Stories & Projects

Decoding Design


In their latest project, Daan Hekking and Marc Saboya ventured into unknown territory. Creating a collaborative robot for microbiologists became their greatest challenge to date.

Text: Jens Persson, May 2018

"In the beginning, we just felt stupid. Neither of us had even a basic concept of what we were supposed to achieve". Daan Hekking gives an honest account of the first few weeks of his latest project. On day one, he was thrown straight into the deep end. Before he knew it, he found himself immersed in the unfamiliar world of microbiology. The project brief, titled 'Next Generation Collaborative Robotics', had left him and his partner, Marc Saboya, confused. How do you even begin to create solutions for professionals in a field where you have no prior experience?

A good designer has to be curious, almost inquisitive to the point of greedy. Perhaps this is even more true for a student in product design, where one project never looks like the next. In order to design products that solve actual problems you simply have to get to know the user on a deeper level. That means extensive research, including countless interviews and field trips. There are, indeed, no shortcuts.

In this project, students were asked to explore new avenues for the use of collaborative robotics. The term 'collaborative robotics' refers to modern day robots found in a range of different work environments. These are robots that work together with humans, rather than beside them. The assignment, performed in collaboration with ABB, was to develop a new kind of robot that could improve the workflow in either of ABB's many different industries - ranging from agriculture to retail to medicine.

Marc Saboya believes humility is a truly essential trait in a designer. When approaching a topic that is largely foreign to you, it is likely even more important. "I think that when you enter a new project, especially if it's dealing with a topic that you're inexperienced in, you really shouldn't be scared to come across as stupid. When you're doing user research, asking the wrong question can actually give you important clues about peoples' behaviour. None of the information is useless, it's all part of the process", says Marc, who arrived in Umeå after a five year spell at an industrial design consultancy firm in Barcelona. It was the search for a more human-centered concept of design that made him finally uproot from his native Catalonia.

Dsc08029kopieMarc Saboya in conversation with microbiologists at the University Hospital of Umeå.

Daan Hekking, four years the junior of Marc, joined UID straight after his bachelor studies in the Netherlands. "When we first visited the microbiology lab here at Umeå hospital it was daunting, overwhelming really. Just trying to understand the basic processes of what actually goes on in a microbiology lab, from methods to terminology. But after a while we started asking questions that seemed to make sense to them. That's when we could begin to define what problems we wanted to solve".

From ping pong to robotics

The concept that Marc and Daan finally settled upon aims at improving the work environment of microbiologists, targeting the streamlining of a couple of monotonous tasks. According to Marc "49% of a clinical microbiologists' time in the laboratory is spent on repetitive tasks that demand little or no training" Here, Marc and Daan saw an opportunity to free up time so these professionals could do more qualified, analytical work in the lab. But first, in order to be able to create meaningful solutions, they had to get a clear grasp of what a day in the life of a microbiologist was like.

Daan explains. "Basically, microbiology is this. When you're sick, a doctor takes a sample of blood or urine from you and sends it to a microbiology lab. That sample will then be analyzed in order to see whether or not you have a bacteria that makes you sick. If it does, a microbiologist will recommend treatment accordingly, whether it's antibiotics or something else".

DSC07930A professional microbiologist preparing a plate sample in the laboratory.

"It is during the analysis of these samples that the work of the microbiologist is being undertaken. And, it's during these processes we tried to find ways to make the job easier, in order to help them dedicate their time to do what they were really trained for, qualified analytical work. Not monotonous chores."

Two key steps when analyzing samples are preparation and incubation. Both processes involve tedious repetitive tasks that most microbiologists would gladly swap for other activities in the lab. First, Marc and Daan targeted the preparation of the samples. They envisioned a two-armed robot designed to speed up these processes. The arms would move on a rail, able to pick up and drip fluids onto dishes and plates as well as transport them to the incubation area. The carefully designed back-and-forth process between microbiologist and robot was first inspired by a ping pong match between Marc and Daan. "I know it sounds a bit ridiculous but it actually informed our thinking on the interaction between man and robot, as we sought to make it a true collaboration", says Daan.

DSC08409An early lego-protptype of the two-armed robot designed by Daan and Marc.

The second part of Marc and Daan's creation was less inspired by rubber-coated rackets and celluloid balls. Their research had told them a lot of time was spent checking samples, or reading plates to use the vernacular of microbiologists. They have to go back and forth to the incubation area, where the bacteria or fungi on the plates grow, to see if there have been any developments. In an effort to evolve this station, Marc and Daan developed a responsive system where samples are photographed during intervals. Instead of manually monitoring the plates, the built in sensors signal when significant changes have taken place in individual dishes.

"Today, if you want to check if there is any growth in a specific sample you have to take it out of the fridge-like appliance. You then have to repeat this process with each single sample. Through the product we developed you can monitor the growth from a screen and the system itself can identify when the bacterial growth has reached its critical point." says Daan.

Marc cites their own research as the driver behind targeting this specific problem. "During our desk and field research, we found that plate reading takes up to 25% of a microbiologist's time. It was clear that this was an area where we could help save time, and in the end allow these medical professionals to treat more patients"

A product's tale

People's idea of where design comes from often doesn't extend beyond the shiny images of the end product. In this case a futuristic robot with rotating arms. But however small, all products have a story to tell. It's the tale of how a particular gadget, item or thing came to be. The basic arc of the process is surprisingly similar in most cases. At UID, it starts with the brief.

"On day one, week one, we get our brief. In this case it was to explore the design space of the next generation of collaborative robotics. For the first week or so we investigated individually and then presented to each other some basic first thoughts and ideas. At this stage it's very free thinking", says Daan. 

"Next, we present our own areas of interest to the class and teachers. Then you start discussing and negotiating to find a partner with aligning interests. Both me and Marc veered towards the area of medicine and we asked each other 'what do you want to learn?', 'what methods do you want to use?'. The more we talked we realized that the both of us wanted to explore areas and methods that we hadn't used before"

For the next couple of weeks Marc and Daan tried to hone in on what their product was going to be, which problem they wanted to solve. After a lot of research and a number of interviews, including quite a few trips to a microbiology lab, they had identified a couple of weak links in the workflow of microbiologists. But how do you go from identifying a problem to coming up with a fully-fledged product that solves that very problem? Well, you start by trying to generate creative ideas using a number of techniques. Through brainstorming, provocation, storyboarding, prototyping and sketching - to name only a few - Marc and Daan attacked the problem from all angles, trying to be as imaginative and original as possible. Using design lingo, it's quite simply the ideation phase.

DSC08388Daan Hekking adjusts a prototype of the multi-jointed robotic arm. 

"Our ideation phase kicked off with a workshop with the whole class, hoping to open up a few ideas. After that me and Daan performed a design sprint for a week. It includes five steps; summarizing what you know, ideating, summarizing the ideation, prototyping it and then finally we went to the microbiology lab to validate these ideas together with the professionals. The whole process is a quick way to solidify your ideas for later", says Marc

"Then we presented the three ideas that came from all that work to the class. Two of those ideas would become the combined solutions for preparation and incubation that we later ended up with. Getting feedback on that presentation - from our classmates, the teachers, the external tutors and ABB - is so important for stepping out of your bubble. It helped us immensely."

At the halfway point of the ten-week project it was time to define in detail what actions the robot would perform and how the collaboration between man and machine could be developed. Enter role playing. Marc would assume the role of the robot while Daan transformed into the microbiologist. Using only rough prototypes, made from cardboard and plastic, they would engage in hypothetical situations modelled on what they had observed in the lab.

Vlcsnap 2017 12 14 19H01m25s273A birds-eye view of the role playing. In the role of the microbiologist Daan Hekking poses challenges to the robot, played by Marc Saboya.

Marc believes role playing is a vital tool in order to fully step into the shoes of the user. "It's more real than a simple sketch exercise and it helped us define the limits and boundaries of the project. How big does the workspace have to be? How do these prototypes transform into real solutions? It pushed us into the phase of creating the 3D computer models for the actual prototype".

They now spent eight grueling days, and in some cases nights, modelling the prototype. 3D modelling is an opportunity to get into the finer details of the project, concerning choices tied to aesthetics and materials. Their final product is a massive construct, two meters high and three meters wide, which led Marc and Daan to split up and model simultaneously on separate computers. It was the only way if they were to have a shot at finishing on time. Late on a Saturday evening they concluded the 3D models. This gave them just less than two weeks to produce a video - a key part of the brief - as well as preparing the main oral presentation. Needless to say, it was a stressful time.

Streaking701A 3D rendering of the finished product, the Colab robot, in action. 

"The whole project was intense, for sure, but fun as well. I think we're both better designers for it", says Marc.

Cracking the code 

For all the flashiness of a perfectly rendered 3D model or the satisfaction of unveiling a refined final prototype, the lure of the design profession seems to boil down to understanding and probing the human condition. At least if you ask Marc and Daan.

"For me, understanding humans is always the most interesting part of the process. To delve into different aspects of human behavior while creating ideas and making the early prototypes, that's really exciting", says Marc.

Daan is in agreement. It's not really about the final design for either of them. "It's really not about execution for me, it's more the process of coming up with a solution that fits someone's lifestyle, that can make a real difference. Research and idea development, the early phase of the process is what gives me most gratification" 

It makes sense really. Cracking that code for the first time, coming up with a solution that no one has thought of before, is a powerful motivation. For most designers, it's the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. But, it rarely happens in a single moment. The solution is almost always born out of the process.

"You have to challenge yourself constantly in this profession, in every project. To me, that's what UID is all about. In each new project you need to keep an open mind if you want to understand something quickly and still be able to make a difference. It really motivates me, cracking that code. It's a big part of the challenge and the adventure of being a designer" says Marc.