don’t have the dexterity anymore.

As a good grandson engineer - I have decided to come to the rescue! I researched ten ways I could make a cutter better ergonomics so she can effortlessly cut. I spent days prototyping, months to build the device until I realize my machine doesn’t work that well.

Here is the thing:

  • What is the problem I am trying to solve? -Getting diced vegetables.
  • What are the ways we could get them? -We can cut them ourselves or … we can order pre-diced frozen vegetables online.

Voila! … problem solved with minimum effort! By the way, for the skeptics, often frozen products may have more nutrients than the fresh ones.

Greek alphabet statistics

2) Inside first, outside - second!

Beware! There are two things: design for prototyping and design for communication. Make sure you distinguish between them. When you need to pitch your idea to potential investors - of course, you want to make it look pretty, of course, you want to have some rendered CADs to sell your idea. But, if you are working on your technology you don’t want to spend time and money making your prototype fancy just to figure out that it doesn’t work inside. Focus on the guts first, make sure everything is figured out there and then make your device pretty.

3) Move fast!

Don’t do anything that will slow you down!

The mockup is better than rendered CAD - since it’s faster. Don’t waste time figuring out the details of your CAD, put your mouse away and get some plasticine. Drop using fancy vector graphic software and start sketching with pen and pencil. Draw as many ideas as possible, as fast as possible and don’t get stuck on any of them. As Kevin says: “The first 15 ideas will be garbage, but after that, all the bad ideas will be exhausted, and only good ideas will be left!”

4) Know thy customer and design for him or her. Not for yourself!

My grandmother was born in a small Tatar village in the middle of Russia. She learned Russian when she was 21, and she had to work in a factory, Russian was her 3rd language.

Imagine I create a device with instructions in Russian for my 19-year-old grandmother. Despite her ingenuity (she is one of the most talented hands-on people I have known) I don’t think she would ever use it correctly.

Think about your customer. What do they like, what do they do? Their culture, eagerness to adapt to new things. All these factors are crucial for successful design.

5) How to get unstuck and how lobsters can help you with that?

It has been the tenth day of you working on a prototype. You have exhausted your creativity. It seems like you are helpless. Nothing can save you anymore.

Don’t panic! Kevin has got some tips here as well.

When you get stuck, it is important to shake things up a bit.

Try to invert the problem. When if instead of cutting vegetables - you could drop the fruits on the knives.

If inverting doesn’t help, use the “lobster method.” What id your knife was if lobster? He would be red and have claws. Eureka! What if I have some “sort of scissors” for my device! … Well, you have got the idea!

6) It is important to have teammates with different perspectives.

As smart as we are, we are not omnipotent, and we don’t know everything. We have gaps in our knowledge; we have things we like, and don’t, at the end of the day we have different physiological characteristics. This is especially relevant for us engineers since we think that we are the brightest, unsung heroes of this world.

From my personal experience the most successful people I have met - are excellent in identifying areas they don’t know. They are super honest with themselves and try to find teammates that can help them out on that.

The diversity of thoughts is one of the most important things in successful teams.

A personal advice on teamwork and brainstorming. Don’t let the brainstorming to be a context of the loudest. When I am working in a team, I try to encourage people to write down their ideas independently without talking to each other. After that, I make sure we select a person in a team who can facilitate our sharing of the thoughts. This person has made sure that all of the teammates no matter how introverted or extroverted they are all share the ideas and no one is feeling isolated.

In the end, I want to finish with a quote by Kevin that I especially liked: “Entrepreneurship was a lonely tiresome experience. But it’s all forgotten at the moments like this. When you see your product being used by people and saving lives - there is nothing better than this.”