Time flies and I’m already counting down to the end of the first semester. Christmas break does not exist in China, and the combination of just above zero degrees centigrade and the palm trees outside the apartment windows make me feel a bit bewildered on what part of the year we’re in. But I think I’m starting to get the hang of studies at the College of Design and Innovation at Tongji, and I’ll try to explain it to you.
College of Design and Innovation, or D&I for short, is a design school. There is no engineering degree involved and few students with engineering backgrounds. This needs to be stressed, as I didn’t realize it until several weeks after starting my studies here. As my home university is Chalmers University of Technology, a university which, with a few exceptions, has engineering programmes. I studied Industrial Design Engineering for my bachelor’s and will continue with Interaction Design and Technologies master’s when I get back. But at Tongji, those programmes are just Industrial Design and Interaction Design respectively, losing the engineering touch. Is it a big deal? Not really, but it is important to be aware of to minimize friction in project groups and better understand the courses’ aim. The upside to this revelation is the diversity compared to the sometimes “techy” approach at Chalmers. Suddenly project teams are made up of people with design, mechanical engineering, business design, graphics design and other backgrounds.
My courses so far at D&I consists of User Research and Design Innovation, User Experience Design and Interaction Design Studio, the first two being focused on research and the last one on prototyping. They all tie on to to the now mainstream design thinking and user-centered design principles. I am quite used to these concepts by now, but with the new perspective in China and another university has definitely given it all a lot of value to me.
User Research and Design Innovation was a course focused on deep understanding of users, while also bringing some prototyping in the end phase. I choose this course as its description closely resembled one of the courses at Chalmers, even though one could argue that I already have taken enough of similar courses in my bachelor’s. The focus was a bit different this time though. Project groups were made up of two students, at least one being Chinese. The assignment was to find and get to know a citizen at least 60 years old and develop a simple product to ease any part of his or her everyday life. As this is in China, this almost certainly meant working throughout the course with someone only speaking Chinese. Which in turn meant that I had to apply all I knew about interviewing through my project partner. Even though I never understood more than 5 % out of hours of conversation this turned out to be a very rewarding experience. I got to step into the home and life of a Chinese man, 84-year old, ex-military officer, revolution participant, engineer and father of two sons. I doubt I’d have gotten that experience without this course. In terms of actual design knowledge and teaching the course was somewhat lacking in structure, with much of the theory for analysis being presented way to late. It also had some unbalance in research contra results, with an initial statement of focusing on deep understanding while a lot of the workload lay on creating and testing evaluating a prototype. Overall it was a course that relied a lot on whether or not you found a cooperative and interesting user.
In User Experience Design our examiner was a young guy with a PhD from TU Delft, meaning his background is somewhat similar to many of our lecturers at Chalmers as TU Delft has been a huge inspiration for the Chalmers programme. This course was a collaboration with Phillips Lightning. The company set the boundaries and directions for the product development and also provided weekly feedback. Halfway through this course I wrote the previous blog post, and I still believe the course had too many hours of presentation. But the feedback was nice and we made steady progress throughout the course. Mainly we started by comparing offline and online shopping user experiences, while later focusing on pain-points in the online experience of buying luminaires and light fixtures. We were supposed to stop at early concepts, but from my perspective I would say many groups went further into prototyping (the aim of the follow up course). This was perhaps the biggest drawback of this course, managing the expectations of Philips versus our examiner, which unfortunately weren’t always the same. The best part was the opportunity to go on many company visits, getting to see both Continuum Innovation and Frog Design among several others. This was a great motivation both for the course and for my studies in general.
Interaction Design Studio is a follow up to the previous one, focusing on the second half of product development. We got a design brief from Microsoft this time, and used a very random way of simulating our user research using lottery wheels and emotions. As this course is part of the Interaction Design master’s at D&I we are focusing on designing the interaction. This is somewhat different to me, even though I have had several courses involving human-machine-interaction. So far it continues the path of having a lot of company visits, which is always fun and most of the time rewarding. What troubles me is that we, halfway through, still haven’t had any lecture on theory, or any real feedback session. I feel like I am not really learning anything about design, more than using some tools like 3D-printing to make our prototypes. I hope we will get the tempo up for the second half and actually learn some new stuff. Still, working with the international teams and mixed backgrounds makes for interesting life knowledge that will be useful as soon as I join any multinational company.
Comparing D&I and Chalmers I feel like the workload in the courses is way less at D&I, and the focus is on presentations and products more than reports and user research findings. Due to the inevitably more time consuming and exhausting project work with people with different perspective, ideas and language I am happy that the actual expected output is less than what I’m used to. Otherwise it could easily have been overwhelming. I learn a lot about how real design firms work, teamwork and Chinese work culture. For the spring semester I wish for a bit more theory mixed in, so that we can get some really great projects going.
Next time, I’ll write about the even more diverse Sino-Finnish center, which mixes all disciplines in design projects during evening classes.