Design Drivers: What drives great design?

26 Mar 2018 8min read

It should be a familiar scenario for most designers: you’ve waved goodbye to the client after a successful briefing and returned home with reams of loose sketches and a head buzzing with ideas. The next morning you find yourself staring at a blank piece of paper wondering how on earth you’re going to give structure to the swirling mass of possibilities that lie in front of you. Moreover, you have to consider how you’re going to demonstrate to the client that the concepts appearing at the other end answer the brief.

Design tools – the role of Design Drivers

Many desk-based tools are available to help focus our activity and encourage divergent thinking at the start of a project:

  • We can use tools such as ‘user journey mapping’ or ‘PCA analysis1’ to identify ‘pain points’ in the use sequence.
  • We can break a system into subsystems to help focus our attention on specific user or mechanical interactions, i.e. how might we deploy a needle shield or how might we aid removal from packaging?
  • We can focus our brainstorms on themes, e.g. size reduction, ease of manufacture, robustness, reducing cost of goods, etc.

These tools are a great way to help identify, prioritise and solve practical design challenges; however, they are less well suited to more emotive issues.

…you find yourself staring at a blank piece of paper wondering how on earth you’re going to give structure to the swirling mass of possibilities.


How a product feels or, more accurately, how a person feels about a product needs a slightly different approach.

To tackle these challenges, I like to use a tool called ‘Design Drivers’. It’s useful not only as a method to highlight areas on which we want to focus, but also for defining a vision of ‘where you want the product to be’ rather than improving incrementally on what you already have.


What are Design Drivers?

“Design Drivers” are really just a list of headings that describe what you want the product to do or be; however, their power comes in the (often provocative) wording and careful selection of imagery chosen to accompany them. They help us to capture in a tangible way an example of what a well-executed solution might feel like, helping to define our aspirations and providing a vision against which we can quickly judge our design as it inevitably evolves.

So why is it important to take this approach? Can’t we rely on a well-written specification? Well yes, your spec will clearly define your requirements, and yes, you can solve each requirement individually to prove you’ve met the spec, but you might still fall short of what was actually needed from the overall product experience.


Take the above example, which could be a driver for the design of a wearable injector: a more functionalist approach might have been to say “small” or “compact”, but the use of the word “invisible” in combination with a stimulating image might encourage participants in a brainstorming session to push their thinking into areas previously considered out-of-bounds.

How could the internal components be reconfigured to create a slimmer profile? What forms, materials and colours are least conspicuous beneath clothing? Could the device move or flex with the body? The goal of Design Drivers is to inspire more divergent thinking in the hope of landing on something truly innovative.

More than that, the image elicits an emotional response, reminding you that these are frequently worn on intimate areas of the body and must be used throughout the day, whether at work or in bed. A picture tells a thousand words as they say.


This image makes me think of materials with inherently dirt-resistant qualities and smooth forms that are easy to clean. This might lead us to consider construction methods that avoid dirt-traps or the selection of materials and surface finishes that won’t mark easily, rather than just making it ‘easy to clean’.


It’s all-too common for the user interface of a modern medical product to be cluttered with labels, icons, screens, LEDs and buttons, with the result that the user becomes lost in the noise of information.

By contrast, the user interface in this image provides relatively complicated feedback on the device status in a very pared-back way. Could a similarly elegant solution communicate the number of remaining doses in an inhaler ‘at-a-glance’?


When designing a device that is worn against the skin, the emphasis is often on reducing discomfort, but this image poses the question, “Could a wearable device actually be comfortable?” Form is an important consideration, but the image also leads us to consider the inherent tactile qualities and temperature of materials.


How are Design Drivers useful?

Design Drivers are primarily a powerful tool for encouraging divergent thinking during brainstorming sessions, but they have several additional advantages:

  • They provide a tangible example of the ultimate aim at the start of a project; their highly visual nature makes it easier for the team (client – engineer – designer) to discuss and agree the nuances of what is required.
  • The selection of imagery can often help to establish the desired visual look and feel of the product early in the process.
  • Walking through Design Drivers at the start of a client presentation can help to establish a context for the concepts that are to follow.
  • They provide a set of aspirational goals for a project against which designs can be ‘measured’ both at the outset and throughout the development process.


A Design Drivers example

For example, during a recent project to develop a piece of lab equipment, Design Drivers helped the team to stay on-track as manufacturing and time constraints threatened to water down the original design intent. The Drivers were frequently referred to during the project as they succinctly described the key aspirations for the product at a high level.

As the ‘design literacy’ of the average consumer grows, we’ll look increasingly at how a product makes us feel to differentiate the myriad options available, so tools such as Design Drivers may see more use in our field of work.

1 Perception, cognition and action (PCA) analysis refers to a form of task analysis which explores the different elements of device interaction.

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