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4 minute read - by Pieter Decabooter

Blending the digital and physical: Pieter’s learnings

Five years ago, I transitioned from industrial product design to UX design at Little Miss Robot. Switching from physical products to digital ones seemed like an enormous step at the time. However, after a short while at the office, it dawned on me how deeply digital and physical are connected. Today I believe the key to great product design is to analyse the problem you have at hand instead of immediately jumping to the creation process. After all, it doesn’t matter whether you’re making an app or a chair, as long as you’re solving a real problem.

Digital, physical and methodology

In 2014, I graduated as an industrial product designer, when I had learned everything there was to know about idea generation, prototyping, and design thinking. Or, at least, that was what I thought. The moment I became a digital designer, I dove into the methodologies used by other UX designers. And what did I discover? Idea generation, prototyping, and design thinking were still the main product design phases. So whether you are designing a digital or physical product, the steps to follow remain the same, and training yourself in both fields will inevitably lead to more experience and a larger understanding of the framework. On the other hand, there are techniques that are unique to either physical or digital product design. The upside was that I could use the ones from physical product design to inspire me in the digital product design process.

Designers are problem-solvers at heart

While product designers are creative, innovative and experience-driven, they sometimes forget their most valuable asset: their drive and willingness to solve problems. Many designers start with ingenious ideas and try to turn them into cool products. However, what makes a product valuable is whether someone actually wants to use it. That is why the user’s problem should be the point of departure in product design. Along the way, you can use tools like personas, observations, mind maps, benchmarking, journeys. From there, you can gather feedback and do as many iterations as needed. So user-thinking and problem-solving will make a much better designer out of you than when you create original stuff nobody is interested in.

Playtime is important

On the other hand, creating fun products as a side project is a great way to sharpen your skills. Because knowing you don’t have to come up with your best work ever provides room to learn and enjoy yourself. In this way, you will feel less stressed, be able to avoid procrastination, which is mainly a perfectionism-problem anyway. When you don’t have external, work-related pressure on which your salary depends, you will feel much more at ease when you create a visual or motion video that is not fantastic right away. Chances are high you won’t even be thinking about results yet because you’re having so much fun in the process! Also, once you’ve created something you are proud of, don’t forget to share your work. It is super easy to let yourself be seen online these days, so take advantage of that to get a little feedback.

“Often, of the coolest designs started out as passion projects. So play around and create what you like. Who knows, one day it might turn into a professional project.” - Pieter Decabooter

To create a great product, you start with a bunch of ideas...

Great ideas change the world, but generating a gem requires thinking of and mixing up tons of other ideas. The more ideas you have, the more material to work with. Luckily, brainstorming is one of those tools that can be easily used in both physical and digital product design. A cool variant of the good old brainstorm is a 6-3-5 Brainsketch. The method allows you to come up with tons of ideas quickly. 6 participants are supervised by a moderator and required to write down 3 ideas on a worksheet within 5 minutes. After every round, participants swap their worksheets and pass them on to another team member et voilà, 6 rounds later, you have generated 108 ideas in 30 minutes.

… and then you find or create the needle in the haystack

Product design is about developing the best out of many solutions. When you have tons of ideas and created a few prototypes, you can test them out and see what works best with different (groups of) users. Testing and then iterating over and over again will lead to a refined solution and help you cancel out what doesn’t work. Needless to say, this is the phase in which the user takes the spotlight, his or her problem is our problem. This is also the moment where being a generalist-designer will serve you. I found that looking at the process from different angles, in idea generation as well as testing and prototyping, prevents you from tunnel vision and gives you more perspective.


Designing is one thing, but actually building the product is something else

While prototyping and sketching became easier when I transitioned from physical to digital, I had a steep learning curve to walk when it came to actually building products. Learning to work with new tools always takes time. At Little Miss Robot, I learned how to work with Figma, Sketch, Invision, Photoshop, Illustrator and lots of other software. Fortunately, skills and tools can be learned and having the patience to take things one step at a time is crucial when you don’t want to feel like you’re drowning in new information.

Five years as a designer and still counting!

Five years ago, I would have never guessed I already possessed the most important characteristic of a good designer: the problem-solving-and-always-looking-to-improve-
my-work attitude. It has been great to discover that medium is of such little importance when it comes to excellent design and that I should never lose sight of the user. It was also liberating and interesting to discover how playing around with different tools and techniques at home, like with 3D, is actually paying off at work too.


Pieter profielfoto
Article by

Pieter Decabooter

Pieter is an ambitious, curious and creative product designer. He is passionate about delivering excellent results and knows that the devil is in the details. As a digital designer, his background in physical product design is a big asset. He effortlessly shifts between and blends both worlds.

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