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Focused Design: A Better Fit For the Modern Customer

Ed Boyd (ward), VP of Design, Dell
Ed Boyd (ward), VP of Design, Dell

Ed Boyd (ward), VP of Design, Dell

At this moment, there are two primary factors driving the latest developments in enterprise technology landscape. First, there is a need for information in places that we wouldn’t have dreamed of 10 years ago. Second, there’s been a realization that enterprise technology users want form and function. They’re fully accustomed to sleek and intuitive products that they use at home or carry with them. Millennials have grown up in a world where products like this are the norm. For them, normal also means knowing where products come from with an eye toward where they go after they’re no longer useful.

Naturally, those expectations have arrived at the workplace and enterprise technology has largely become indistinguishable from consumer technology.

A total “one-size-fits-all” approach does not always provide the best solution for diverse needs. In response, we’ve moved towards more tailored solutions to better meet the needs of diverse customers.

Of course, each one has to be made thoughtfully and made well, so our staff has grown to over 100 specialists with diverse backgrounds and expertise to correspond with those needs. There are material scientists, market and trend researchers, user interface designers, package designers, behavioral psychologists, ethnographers, and architects in labs and studios located not just in Round Rock and Austin but also in Amsterdam, Singapore, and Taiwan. It’s tricky to grasp what makes an experience intuitive and we rely on varied perspectives to pinpoint it.

"A total 'one-size-fits-all' approach does not always provide the best solution for diverse needs"

Anticipating customers’ needs five years before they arrive and meeting them there is similarly challenging. The only way to do that is to know the customer and know what is essential to their performance. Here’s an example that serves a very specific customer set: Rugged Solutions. If you work outside, you need durable tools. People in these situations are wearing gloves, getting wet, or reading a screen in direct sunlight. Pile on other environmental challenges like extreme temperatures, humidity, or altitudes and you have a substantial list of demands on their hardware.

Our R&D took time to maximize the form factor of this product, and our solution was a full redesign. The result included an ultrapolymer shell for shock absorption and compression gasketing for water and dust resistance. We reduced glare to limit backlight reliance and maximize battery life. And these lighter, thinner devices fit the character of the jobs they’re used for: they look tough yet practical. Our goal is to help people be more productive and enjoy using these tools. Creating the right tools for the job is essential to that objective.

That product could be a good fit for a soldier out in the de­sert but not for our end users who are visual effects designers at movie studios. Horizontal design doesn’t make sense when you put those two people side by side. The VFX editor wants power at his or her fixed workstation. When they’re away from it they’re going to employ a thin, head-turning mobile work­station that meets the graphics requirements of their work and presents it on a screen that does it justice.

Creative professionals with robust computing demands, but also some very specific constraints in many cases–workspace being one. Some, let’s say an engineer or designer for an automotive company, require very large amounts of computing power that put a great deal of strain on the internal components and sometimes require liquid cooling which presents its own set of challenges. After testing a number of configurations to maximize the performance and reliability of our fixed workstations, we arrived at a completely reconfigured internal structure to our fixed workstations that maximized performance and allowed them to keep a modest profile by maintaining an air-cooled structure. It comes back to recognizing the specific needs of an end user and finding a way to meet them. One of the costs is time-to-market swiftness but if you’re out in front of those needs, you’ve won back that time spent in R&D.

Crucially, there’s a big-picture way of keeping pace with customer needs and new technologies: by abandoning the linear, cradle-to-grave product philosophy employed by the old school. It’s not sustainable.

Our belief in a circular economy is that being good stewards of the environment is good business. There are opportunities in our products once they’ve reached functional obsolescence so we provide free recycling collection in 78 countries. We know these materials intimately and so we know how to repurpose them.

Some of those materials are turned into computers made with UL-Environment certified closed-loop recycled plastic.

Packaging is low-hanging fruit when it comes to increasing sustainability and saving money. With our partnership with bio-tech start-up, Newlight Technologies, we’re pulling greenhouse gases out of the air to create a plastic material called AirCarbon. The carbon-negative material has a net positive impact on the environment with the added benefit of being less pricey than oil-based plastic packaging. It’s another step toward our goal of 100 percent sustainable packaging by 2020 that’s right on the heels of a previous effort to employ bamboo and wheat straw materials into our ecosystem. Those lighter materials also saved the company some $18 million.

In our view, sustainability is a business as well as an environmental issue. Consumers expect piece of mind along with great design and practical functionality when they open a new device. It takes time, awareness, and innovation for designers to deliver that. In either case–we take care in designing to meet customer needs great and small. And in today’s environment, we think that’s the only way to design for our customers.

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