The engineer is holding his breath. Beside him, the project manager grimaces. A dozen Emerson employees, all in khaki pants and button-down shirts, are gathered — silent and expectant — around their teacher as he squints at their creations. Back in their real roles, making aerospace controls or medical machinery or marine valves at the $24.8 billion St. Louis-based manufacturer, these people are not often met with bewilderment. But then, they rarely bring raw ideas to consumers either.
Here, in the Pittsburgh offices of MAYA ("most advanced yet acceptable") Design, a mashup of design firm and tech-research lab, these people are students. Given 30 minutes to imagine a TiVo-like car radio, they've built prototypes with construction paper, markers, and stickers. Chris Pacione, director of MAYA's innovation boot camp, is playing an average consumer — and he can't find the on button. "Some companies are not used to working across silos — design, marketing, engineering," Pacione says later. "They still think design is something that happens at the end: 'Should we paint it red? Or blue?' They'll have brilliant minds working on a project for two years before it hits shelves, and it's not until then they know it's deeply flawed." In other words, if this imagined radio were to actually make it into cars, auto collisions would be on the rise.
Each year, 11% of consumer electronics are returned to stores, but only 5% of those are defective. "The other 95% are returned because of poor design," says MAYA CEO Mickey McManus. "It's too easy for engineers to add new features, to cram in another cool new thing. People are tech tired." And that creates the worst kind of $14 billion problem: revenue received and then returned. Enter MAYA Design, which is juicing innovation by teaching techies design basics.
The 50-member team of computer scientists, psychologists, designers, engineers, and anthropologists dedicates 30% of its resources to researching how humans and technology will interact 10 years from now, thanks in part to $20 million in funding from the Department of Defense. The other 70% goes to applying those lessons for MAYA's corporate clients, helping to craft everything from washing machines to wearable computers for companies including Bayer, GE, and Whirlpool.
Human-centered design is nothing new. In the mid-1990s, designers realized making a product successful meant incorporating users early on — testing prototypes with actual people and iterating quickly, rather than polishing something clunky or complicated that wouldn't make sense beyond the lab. But tech companies, with their rapid growth and the raging complexity of their products, remain elusive guests at the design party. MAYA is trying to change that.
"Taming complexity is what we do," McManus says. "The biggest question we're trying to answer is, Where does the disconnect occur between humans and technology in product design?"
Before 2007, MAYA just did design work; it didn't teach others how to do it. But clients were clamoring for instruction, hoping to inject a B-12 shot of design thinking that would differentiate their products even as competitors played tech catch-up. "There tends to be a strong bias toward engineering, or sometimes marketing, at technology companies," says Dave Parsons, an Emerson director who has guided more than 50 employees through MAYA's boot camp. "Design is neglected, when really it's the third leg on the stool — essential."
Nearly 700 students have completed the three-day design course, helping to goose MAYA's revenues 60% in 2007 and an additional 10% in 2008. This summer, MAYA will spin the boot camp off into its own division, Luma Institute, and McManus says enrollment is on track to jump 40% this year.
Some clients, such as the tech company Seagate, send handpicked employees. Others — including defense-industry giant General Dynamics, which has trained 500 engineers — commit to bimonthly sessions. One home-electronics company filed eight patent applications just after a group of its employees completed the course.
But because the instructors at MAYA are also practitioners, learning goes both ways. "To be able to draw on all of these real-life design projects that we've worked on is helpful for the students," says designer Amy Ferchak. "And teaching what we do is incredibly invigorating for us."
The students learn methods for sparking ideas, such as a round-robin that ignores how competitors might solve a problem and imagines how a firm in a different field would tackle it (Harley-Davidson's take on hearing aids? Apple's answer to vision screening?). They dissect the bad design of day planners, interview strangers, and collect user feedback. And they sketch. On blocks of paper that come to cover every inch of the walls — a collective graphic memory of generated ideas — they draw prototypes for toys and cars, concept maps, and consumer personas.
On the last day of a boot camp for employees from General Dynamics, the students break into small groups. ("We have too many engineers over here," says one woman, scanning for a cross-discipline partner.) From a tool kit brimming with soft blue foam, metal tacks, and hot glue guns, they craft glucose meters for diabetics. The squat eggs and fat markers incorporate features — alarms, USB ports, meal-planning tips — culled from user observations and structured brainstorming.
"It's a natural propensity for some of us to get carried away with the technology, because we can," instructor Bill Lucas reminds the group, as students prepare to user-test their prototypes. "We need to resist that — for the sake of people."
A version of this article appeared in the June 2009 issue of Fast Company magazine.