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Identifying User-as-Designer
Behaviors When Designing By Using
Toolkits
Guido Hermans
Umeå Institute of Design, Umeå University, Umeå, Sweden
[email protected]
Abstract
Consumer products are becoming more and more open for consumers to design, make or adapt
them to their own preferences and needs. An emerging area of product toolkits turns users into
designers. In this paper we use the term user-as-designer, shortly user-designer, which refers to a
consumer who uses a toolkit to design a product for himself. Designing by using toolkits
challenges the role of the professional designer in ways that yet have to be fully explored and
understood as well as the role of the passive consumer that gains new freedom and responsibility.
The aim of this paper is to explore consumers designing an everyday product focusing on the
behavior users have in relation to the tool they use. The participants expressed their preferences
directly into the creation of an object through the use of a digital toolkit. A group of ten students
participated, their designs were produced by 3D printing and they reflected upon their process
and design. Three core findings are presented that concern the behavior of users when designing
through a toolkit. First, we identified four user-designer characters that describe the exploration
of the solution space. Secondly, we revealed the behavior of participants through visualizing the
process of customization. The third finding concerns the predictability of outcomes for the
designer of the toolkit. The discussion focuses on two levels; first we describe the aspects from
this study that are relevant for future toolkit development. Issues like the exploration of the
solution space, specific behavior in constrained toolkits, predictability, iteration and the amount
of freedom for the user. The second level of the discussion focuses on the implications for
consumer involvement in the design process. This study has shown that when consumers are
engaged in the design process they need to understand what it means to create rather than being
tricked in some part of a process in an isolated manner.
KEYWORDS: user design, consumer design, toolkits, co-design,
mass customization, 3D printing
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Introduction
Consumer products are becoming more and more open for consumers to design, make or adapt
them to their own preferences and needs. An emerging area of product toolkits turns users into
designers. In this paper we use the term user-as-designer, shortly user-designer, which refers to a
consumer who uses a toolkit to design a product for himself. Designing through the use of
toolkits challenges the role of the professional designer in ways that yet have to be fully explored
and understood as well as the role of the passive consumer that gains new freedom and
responsibility.
The aim of this paper is to explore consumers designing an everyday product where we focus on
the behavior users have in relation to the tool they use. Design is a service relationship between
the one in service - the designer - and the one being served - the client (Nelson & Stolterman,
2012). User-design, in the business field titled mass customization (Tseng & Jiao, 2001) is an
approach that has been researched and commercialized for several years. However, to get a better
understanding of how users design in such a constrained space, we present an experiment in
which we invited participants to design an everyday object. The physical outcomes as well as the
process of customization are of interest in this study since the process can give us insight in the
behavior of the users. The purpose of the developed toolkit was to enable participants to adapt a
design to make it their own, therefore we gave them the possibility to alter the shape, material
and color of the object.
This paper is structured as follows; in the first section we discuss existing research about mass
customization and toolkits. We frame the object of study with a conceptual model about
competency sets that later on will be used for reflection upon this study. Hereafter, the
conducted experiment and its findings are presented. The paper ends with a discussion and
implications for developing toolkits and implications regarding consumer involvement in the
design process through the use of toolkits.
Toolkits for Designing
In user-design, designer and consumer interact with each other through a toolkit that enables a user
to create a physical outcome. Even though this can be done with a simple interface, the
interaction between the user and the design is much more complex (Janlert & Stolterman, 2010).
By using a toolkit, the interaction has increased compared to a consumer in a mass production
situation where one is only selecting and choosing which product to buy. The internal complexity
-the designer's work- and external complexity -the product- have both increased.
Designing by using a toolkit is an activity of creating a physical outcome, in other words experiential
creation. Dahl and Moreau define experiential creation by the amount to which the outcome is
defined and the amount of guidance a user receives along the way (Dahl & Moreau, 2007). Mass
customization (Tseng & Jiao, 2001) is one form of experiential creation; it offers the consumer a
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solution space (Berger & Piller, 2003) in which one can customize his own product. The user is
enabled by a configurator which is typically a web-based interface that includes the following five
characteristics: complete cycles of trial-and-error, an appropriate solution space, user-friendliness,
libraries of modular parts and producible outcomes (Von Hippel, 2001). Existing research in
mass customization focuses on toolkit development (Gerber & Martin, 2012), supply chain
management (Anderson, 2008), modular systems (Kratochvil & Carson, 2005), value creation and
willingness to pay by consumers (Franke & Piller, 2004) and benchmarking of existing mass
customization offerings (Walcher & Piller, 2012). Customization websites like NikeID (Nike,
2012) and miAdidas (Adidas, 2012) and more open platforms like Shapeways (Shapeways, 2012)
and Ponoko (Ponoko, 2012) allow people to have an influence on the design through easy to use
toolkits. This paper focuses on the behavior of users in such toolkits. The tool is a central piece,
but not the only aspect that deserves attention. In the next section a model is introduced that
deals with competencies in a broader sense.
Competency Sets
The experiment presented in this paper concerns the toolkit and the user. When consumers are
involved in the design process in the form of mass customization, they are designing a part of the
product themselves, how limited this act of designing might be in some cases or in the eyes of a
professional designer. Their involvement is not only defining a part of the product, i.e. doing
design, the process could also be seen as learning to become a user-designer. When approaching
consumer involvement as a learning experience, a model consisting of four competency sets
should be addressed in an integrated way.
The model of competency sets consists of the mind, knowledge, skill and tool set (Nelson &
Stolterman, 2012). The tool and skill set are situated in the concrete domain (Figure 1), they are
concerned with doing and making. The tool set addresses the domain of design action which is
concrete and external. A toolkit provides the user with what is needed to perform a task, for
instance a web-based interface with sliders, knobs and buttons. The skill set is concrete and in
contrast to the tool set individual. It deals with design praxis; it encompasses what the user is able
to do. The other two competency sets are positioned in the abstract domain; they deal with
thinking and knowing. The knowledge set is abstract and external, it represents design thinking.
The mind-set is the design character, it is internal and abstract. The mind-set, or Weltanschauung, is
the stance a user takes, the way one sees the world, his values and beliefs. The model of
competency sets will be used for reflection on this experiment since it examines mass
customization as an approach to consumer involvement in design.
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Methodology
In this study the participants expressed their preferences directly into the creation of an object.
Prior research into consumer customization (Hermans & Stolterman, 2012) led to the finding of
a lack of variation between the customized designs due to the focus on only one product
attribute. In this experiment a more comprehensive approach has been used by allowing the user
to customize multiple product attributes including shape, material and color. The users are able
to make a large variety of designs that differ from each other on an aesthetic level. The sample
consisted of ten students from the local university; they neither had formal design education nor
professional design experience. The first three participants served as the pilot group, after
running the pilot session an introductory assignment was added to make the participants familiar
with the interface. The setup of the experiment was a computer screen which displayed a 3D
model and interface, a mouse for manipulating the sliders and a 3D mouse for navigating in
space. The parametric model was made in the software Autodesk 3D Studio Max 2012. The
whole process of customization was documented by capturing the screen on video for analysis.
Stages: Design and Reflection
In the first stage participants were given a brief which explained the design task. The participants
chose one of the four design presets (Figure 5, first column), an inspirational design with a
certain shape, material and color. Design presets were used since this is a common way of
offering mass customization in today's market. It gives the user a jump start and it makes the
process more accessible if there is already a beginning instead of having to face a blank canvas.
Then, the participants manipulated the design to make it their own. In the second stage of the
experiment, the participants reflected upon their process and their design with the 3D printed
model. The survey consisted of 25 statements and open questions categorized in three sections
about the design task, the actual design and several general questions about customization. An
example of a statement that focused on the design task: (S6) “I explored the toolkit to a large extent, in
other words I tried all the sliders and tweaked a lot.” The second part of the survey focused on the
outcomes: (S19) “I would be willing to pay more for this juicer than a standard juicer because I designed it
myself.” Finally, the survey concluded with general questions and statements about consumer
involvement in the design process: (Q21) “What do you think of this kind of activity, i.e. designing your
own product?” Statements were used to provoke a response from the participants. A 5-point Likert
scale that ranged from strongly disagree, disagree, neutral, agree, strongly agree, was used to
measure responses. The open questions were used to gain more insight in the participants'
decisions.
Data visualization
The action of manipulating the object through an interface with sliders was captured on video for
analysis. The values of the sliders have been transcribed for each parameter, normalized and this
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data has been visualized in a two-dimensional (Figure 3) and one-dimensional graph (Figure 4).
The visualization of the design task shows the start point, the steps and the end point. Every step
is called a stroke that is a movement in one direction, the number of strokes and their direction
are visualized. Two ways of visualizing the data were used to reveal a pattern or behavior that
might be invisible by simply observing the participants during the design task. The first method
of visualizing two parameters was used since the parameters were grouped in the interface by
pairs, whereas the second visualization is a grouping of the participants that choose the same
design preset.
Results
The results from the experiment are data collected from the design task, the produced prototypes
and the reflection upon the task by the participants through a written survey. Each of the results
is discussed more in depth.
Design Task
The design task produced data that has been visualized in two different ways. Figure 2 shows the
visualization of participant 4 for parameters 1 Resolution and 2 Waist (left) and 3 Detail and 4 Edge
(right). It shows how a participant moves through the solution space in terms of step size and
scope. The left graph shows large single strokes whereas the graph on the right shows a
concentration of exploration in one area of the solution space. Figure 3 shows a different
visualization of the design task data. This graph depicts the behavior of the participants who
started with the same design preset. The graph reveals that participant 1, 4 and 9 end with the
same result and they have explored the solution space to the same extent as well.
Among all participants, the average number of strokes used to manipulate the parameters is 7.8.
Parameter 1 Resolution has been explored to the highest extent (86%) together with parameter 6
Bend (83%), parameter 7 Material Head (78%) and parameter 8 Material Bowl (76%). The other
parameters have been explored between 48 and 52%. Five participants only used seven out of
eight parameters when customizing their design, the parameters they did not touch were
parameter 3 Detail (two participants), parameter 5 Twist (two participants) and parameter 6 Bend
(one participant). Three participants explored the solution space and ended up with the same
parameter settings as they started with.
Prototypes
The second result of this experiment is the physical prototypes (Figure 4). The designs were
produced by selective laser sintering and 3D printing, two different processes of additive
manufacturing. The approximate bounding box of the designs was 140 x 140 x 110 mm. and the
designs have been printed in white, black and red nylon and white and black ceramics. Blue nylon
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was available in the toolkit, but later on not for production. The participants that had chosen blue
received white instead. Figure 5 shows the final designs and the presets they originate from.
Reflection
The surveys have been filled out by all 10 participants during the second stage. The analysis of
the surveys was done by relating questions to each other and making connections between them.
The open questions have also been categorized to reveal similar themes in the answers. Three
topics are presented, that is exploration and imagination (A), iteration (B) and ownership of the
design (C). This section ends with comments from the participants about the design task.
A. Exploration and Imagination
The first reflection concerns to what extent a user explores the solution space and consequently
whether or not one has the ability to imagine outcomes of the unexplored space. Some
responsibility and freedom to define a design is shifted from designer to consumer, therefore this
issue is at the core of user-design. How will a consumer handle this freedom to define the design
to his or her own preferences, needs and desires? The questions: (S6) I explored the toolkit to a large
extent, i.e. I tried all the sliders and tweaked a lot and (S7) For the part that I did not explore, it was easy for
me to imagine how it would look like focused on the exploration and imagination of the solution
space. Most participants said they have explored the toolkit to a large extent (8/10) and half of
them said they could imagine how the unexplored bit of the solution space would look like
(5/10), three felt neutral about it, one participant did not respond and another one did not feel
the need to imagine anything else.
B. Iteration
The toolkit offered in this study allowed for cycles of trail-and-error as suggested by Von Hippel
who defined five characteristics of user toolkits (Von Hippel, 2001). The importance of iteration,
when designing through a toolkit (Resnick & Silverman, 2005) has been acknowledged. Even
though the toolkit in this experiment allowed the participants to make iterations - they could play
around with the sliders to make different designs, there was no time limit or any other constraint
- most of the participants (7/10) said that they would like to design it again, now that they have the actual
juicer in their hands (S14).
C. Ownership of the Design
When designer and consumer create a design together, the issue about ownership of the design
will be raised. To what extent do users feel they contributed to the design? How do they value
their participation in the design process? Do users bond more with product because they were
involved in the process? To get a sense how the participants valued their own involvement, the
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survey addressed ownership of the design with three statements: (S16) I feel I created something new,
(S17) I feel I created something of my own and (S19) I would be willing to pay more for this juicer than a
standard juicer because I designed it myself. Most subjects felt that they did not create something new;
however, they felt they have created something of their own (7/10). Furthermore, half the
subjects would be willing to spend more on their design, since they designed it themselves.
Finally, the participants were asked to comment the design task. Their responses ranged from
comments on the visualization of the 3D model to material representation. These suggestions are
interesting in itself and can help improve future experiments. However, we highlight one
particular aspect that the participants expressed. The freedom users have in a toolkit was
commented by many participants. Half of the participants wanted to have more possibilities,
three were neutral and the other two participants were satisfied with the way it was. Also, some
participants felt they did not have enough options and several users did not like the fixed presets.
Findings
The results led to three core findings: defining user-designer characters (I), identifying specific
behavior of the participants in this experiment concerning the exploration of the solution space
(II) and the third finding concerns the predictability of the outcomes by the designer (III).
Furthermore, two additional findings are mentioned that concern iteration in a toolkit and the
amount of freedom for the user.
I User-as-Designer Characters
In order to identify and describe different users in the experiment we introduce the term
character. A character is defined as “one of the attributes or features that make up and distinguish an
individual” (Merriam-Webster, 2012). These characters are based on the design task visualizations
(Figure 2 and 3) and represent different qualities of participants in this study.
Four characters are identified (Figure 6), Settler and Voyager are derived from the design outcomes
and Stroller and Horseman are derived from analyzing the design task on a detailed parameter level.
Settlers explore the solution space and end elsewhere in the space, a different design. Voyagers
move through the solution space as well, but eventually return to their start point and thus they
end with a similar design. This categorization is based on the result from the customization task.
When looking more in detail at the design task (Figure 2) and focuses on the process, another
distinction can be made. To stay with the travel metaphor, we distinguish two characters based
on the scope, the extent of the exploration in the solution space, namely Stroller and Horseman.
The Stroller maps a small area of the solution space in an intense way; this character goes back
and forth many times. The Horseman on the other hand travels through the solution space with
great speed, often from one end to the other. A user of a mass customization toolkit can employ
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any of these characters. For example, one could be a Settler by ending somewhere else in the
solution space and at the same be a Horseman when he explores the solution space with large
strokes.
II Behaviour of Participants
The behavior of the participants was revealed through visualizations of the design task. The
participants that choose the same initial design have explored the solution space, on a meta level,
in the same area and through the same path. This is especially visible for participants 1, 4 and 9
that choose preset 4 (Figure 3 and Figure 5), participants 5 and 7 that choose preset 1 and for
preset 3 which has been chosen by participants 3, 8 and 10. Furthermore, the relation between
the amount of strokes and the extent of exploration is interesting. The parameters that have been
explored the most on average do not have the most average number of strokes. This is counterintuitive, since one would expect that if a parameter is explored more, one has used more strokes.
Therefore we observed that large strokes, the Horseman character, is more used in exploring the
solution space. The detailed and intense examination of one part of the parameter was in this
experiment less carried out by the participants. However, the behavior is context specific and in
toolkits which give more freedom to the user and concern other products and parameters
different behavior might occur.
III The Designer and Predictability of Outcomes
The designer is represented through the design of the toolkit; defining certain areas of the
product and leaving other areas open for customization. The designer sets the constraints of the
solution space and thereby points the user in a certain direction. The designer of the toolkit has
the task to give freedom to the user and at the same time he wants to maintain control over the
end product. In the schema of experiential creation (Dahl & Moreau, 2007), mass customization
is typically positioned in the quadrant defined by the variable fixed target outcome and step-by-step
guidance. Mass customization toolkits give freedom to the user, however, as can be seen in this
study the results are somewhat predictable to the designer of the toolkit. This means that a
limited toolkit, like the one used in this experiment, relates directly to the predictability of the
outcomes. We can assume that by broadening the possibilities of the toolkit the outcomes
becomes less predictable.
Iteration and Freedom in a Toolkit
We would like to point out two other findings that came up in this study. First of all, iteration in
a toolkit. The toolkit allowed the users to make “complete cycles of trail-and-error learning” (Von
Hippel, 2001). However, iterations between different media were lacking in this toolkit and in
mass customization toolkits in general. Secondly, the amount of freedom users have in a toolkit is
an issue that deserves attention. From the reflections of the participants it is clear that some of
the users wanted to have more freedom while for others it was sufficient. One way of addressing
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the need for a varying amount of freedom is to offer different levels of freedom in the toolkit so
users can master a skill and gain knowledge while using a toolkit.
Discussion
This study investigated consumer involvement in the design process in the form of mass
customization by inviting users without traditional training or experience in design to perform a
design task. The participants were asked to design the aesthetics of an everyday consumer object.
The toolkit and the user were the focus in this study and the aim was to identify different
characteristics and behavior of these so-called user-designers.
The discussion of this study is on two levels, first of all we will describe the aspects from this
experiment that are relevant for future toolkit development. Then, we will use the model of
competency sets to evaluate this study and discuss the broader implications it has for consumer
involvement in design.
Implications for Toolkit Development
This study has pointed out three core findings that concern users designing a product through a
toolkit. The first two, user-designer characters and the behavior of the participants, concern the user
of the toolkit. This might help toolkit designers shape their toolkit in terms of guidance for
instance. The third finding about predictability helps designers become aware of their input and
influence. The issues discussed in this paper are, of course, not all the issues a toolkit designer
will face when developing a toolkit. These are the ones that came up in this particular study and
therefore this study could be seen as a start point in trying to understand consumers designing
through toolkits.
Implications for Consumer Involvement
This study also led to some considerations regarding consumer involvement in the design
process. To fully utilize the potential of user-designers and highly flexible production technologies
such as 3D printing, we might need to use a richer and contextualized design process by focusing
on and including multiple phases of the design process. Advancing consumer involvement is not
only a technological problem with issues such as the quality and price of 3D printing, but it is
more a design problem. When engaging consumers in the design of products, they need to
understand what it means to create something rather than being tricked in some part of a process
in an isolated manner. For instance, practicing an iterative process, as professional designers do,
will prevent users being disappointed with the first trials of a design.
If we apply the four competency sets introduced in the beginning of this paper, to this
experiment we can see the following. The tool set that is offered in this experiment is an easy to
use interface consisting of a 3D model with sliders. The skill set that was required to participate
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in this experiment was basic computer operation. No specialized 3D modeling skills were
necessary. The knowledge set was not specified, but university students were taken that had no
particular design knowledge. The mind-set of the participants was focused on selecting and
buying products in a mass production setting, that is what they, and in general consumers, are
experienced in. The mass production paradigm is based on a model of acceptation or rejection of
products rather than expression of preferences, needs and desires into the creation of an object.
The tool set was in focus in this experiment whereas the skill, knowledge and mind set were not
addressed. To fully utilize the potential of consumer involvement and to let users truly design
something by themselves, it is necessary to address all four competency sets. A next step for
research in consumer involvement in the design process is to look at contextualized design
processes for user-designers.
In this paper we identified some user-designer characters and behaviors that people had when
designing a product through a toolkit. These characters might not be the only ones that could
occur in mass customization toolkits. In other toolkits, ones that are more open and less guided,
different behaviors might appear. A growing interest in designing through toolkits raises questions
about how people use toolkits and what it means for professional designers who develop toolkits
in practice.
Figure 1: Model for four competency sets (adapted from Nelson & Stolterman, 2012)
Figure 2: Visualization of participant 4: parameters 1, 2 (left) and 3, 4 (right); the green dot is the start point
and the red dot is the end point, the numbers and arrows indicate the order and direction of the strokes.
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Figure 3: Visualization of participants 1, 4 and 9 who all three have been chosen design preset 4; the green
dot is the start point and the red dot is the end point.
Figure 4: The 3D printed designs consist of two parts (left) and white ceramic press head (right)
Figure 5: Computer visualizations of the presets (first column) and the designs
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Figure 6: User-Designer characters focused on design outcome (left) and
the process of customization; the dashed circle represents a solution space
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