Ray Holland MSc ACIS Jon Ivins BA(Hons) Cert. Ed. MBCS, (photo)
De Montfort University,
Leicester, UK.

Electronic mail: jri@dmu.ac.uk
Telephone: +44 (0)116 255.1551 ext.7084 Fax: +44 (0)116 257.7052

Click here for an audio statement. Speaker ICONAIFF (48k)

Interplay: Inter-disciplinary Product Development

Ray Holland MSc ACIS

Dept. of Design Management

Jon Ivins BA(Hons) Cert. Ed. MBCS

Dept. of Electronic Engineering

De Montfort University, Leicester. LE1 9BH


The paper will present the findings of research exercise into a multi-disciplinary project in product design and development with commentary thereon. Research into the activities of 180 design managers, designers and engineers from a broad base of disciplines was conducted by survey analysis, observation, analysis of project logs and structured meetings. Teams were formed to ensure, as far as possible, a suitable balance of skills and experience.

The brief required a "total' design of an educational toy for children aged eighteen months to five years. In addition to the prototype full documentation of all stages from inception to product launch were prepared.

It was necessary to co-ordinate a wide range of inter-dependent activities to develop a successful prototype. Findings from a survey will report on:

* [dotaccent]the relationship, between designers, design management and engineers to the range of hard and soft problems encountered

* the individual, primarily emotional perception of the participants

* the interface between the product environment, team culture and product methodology


The paper will present the findings of research exercise into a multi-disciplinary project in product design and development with commentary thereon. Research into the activities of 180 design managers, designers and engineers from a broad base of disciplines was conducted by survey analysis, observation, analysis of project logs and structured meetings. Teams were formed to ensure, as far as possible, a suitable balance of skills and experience.

The project arose from a growing awareness by the researchers of the apparent "gap" between multi-disciplinary teamwork within the University which is largely constrained by School boundaries and such teamwork in industry who seemingly recognise no such barriers to the formation/composition of teams (Rover and British Telecom are two of many well reported examples of using such design management lead cross-functional teams). This project represents a contribution to the plethora of arguments for using a team approach. Briefly the project aims were to:

* Foster a true multi-disciplinary approach to product design: from conceptual stage through to the impact of the product in the retail environment, the nursery school and the home.

* [dotaccent]To provide a simulated competitive environment in which the participants were obliged to respond to "real-world" pressures of the social environment, the market, the effects of safety legislation etc.

* To afford the opportunity to measure the attitudes and emotional responses/stimuli to working in multi-disciplinary teams and interacting with the retailers and consumers.

Nature of the Project

An initial competitive round was held in which each of the thirty three teams presented a proposal for a product to be designed and developed. This took the form of an elimination contest to choose (by democratic vote) the most favoured product. From the outset, most of the teams showed a high level of awareness of external issues and social concerns by offering such projects as: device to warn mothers if child wanders away; means to find climbers lost in mountains; detection of carbon-monoxide emissions and anti-theft products for bicycle owners. The chosen project was an educational toy for children aged 18 months to 5 years. All teams proceeded with a similar product design brief. In addition to the design, the teams were obliged to:

* document fully their plans and progress for the exercise

* present a market research report

* prepare a document to brief a consultant

* document and present a design strategy for the aesthetic and technical development of the project

* present the prototype and all supporting documentation at an exhibition

Soft issues

A summary of the principal findings from the survey of participants follows:

Questions asked Pre-Project Post-Project

Score-Scale 1-10

How well did the team do in meeting the

project specification? 7.4 8.3

How cohesive/co-operative was the

(previous and current) team? 7.5 7.8

Rate personal performance in teams 7.7 7.9

Rate personal performance on course 7.0 7.7

Inviting the participants to describe in one or two words (max.) the main characteristics of their teamwork experience, the words most frequently encountered in order of preference, were:

Pre-Project Post-Project

Work Accomplishment Teamwork, co-operation

Time Management Support

Communication Overall performance

Co-operation Commitment, motivation

Creativity Creativity

Dedication Communication

Some typical observations on what was gained from the project:

* "a greater understanding of working in a multi-disciplinary team"

* "improving communication skills and co-operation, improving self confidence"

* [dieresis]"experiencing group work, decision making and problem solving"

An investigation into the roles of the members of the groups showed significant differences between the role they expected to play and the actual experience. Some participants ticked more than one category but the table below may indicate trends:

Role-Category Pre-Project (%) Post-Project

Chairperson 17.2 16.8

Shaper 17.2 9.3

Innovator 27.5 14.9

Evaluator 6.8 21.4

Team Worker 6.8 17.7

Company Worker 10.3 15.8

Resource Investigator 6.8 12.1

Emotions at the outset of the project and at the end were recorded:

Outset End

Apprehension Achievement

Nervousness Satisfaction

Excitement Relief

Doubt Pride

Determination Exhaustion


Some of the principal outcomes from observation of the group activities were:

* [dotaccent] the initial high levels of fear and apprehension rapidly gave way to a positive and enthusiastic attitude to the project aims and to team members.

* [dotaccent] a high level of respect for each other as human beings and subject professionals rapidly e merged such that the cultures of the groups were explored openly and positively.

* [dotaccent] the relatively high levels of cohesion lead to some frustration, even disciplinary action, among teams against members who failed to reach the group "norms" of commitment.

* [dotaccent] some teams tried the product ideas and/or prototypes in the 'real-world' environment and were thus able to provide much more evidence of the effectiveness of the interactive features and the business and marketing proposals which accompanied the product.

"Pliable issues"

Two examples of valuable testing of the proposals were in nursery play groups and by displaying the packaged product in a major retail environment. Nursery play groups were observed at play so that the sight, sound and tactile responses could be monitored. Groups placed a high priority on safety standards but the play activity revealed further safety and comfort aspects of use.

With the permission of the retailer, an experiment was conducted to place the packaged product among similar products on the shelf at a major retailer of toys. This gave the participants first an opportunity to see how it compared visually with established products, and second, the choice to monitor the reactions of potential buyers.

Hard(er) issues

Children (and adults) learn best when they are exposed to a structured series of activities which expose the learner to a variety of meaningful stimuli. The students attempting the project were fully aware of this and decided to incorporate as many different stimuli in the toy as possible consistent with enhancing the learning process. The finished toys were brightly coloured with contoured shapes to encourage initial investigation by the child, used a variety of materials to give a tactile interest and many were equipped with sound generators and illuminated displays. All of the toys had a number of associated activities which aimed to develop spatial perception, reasoning and problem-solving. Many of the toys were game-based to encourage the development of social skills.

A variety of materials were used to produce tactile variations in the toys including felt, plastics and corrugated materials. Of note is the design of one group who targeted children who had severe learning and sight problems. The prototype produced had a large number of different textures incorporated into the toy which was a farmyard jigsaw puzzle. Field testing of this toy in a kindergarten demonstrated the effectiveness of this approach in interesting the children in the toy. The variation in textures also helped the children to navigate their way around the puzzle.

The generation of electronic sounds used to be a highly technical, difficult and expensive task. Fortunately modern electronics allows authentic sounds to be produced with a minimum of components. The majority of the toys were designed with a farmyard or wild west theme with the noises being generated by a Maplin HT82207/HT82231 chip whose cost was around four pounds. A significant number of prototypes incorporated a selection of melodies which were generated by a Maplin UM34811A chip priced at a little over a pound or the Maplin M66T costing forty-eight pence. A few groups employed a Maplin UM3511A which provided an electronic organ and fifteen assorted tunes for two pounds.

A small number of groups eschewed a pre-programmed set of sounds for their toys and adopted an approach based on digitally recording their own sounds. The sound recording equipment (Sample Playback IC) was fairly expensive at fifteen pounds but could be shared amongst all the groups who required it. The electronics needed to store the sounds cost around eight pounds and consisted of a Z80 processor and an EPROM chip.

Whatever the method used to generate the sounds used in the toy it was also necessary to use an audio amplifier and output device. A few groups adopted the use of a small loudspeaker to produce the sounds but the majority decided to use piezo-crystal transducers as they are low cost and require very little power to emit sound at a suitable volume.

Switch construction

Perhaps the most intricate part of the product design was the provision of suitable switches to activate functions provided on the toy. Although electronic catalogues offer a wide range of standard switches the mechanism to operate the switch had to be designed by the students. The switch mechanisms had to be capable of withstanding the onslaught of enthusiastic toddlers playing with the toys while adhering to CE safety standards. In addition, the initial design concept had, in many cases, dictated the shape and size of the switch mechanism used by specifying whether mechanical, electronic or electro-mechanical switches were to be used.

As the toys moved from the concept stage to a physical prototype it became clear that the initial designs for switch mechanisms were not suitable as they were either impractical or not sufficiently robust. Consequently, many designs were returned to the `drawing board' as new mechanisms were considered. In many cases these changes lead to significant changes to the electronic circuitry. Also the physical changes gave rise to considerable changes in the original aesthetics of the toy. In several cases the difficulties experienced in devising a suitable switch mechanism proved to be insurmountable and the design scrapped and a new concept developed.


Success of the project is clearly dependent on a series of factors from a spectrum of hard technical issues, to soft behavioural issues. Teams gained an awareness of the interdependence of these factors. A particular example may be seen in the relationship of the problem of switching systems having a direct impact on the interactive play. Figure 1 overleaf shows the relationship of the hard and soft elements.


A rich picture is drawn of the inter-dependent human, socio and technological issues in product development. Teams rapidly learnt that co-operation, a high level of individual responsibility and a willingess to cross boundaries was essential to their progress and ultimate success. Commitment and cohesion lead to a desire to go beyond the basic product development life cycle and into an exploration of the product in its environment.



For the Cyberbridge Gateway use the key