3D printing and assembly: A new opportunity for usability work

Apr 19, 2013 | Posted in geekcraft, user experience

Part 2 (of 2)

This May, I was hoping to attend the CHI2013 conference in Paris on computer-human interaction (more commonly called human-computer interaction [HCI]). HCI researchers study our experience of the digital world — everything from how we shop online to how we experience museum installations to how our healthcare is monitored.

For those of us who design digital interfaces, one of the practical results of HCI research is a set of best practices for usability that helps developers make your — the user’s — digital experience as seamless as possible.

In a world of perfect usability, your website would load instantly and properly, regardless of whether you’re using a laptop, a tablet or a smartphone. You would pick up a new gadget and be able start using it easily, without having to read directions. Your medical device would be impossible to use incorrectly.

That’s the idea, the ideal. We haven’t achieved it and we never will since the goalpost keeps moving. User expectations rise as innovations create new challenges. But the point is: good digital design takes the user experience into account. Let’s face it, the digital has wiggled its way into every facet of our lives. And we want our lives to run smoothly.

Now, let’s look at assembly. How high are your expectations of usability when you slit open that giant cardboard box from Ikea and start pulling out the parts to build, say, a wardrobe? Do you expect the assembly experience to be seamless? Or have you cleared your entire day because you’re sure it’s going to take five times longer than it should?

Imagine, instead, that you could look at the pieces themselves and know how to put them together. No need to read the directions. This might sound absurd, but it’s not. I believe it’s a matter of design and user experience. With the advent of consumer 3D printing, now is the time to flip our design perspective when it comes to creating objects that require assembly.

Assembly has always been a part of the manufacturing process. Machines make parts that are assembled (sometimes also by machines) into products. The assembly process has therefore been studied and refined for maximum usability on the factory floor. In fact, the field of HCI is an extension of the human factors work that began during World War II when complex military equipment was being designed and built by employees new to manufacturing. Before then, it was the worker who was expected to adapt to the machine. In the 1940s, researchers began to posit that the machine should be adapted to our human capabilities.

With usability and 3D printing, we’ve come full circle — from factory floor to the digital and back again — only now that floor is in our living rooms. Design needs to take this into account. Industrial designers might say it already does, and they would be right in the sense that their products are designed with the consumer in mind. But the production process isn’t. How can a product be designed for 3D printing so that it’s obvious that part A slots into part B?

Right now is the time to start thinking about this, while the complex 3D-modeling software traditionally used by engineers and industrial designers is being revamped for the consumer market. In the future, this might be the one of the tipping points that flips 3D printing from being a novelty to an gotta-have.

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