The 'How to do' man: Interview with Sergio Malorni, PDD

Human-centred design can be a massive factor in successful product development. Paul Fanning finds out how.

"Doing things outside our comfort zones is the only way we actually grow," says Sergio Malorni. "At the beginning it's painful, but it does pay dividends." A glance at Malorni's professional history would certainly seem to confirm that this is a philosophy that he practises as well as preaches. Now Principal of Medical Engineering with leading design consultancy PDD, Malorni began his working life in the aerospace industry and, since venturing into consultancy, has worked in industries as diverse as medical, scientific, industrial, aerospace, and consumer goods. Indeed, his previous clients include Bloomberg, Knoll, Colormatrix, and NASA with several projects resulting in patents and winning internationally-recognised design awards. So it is hardly to be wondered at, then, that Malorni should advocate an approach to design that takes engineers out of their comfort zone. Specifically, he is positively evangelistic on the subject of human-centred or people-centred design. As he puts it "design is ultimately about people" and so to try and design without understanding the human factors is fraught with problems. He says: "You start with a 'discover' or 'what to do' phase when developing a product. However, where a lot of people go wrong is in having the 'what to do' phase without engineers and then the marketing person decides on the solution and lobs it over to the engineers or 'how to do' people." This, he argues, presents a number of problems. "One of the disadvantages of separating the 'how to do' people from the 'what to do' phase," he says, "is that the engineers can end up not having enough empathy for the user a lot of the time. That's why we insist that our engineers are part of that integrated solution and are involved at the phase of defining the problem and rather than being prescriptive, are what we call 'solution-agnostic'." He continues: "Human centred design prevents the possibility of the tail wagging the dog. It's too easy for a technology-based company to concentrate on how technically complex and innovative a solution is and forget about the end user. You can have technology-inspired innovation rather than just insight-based innovation." This, he acknowledges, is a particular problem as engineers can be prone to see products as technological problems rather than as things that have to be used by individuals. He says: "In the past, I would review an engineer's work and the engineer would say 'This is easy, you just do this and this and that'. I would have to say 'no' and point out that they were not taking people's differences into account." These differences are often unexpected, claims Malorni, and are not related to the nature of the end user. "In the medical field, for instance, doctors – who we take as being at a particularly high cognitive level, still have different sorts of A, B and C personality types and will therefore react differently to a product." There are a range of additional advantages to this approach, according to Malorni. He says: "To have that way of working – whereby you not only have an engineer involved in the CAD and stress analysis, but also in getting out there and understanding the users of the product makes the job much more fun!" The forms this involvement take are varied, says Malorni. "We've had people in an observatory role in – for instance - operating theatres watching surgery, interviewing or even participatory activities where they had to wear a particular prototype for a week to understand the issues and problems associated with it." Another advantage, he claims, is that having people with technical knowledge involved early can make for greater inspiration. He says: "Not only is it fun and engaging. It tames the technology and really ensures it's fit for purpose. The great thing about bringing the how to do people into the what to do stage is that it's not just about solving problems because where you have an engineer who is well-networked with technology, they can actually offer opportunities to add value – you want to introduce those people into the process as early as possible. "