In 2011 I was a judging panellist for the Australian International Design Awards, and something I said ended up as a quote in the awards yearbook: “If an object speaks for itself, then people know what to do with it.”
On Australia Day this year I had my first child. After a tough 24 hours, my wife and I relaxed enough to consider watching the Australian Open Men’s Final from the hospital bed. But no tennis was watched that night. None.
The problem? The excruciating design of the TV system. In all honesty, I cannot recall experiencing poorer design in my life.
No button on any bed attachment anywhere would turn on the TV, so, made to feel foolish, we pressed the nurse button. The nurse came, disowned the TV, gave us two pages of instructions, and ran for the door.
Get this: the TV can only be operated by first using the phone, not the remote with a ‘TV’ button on it. What twisted mind would naturally make such an association? It made the TV virtually inoperable.
You first register your patient number on the phone inside the room. Then you pay your money at a vending machine outside the room. Then you turn on the TV. It took me half an hour to get to that point—me, an engineering graduate. Once registered, you reach for the separate remote (not the nurse one, and not the one that moves the bed up and down) to press the ‘TV’ button (which didn’t work the first time around).
I pressed the button and nothing happened. Exhausted, I picked up the phone again and rang the helpline (at least the phone is used as a phone). The person on the other end looked us up in the system and told us that there was a problem with the TV in that room from the very beginning.
No one had bothered to simply write ‘Out of order’ on the TV to avoid a half hour of infuriation. Their communication was as poor as their design, and I wasn’t surprised. Design and communication go hand in hand, which is why good communication is so important in engineering.
I find that engineering and communication intersect at three levels. At a superficial level, presenting your work informs stakeholders, and this is usually required on complex projects. A little deeper, persuasive communication can build support for your ideas from those same stakeholders, thereby giving your engineering a greater chance of success.
Deeper still though, engineering that is intuitive and compelling in its own right speaks for itself. Great engineering design communicates its function without needing an explanation, and this requires empathy and communication with users. Developing your communication skills may seem like an added bonus, but it often shows in the engineering that you do, making it part of the main game.