Putting People First

Engineering experts put emphasis on designing solutions that cater to peoples’ needs

Feb 02 2022 | By Kyle Barr
Harry West leads design class

Columbia Engineering professor Harry West leads his Designing for Humanity class.

It’s a dim grey, early-winter afternoon in New York, but the Columbia Entrepreneurship Design Space crackles with electricity.

In the space of two and a half hours, engineers in Professor Harry West’s Designing for Humanity class have scribbled upon every inch of the room’s white boards. Sticky notes are arranged in complex grids atop every table, and even by the end of their class time, students are still excitedly bantering back and forth. The spot is run by Columbia Entrepreneurship, Innovation, and Design as a nexus for design activity, and the atmosphere of creativity and enterprising spirit seems to be infectious.

The problem they’re tackling is well known to New Yorkers, one that particularly resonates during the pandemic: small, confined spaces. That could mean anything from cooking efficiently in a miniscule kitchen to safely navigating weekend nightlife. The solution? West wants that to mean whatever students think it means. The larger objective? Pushing students to learn problem solving in a new way.

“The basic purpose of the class is to help people develop a process and a reflex to think about people's needs, wants, and aspirations first when they are approaching a design innovation and entrepreneurship problem,” West said. “It’s like doing a handstand. It’s easy to understand conceptually, but it’s actually quite hard to do in practice.”

In other words, how do you prioritize the human part of human-centered-design? West understands that better than most, as he spent a good part of the last 30 years as an executive in the consulting and design space, working on projects from all over the globe. He joined Columbia Engineering in 2019 as a professor of mechanical engineering and industrial operations and operations research, and is now focusing on expanding the school’s human-centered design curriculum. With West’s Human-Centered Design and Innovation Class, that often means starting from scratch by identifying a very real world problem and actively reaching out to the stakeholders involved, often regular people trying to live their best lives. The process involves becoming comfortable with prototyping and working in a collaborative space, among other integral skills when operating in a professional engineering setting.

[Human-Centered Design] is like doing a handstand. It's easy to understand conceptually, but it's actually quite hard to do in practice.

Harry West
Professor of Practice, Industrial Engineering and Operations Research

This attitude toward design intentionally goes much further than the company-consumer relationship, pushing students to factor in the environmental and sociological impact of their designs as well. For instance, West, Assistant Professor of Computer Science Lydia Chilton and Desmond Patton, a Columbia professor of social work, are currently co-teaching and iterating on a class called Design Justice, which asks students to consider how their work might be able to impact disparities between race, gender, and social class. Chilton, who teaches User Interface Design among other courses on human-computer interaction, said engineers need to consider how people may want to interact with their product just as much as how designing to benefit one group may be detrimental toward another.

“Right now, things are changing a whole lot with what people consider to be responsible,” Chilton said. “It used to be a mindset of just not doing harm, saying maybe that's good enough. But actually, you can't just maintain the status quo. You have to push back against things, because the status quo may not be good enough.”

This human-centered ethos carries over into other classes. In fall 2020, Chilton taught a Public Interest Technology course that shifted thinking away from making consumer goods to creating designs that entail a public good. Students in that class outlined projects such as a chatbot to help people receive public benefits, and a digital repository for community members in a small upstate town to share their own memories and local history with each other. Many of those principles taught in that earlier course are being used in Design Justice, as well as the other classes both Chilton and West teach.

Because whether a product is impacting society, such as civil engineers designing road layouts, or programmers developing a user interface for a program that only relatively few professionals will use, the emphasis remains on people and their individual needs and desires. Getting immediate feedback from stakeholders is not something many problem-focused engineers are used to, the faculty said, but it’s an integral part of the process—with the emphasis on process.

“The first time you show off your design, it will be a disaster, and the second time it will be almost as bad of a disaster,” Chilton said. “And you just have to expect that the process does not translate easily from idea to product . . . That’s the name of the game: expect to be wrong, you just don’t know where.”

Back in West’s class, some student projects hoped to reinvent the city’s dilapidated yet iconic fire escapes into modern, mechanized, inhabitable structures. Others considered a new, overhead drying rack for space-starved kitchens. Making the problem hit close to home is an important part of the class structure.

“This project was [born of] this concept called pace layering, where everything old in New York has to be renovated,” West explained. “A remarkable portion of New York has been renovated and repurposed, and that is a different way of thinking about the world [from starting with a clean slate].

“Columbia is blessed to be in New York City, which is a fantastic testbed for new ideas,” he continued. “Because most of the world's population now lives in cities.”

Students in the Designing for Humanity class work collaboratively to solve problems

Students in the Designing for Humanity class work collaboratively to solve problems

The fact that their fellow students live among NYC’s tight environs means they too are part of the feedback process, allowing for iteration upon iteration throughout the semester. And months into their projects, students found the process of learning to engage people and get critique on their work exhilarating and revolutionary.

Back at the Entrepreneurship Design Space, young engineers Myric Lehner BS’21 and Carl Dobrovic BS’21 said this type of people-focused, entrepreneurship-esque design philosophy was a game-changer. After hearing from fellow New Yorkers the difficulty of decorating small apartments—how do you know if that blender is too big for your counter?—their group was creating a mockup for an app that lets users swipe through home decor items like potential dates on Tinder. Their product would allow users to see what any product would look like sitting on the user’s own table just by using the cameras on their phones.

“It’s not about the idea, it's about the impact,” Lehner said. “So often work involves checking boxes. [This class] is all about thinking critically.”

Dobrovic added that a few startups he’s talked with were already enthusiastic about the concept his team came up with. He and other students enjoyed the process of thinking of ways to fill real people’s needs.

“I think it’s really cool to be working on something impactful that will contribute to society,” said Ann Frances Fox BS’22. Her four-person team had spent weeks generating and discarding ideas, until finally they conceptualized a kind of mesh that sits on the edge of a sink. The mesh is pulled out over the sink drain when washing dishes, and any food waste ends up cradled in the netting instead of sticking to the bottom of the drain. Their team took a long road to get to where they were at the end of last December. They threw out potential project after potential project, constantly getting advice from West, fellow students, and most importantly from the average New Yorker to arrive at something they knew regular people could use to avoid unsanitary sinks and unnecessary food waste.

“The idea with Human Centered Design is you don't necessarily go to a textbook or professor or an expert, you go to a customer, you interview them, you talk with them, you observe them, you learn from them, and then you create some ideas,” West said. “By the end of this class, they're much more comfortable talking openly about incomplete ideas, and getting feedback that will help them to make those ideas better. These are the kind of core skills, which some people call these soft skills, but I think that they are the hardest skills students can learn.”