Design through Coursera - Week 4 (and 5, 6 & 7)

This is the fourth in a series of posts about the Coursera course ‘Design: Creation of Artifacts in Society’.

So, despite best intentions, my aim of recounting each of the weeks of the Coursera design course separately has fallen afoul of other priorities. However, for those of you who are interested, here is a quick recap of the major things that were covered in weeks 4, 5, 6 and 7 of the course!

Week 4



  • In week 4 Professor Ulrich introduced us to concept selection - how to best pick between our concepts (visual explorations of possible solutions). If there are a large number of potential users, you need to have a systematic approach. Such an approach can also help with communicating the logic of your business decision to others (e.g. others within your organisation). A good method will also be self-documenting, which provides a reference for why you made a design decision

  • The Professor outlined how to use a concept selection matrix to compare the relative strengths and weaknesses of concepts. The criteria used for comparison include the key needs that you are seeking to address, in addition to cost/economic efficiency of delivering the artifact, the 'wow' factor, and elegance and beauty

  • There are a number of ways to use a scoring matrix, including whether you weight criteria or not, or what scale you use

  • The lectures also gave an introduction to prototyping including where the prototypes can be focused (you are only approximating the artifact in respect of one of its dimensions) or comprehensive, and analytical or physical

  • Prototypes are used to answer questions, to communicate, and to demonstrate milestones/progress. In terms of milestones, the language of alpha and beta prototypes are common. Prototypes serve as tangible demonstrations of where you are in the design process and are very hard to fake or bluff - they either work or they do not

  • The Professor demonstrated some of the prototyping approaches through examples he was constructing for improving on the ice-cream scoop as an artifact.


Week 5



  • Week 5 was a 'short' week due to the Thanksgiving Holiday in the US. It focussed on concept testing

  • The goal of concept testing is to discover the gap in user experience as early as possible and help answer the question of whether users will actually buy, adopt or use the design?

  • One means of doing this is through a concept test survey where you provide a description of the design concept to a group of users who represent the target audience and ask them on a five point scale from definitely not to definitely would, whether they would 'buy' or adopt the artifact

  • Interestingly, the more novel or different the concept you are looking at is, the more a text-based description will do for this purpose. Whereas if it you are seeking to introduce something into an already developed/mature 'market', then the more you need to provide a close approximation of the product, to help users differentiate and see what additional value you are trying to provide

  • Another technique is to use 'forced choice' where you make the user choose between several possible examples (whether they are all prototypes or your prototype and some of the existing products on the market)

  • In addition, Professor Ulrich outlined how to use forecasting to get a feel for whether it is valuable to proceed

  • Forecasting involves including the results of your survey(s) with an estimate of the total size of the market (for all products, not just your proposed product), the proportion of the market that you might be able to access, the fraction of users who said that they would definitely choose your artifact over others, and then discounting that rate to account for stated versus actual behaviour. The Professor noted that forecasts are notoriously inaccurate, but they are still helpful and give you some indication of the potential size of the market.


Week 6



  • In week 6, Professor Ulrich outlined the use of Innovation Tournaments as a means to get a match between a solution and a need. Tournaments are effectively structured competitions that pit ideas against each other and allow the best ones to move through to compete against other best ideas

  • Next the Professor gave an introduction to aesthetics in design. An aesthetic response is our immediate, involuntary, sensory (usually visual) response. The Professor noted that we, as humans, value things that are beautiful, so first impressions matter and should be considered in our designs

  • Professor Ulrich noted that the theory of aesthetics is rather limited but put forward a few areas to think about when designing, including the human attraction to gloss (supposedly based on the evolutionary advantage of being able to detect water, the only glossy thing in our evolutionary history), our attraction to all things cute or animate (as there was a clear evolutionary interest in responding positively to cute), and the entertainment we get from messing with our human 'physics computer' (the unexpected that differs from what our brain tells us will happen)

  • There are also cultural aspects to aesthetics - e.g. teenagers are attracted to objects that annoy their parents (linked to a supposed evolutionary advantage of distancing from adults)

  • The Professor emphasised that the theory of aesthetics is only just being developed, but that the keys to creating beautiful objects are to take care and notice, and to iterate like crazy!


Week 7



  • This week included an introduction to brands. Professor Ulrich noted that brands are integrally connected to artifacts, and are also artifacts in themselves

  • Brands serve as identifiers of the source of artifacts and can help reduce search costs for consumers. They also carry meaning or association and signal that meaning to others

  • Desirable attributes of brand names are that they are representative, evocative, easy to say, easy to remember (and preferably with unambiguous spelling), and that you have a legal and practical right to use the name

  • The Professor outlined how to use the design process to generate names, including using decomposition (using a list of chunks of relevant words that you can then manipulate and combine to create names)

  • He explained that the naming process can be quite frustrating and that you may often not be sure if the end product is good enough, but you need to proceed with something

  • The Professor wrapped up the week with an exploration of how the principles of the design process apply equally to the design of services, as opposed to purely physical objects.


The course finishes this week and I hope to do a wrap up post about what I learnt and some thoughts on massively open online courses as an innovation platform soon.