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From Digital to Digital-Physical Product Design

The worlds of digital and physical product design once existed in isolation, but that’s quickly changing. Every second, another 127 devices are connected to the internet. Worldwide, by 2023, there will be 43 billion Internet of Things products — an almost threefold increase from 2018.

So it’s not surprising that researchers, strategists, designers, and engineers who began their careers in either digital or physical design are increasingly finding themselves working on products that blend the familiar feel of physical products with the connectedness and flexibility of digital interfaces.

It Happened To Us

We’re here to tell you that it happened to us! In the past year our own careers have evolved from focusing primarily on digital interface design to enabling digital-physical product design. Through this process, we’ve adapted and adjusted our working styles to the new digital-physical reality we live in. We’re sharing our learnings here for the benefit of other design practitioners who may want to enter the space of digital-physical product design but are unsure where to begin.

Understand the Differences: Process, Mindset, and Tools

First, it’s important to understand the differences between the digital and physical design disciplines. Knowing the differences will help you figure out how to speak the design language of whichever discipline is not your native one.

When we moved from a digital design firm to Bresslergroup, whose seven disciplines work largely on digital-physical products, it wasn’t long before we encountered these noticeable differences:

Differing Product Development Outlooks

Designers of digital products are continuously improving their products. The goal is to get a minimum viable product out the door so people can start using it, and project teams can start gathering data for quick, iterative updates.

That doesn’t work as well for most physical products. Once they’re out the door there are no take-backs, and no new features will be added until the next-gen product can roll out — which can take months, if not years.

digital-physical product design

Digital Versus Physical Canvas

The ways that we design digital and physical products are distinct, and designers are trained to think differently about how to address users’ needs through the digital versus the physical medium.

Digital designers are trained to think dynamically. Their canvas is two-dimensional and imposes fewer constraints. Their low-cost, digital real estate allows digital designers to focus more on what they can do and less on what they can’t. Additionally, digital designers can readily add new features, try something else, or update on the fly to meet a wide variety of users’ needs.

Designers are trained to think differently about how to address users’ needs through the digital versus the physical medium.

Because designers of physical products work with a more limited canvas, they’re forced to think more conservatively. Their three-dimensional canvas is constrained by the laws of physics and the limitations of physical space. They spend a significant amount of time understanding material, manufacturing, and technological factors. Designers of physical products quite literally cannot pack all the features they want to into a physical product the way you can in a digital product.

Think about a physical radio versus one that’s online. The digital music player could present you with a hundred or more interaction points to find new stations, optimize your preferences, or share your listening with friends. A three-dimensional radio, due to the constraints of the physical form, may be able to present you with an on/off switch, a tuning dial, a volume dial, and perhaps some alarm set buttons. Any more features and you begin to sacrifice the usability of the design.

2D Versus 3D Tools of the Trade

The tools used in user research are different, too. Testing digital products means focusing primarily on what’s happening in a two-dimensional space — how people are moving across the screen, where their eyes are tracking, where their fingers are tapping. Common tools for understanding the digital user experience include screen-grab software, web cams, or eye-tracking software to get heavy into the details.

With physical products, we’re working in a three-dimensional space. Effective documentation of this added dimension requires different tools, such as multiple cameras, connectors, adaptors, and cords . Not to mention physical prototypes and all the tools and techniques needed to develop those.

As a sidenote, merging two-dimensional and three-dimensional product design can provide an opportunity to use new techniques. One example is non-finito prototyping, a method that employs intentionally unfinished prototypes as part of the user-centered design process. It helps solve a problem that comes up repeatedly when designing integrated product experiences: What should be part of the digital experience, and what should be part of the physical?

Digital-Physical Product Design Languages

Our early observations about the differences between physical and digital design helped us realize that these two types of design — and the practitioners within them — speak different languages. While all the disciplines that contribute to complex digital-physical products need to adapt and adjust, it’s especially vital for researchers and strategists whose role on a cross-disciplinary team is to represent users’ needs throughout the design and development process. Becoming multilingual is a necessary skill to ensure users’ needs remain a critical part of the decision-making process.

Becoming multilingual is a necessary skill to ensure users’ needs remain a critical part of the decision-making process.

While we don’t need to know everything about each aspect of the design process, we need to understand the different languages well enough to work effectively with our teammates. We’re teaching ourselves to become multilingual digital-physical design practitioners using five simple strategies. These strategies, common to learning any new language, lay the groundwork for bridging institutional divides, building stronger digital-physical product teams, and creating great user experiences.

Ever find yourself in the same position? Here are the five strategies that helped us along our journey:

1. Know Where You Are

You wouldn’t walk into a country without knowing what language they speak. Even if you only know the pleasantries, you’re better off than the person who knows nothing. Likewise, you shouldn’t walk into a digital-physical design project without knowing how to talk to interaction and industrial designers, software, mechanical, and electrical engineers.

You shouldn’t walk into a digital-physical design project without knowing how to talk to interaction and industrial designers, software, mechanical, and electrical engineers.

Consult our chart below, which breaks down the different disciplines typically found in digital-physical product design. You can use this to identify where your strengths are and target areas for improvement.

2. Connect With a Native Speaker

Reach out to people who are native speakers in the language you need to learn. That can be as simple as getting coffee with an engineer or asking a UX researcher about their job.

It can be helpful to discuss topics where your interests overlap, like accessibility. As you share your knowledge about the topic, you’ll start to pick up on each other’s lingo.

3. Immerse Yourself in the Culture

Dive in. The fastest way to learn a language is full immersion. We’re not saying you need to find a new job, but you might consider joining a Meetup group or attending an event at a local university. (This article is a condensed version of a talk we presented at Philadelphia’s Research Rewind Meetup. Other Meetups to check out in Philly include DesignBrew, PhillyCHI, and Ladies That UX.)

4. Watch, Listen, and Write the Language

As you become more fluent in a new design discipline, broaden your scope. Don’t skim past articles geared toward other design professions. Stop and give them a read. Try a mix of articles from our blog (congratulations, you’re already doing that!), Core77, and IDSA.

Balance with articles from the Nielsen Norman Group blog, Smashing Magazine, UX Booth, and the UX Design Collective. You’ll get a nice mix of digital, physical, design, and research perspectives from these resources that will prepare you for our digital-physical design world.

5. Seek Formalized Training

Once you have a basic understanding of the language of another design discipline, you might consider investing in formalized training.

This can be especially helpful if you’re designing for a specialized industry, such as medical devices. Look to professional associations for relevant courses. In medical, The Association for the Advancement of Medical Instrumentation’s (AAMI) “Human Factors for Medical Devices” course is a great way to learn about the FDA’s regulatory requirements, appropriate study designs, and human factors best practices for medical devices.

Digital-Physical Workflows: A Tool for Bridging Language Gaps

We’d be remiss to tackle this topic without sharing one of our most effective tools for bridging the divides between design disciplines. At Bresslergroup, when we’re having conversations about digital-physical product design, we use a special form of workflow mapping to help everyone in the room get on the same page. We call these maps digital-physical workflows.

We used digital-physical workflows when we designed HelmetFit, an app-controlled helmet-inflation system. That product consists of a handheld pump equipped with a spring-loaded mount for a smartphone. The pump allows users to refill the air bladders inside their football helmets, and a companion app walks them through the process.

A digital-physical workflow for HelmetFit, an app-controlled helmet-inflation system

Our digital-physical workflow for HelmetFit looks a bit like a storyboard for a movie. At the top, we plot every step the user will take with the physical product. Along the bottom, we detail each digital interaction. In the middle, there’s space to collaborate and raise important questions that will determine the product’s functional requirements for how the digital and physical will connect — Bluetooth or WiFi? Waterproof?

Digital-physical workflows allow us to visualize how different aspects of an integrated product will work in parallel. It helps us marry what’s happening in the physical world with what’s happening in the digital world.

Digital-physical workflows look a bit like storyboards for a movie. They allow us to visualize how different aspects of an integrated product will work in parallel.

The real power of this workflow is that it becomes a tool that transcends language barriers. Each discipline contributes their perspective in their own language, and the visual ties it all together in a way that helps everyone understand each other. It’s exciting when the blended digital-physical product experience begins to emerge.

Adapting to the Connected World

Which digital and physical design languages do you speak today? Could learning others help you improve the products you create? Which languages does your team speak? Are there any gaps?

We hope this post has given you a few things to consider and try. Whether you’re shifting gears in your job to design more connected devices, or starting a new job, being able to communicate with and understand everyone on your project team will lead to better products and experiences for users.

Learn about our Digital-Physical Design expertise.