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Station Development

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The station project was initiated and led by mechanical engineering and business. The idea was to place the landing pad that we developed for Mercedes Benz on a structure that will replace the van's battery and payload exchange mechanism. In the first months, the design was not part of the process since I had to work on different assets. The prototype worked well but did not create a lot of excitement among the team. After a long time of not using the station, Andreas asked me if I can skin this prototype.

I had six weeks to work on this from concept to launch and I realized that the skin was only one of the real needs. I thought that the user interaction part needs rethinking, physically and digitally. For example,  the box could not be properly taken out of the station due to the Aluminium structure getting in the way.

I started working on four streams in parallel:

1. User physical interaction

2. Simplifying the digital user interaction (User mobile App)

3. Form and function

4. Manufacturing and CMF

The key was to tackle all these with one clear design guideline of simplicity.

 

1. User physical interaction

I tried to avoid a conventional approach to a physical UI to the station. Keypads and screens felt unnecessary when most of the process is happening on your mobile phone. We needed to make sure that we answer all the security and authentication guidelines as well, without having an external screen. For as long as I remember, we used QR codes to identify the box's contents. I decided to try to use the QR code for one more function: to scan the box into the station (automatically opening the hatch). Derek (SW) wrote the code that allowed us to fulfil this. 

 Scanning a payload

Scanning a payload

Parallel to Derek working on the code, I built a cardboard model that incorporated a camera. The test was a success and excitement started to build up around the weird cardboard round structure on the wall. The scanning prototype was also used to decide on the right height and user angles of visibility.

 Ergonomic prototype

Ergonomic prototype

It was important to indicate to the user that their box has been scanned (visually and audio), as well as letting them know that something was happening inside the station. Lastly, the user had to be aware of when they can and can't approach the station. These were answered by integrating LEDs and a speaker. To allow for smooth manual retrieval of the box out of the station, I had no choice but "cutting a scoop" out of the station's general shape. This compulsion served the general design well since it created a more prominent focal point for the user.

 Interaction "scoop"

Interaction "scoop"

2. Simplifying the digital user experience

Simplifying the physical interaction was a great opportunity also to simplify our digital UX. Paolo (SW) and I delved into the basic flow of our user App and started eliminating unnecessary steps and adding basic functionality steps that the user needs when a station is in the mix. A basic send-receive screen and a QR code screen for box pickup were amongst the features that were added.

 New App wireframes

New App wireframes

 Scanning a phone  

Scanning a phone  

3. Form and function

The two things that I felt had to be done when it came to form, were making the handover area the center of the station and visually "breaking the mass" of the station.I tried a concept that covered the whole station with panels. The rounded soft form created a nonthreatening object but quite a boring one. 

 Old design

Old design

The manufacturing cost of all these panels would have been high and although the team loved this design, I didn't feel comfortable with it.

It was only after showing this to Paola (Co-founder and COO) that I understood that this is not the right design. Paola said "this is not you, Ido" and that led me to understand what I need to do. Going back to the idea of making the handover area the center, I decided to attract attention to it by differentiation.

 First render. Base + top

First render. Base + top

Making the base super simple would hopefully make it invisible and direct your eye to the top part. I slanted the top part to give it direction. The back part surface almost leads you to the front (inspired by Richard Serra)

 Back surface

Back surface

In the front, I merged the circle to a blended rectangle while always keeping in mind the user's visual line of sight.I broke the top part to four pieces at 45 degrees in order to simplify assembly and integrate lights.

4. Manufacturing and CMF

Considering the cost and timeline restrictions, it was clear that the top part would have to be manufactured using FDM technology and the bottom part sheet metal. Simplicity played a big role here as well since it was essential to hide all the fastening features and focus the user's visual attention on the interaction. I worked with Tom and Fred to find elegant assembly solutions that will allow us to keep a clean design. Vertical brushing and clear anodizing were the final touches to the base.

 Tom & Fred

Tom & Fred

 

"Eventually everything connects"

A long time ago I heard this quote by Charles Eames. How I interpreted it, was that often various things in the design process connect and a natural solution, for one thing, will often befitting naturally for other things. I started seeing it in the development process that I led and started looking for those connections more and more. Things like placing payload and battery in the center of the drone made sense for the center of gravity, visible payload, reduced weight and simplify automation down the road. In the station project, I saw that moving to an Aluminium base made it more apparent for the user to focus on interaction, visually break the mass, simplified maintenance and cut cost by half. Recently I discovered that I have only been exposed to a part of the quote, while the complete one goes:

"Eventually everything connects - people, ideas, objects. The quality of the connections is the key to quality per se"

After the initial shock of "living a lie" for so long, I realized how much more deep and inspiring this quote really is. I truly believe that without those connections and people who care about what they are doing, the outcome of this project would not have been as good. Sometimes for nondesigners, it's hard seeing the benefit of incorporating a design feature early in the process, a feature that might not necessarily make any engineering sense. I think that it's the designer's responsibility to create these social connections and work hard to acquire trust and inspire the team around them. The project presented many challenges and taught me several lessons. It is easy to oversee the user.  Designers always have to be a part of the process and it is never too late to save a project as long as you have diverse and caring people around you who want to do the right thing.

ido baruchin