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User Research for Sustainability

MaDE student led interior design for House by Northwestern

The House by Northwestern team in front of Enable. Credit: House by Northwestern.The House by Northwestern team in front of Enable. Credit: House by Northwestern.
Interior of House by Northwestern. Credit: U.S. Department of Energy.Interior of House by Northwestern. Credit: U.S. Department of Energy.
Vivien Ng in front of the Enable house. Credit: House by Northwestern.Vivien Ng in front of the Enable house. Credit: House by Northwestern.

Vivien Ng is a junior majoring in Manufacturing and Design Engineering (MaDE) at Northwestern Engineering. MaDE is offered through the Segal Design Institute and teaches undergraduate students how to integrate design and manufacturing processes into an effective system for delivering value to the end user or marketplace.

For the past year and a half, Ng has been a part of the student team behind House by Northwestern (HBN). The team designed and built a sustainable, solar-powered house in Evanston named Enable. Construction was completed on the house in August and celebrated with a ribbon-cutting ceremony.

In October, the HBN team shipped the house to Denver, CO where they joined teams from eleven other universities for the U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon 2017. The U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon challenges student teams to design and build full-size, solar-powered houses. Northwestern’s team placed first in communications and market potential, and took third place in engineering.

Ng conducted the user research for HBN through a year-long independent study. During the independent study, she worked closely with Professor David Gatchell, director of the MaDE program, Maggie Waldron, the Director of Program Operations, Partnerships, & Communications for HBN, and Professor Dick Co, the Faculty Director for HBN.

In addition to Ng, other MaDE students played a role in making House by Northwestern a reality. Current MaDE students Brianna Downs and Nate Argosh contributed to the user-centered research. Steve Staley, a MaDE student, was a construction manager for the house. During the competition, Lincoln Oliver-O’Neil, a recent graduate of MaDE and Mechanical Engineering, flew out to Denver to assist the team.

Video Credit: House by Northwestern

We asked Ng to tell us more about her user research, her experience in the MaDE program so far, and what she hopes to do in the future.

Tell us a little about your work with House by Northwestern (HBN) during the year leading up to the ribbon-cutting ceremony.

Ng: I joined HBN has a User Research Team member in fall of 2016. My two other teammates and I conducted user interviews and home observations to understand what our target demographic -- Evanston Baby Boomers looking to downsize and age in place -- needed and valued in a home, how their home impacted their lifestyle and vice versa, and ultimately, what makes a house a home. Using a process called data coding, we converted our qualitative data into quantitative data, and produced requirements for each space in the house. In the winter of 2017, I transitioned into being the Interiors Lead, and worked to fulfill these requirements in our aesthetic, our layout, our finishes, and our furniture. I conducted further research using focus groups, mood boards, and shopping trips with users. In the spring, I led a team to detail everything, considering everything from sustainability [of materials used] to wheelchair accessibility. It was a lot of product research, design matrices, and documentation; I was out every weekend "hunting." I spent 10-15 hours a week or more on the project during the school year. Over the summer, I worked full-time, 37.5 hours per week.

When you look back on the year of user research you conducted, what stands out to you as especially interesting or meaningful about the process?

Ng: I loved talking to and getting to know the “old people,” as they describe themselves. They have so much wisdom and personality. They were very patient and encouraging throughout the entire process; I would say they were the team behind me when I didn't have a team in winter quarter. They drove me around, fed me, and advised me. Without having such great people to work with, I doubt the results of my research would've been so fruitful. And I really do feel like the relationship between my users and I will last beyond this project. 

How has MaDE shaped your experience doing user research for House by Northwestern?

Ng: I was only a sophomore when I started doing research, so I drew on what I learned in Design Thinking and Communication (DTC), like using a Gantt chart or RAM chart, or collecting data through interviews. I also took sketching classes that year with Professor Walter Herbst and Professor Greg Holderfield, which helped me create storyboards and sketches for the house. I think HBN will be shaping my MaDE career. I'll have all this experience before I even take the human-centered design classes. I look forward to applying these methods to new projects. 

What has been your favorite class in the MaDE program so far, or what class has helped you grow the most?

Ng: DSGN 399, the class I took three times over the year with Professor Gatchell for this project. It was tedious at times, but without Professor Gatchell’s insistence on having good documentation, I couldn’t have proved to the judges (or myself) that the decisions I made were research-based. And as a result, I think I'm more confident now. There were also times when I doubted myself and my abilities as a leader. Yes, I made mistakes, but I did it! And my teammates don't hate me or each other so I must have grown.

How do you feel about your experience working on House by Northwestern and making it to the national competition now that it's all over?

Ng: I'm probably in denial that it's over. I've bonded so much with my teammates that it feels weird not having to see them every week or every day for the project. We have to talk about normal things, like classes. And my users – I miss them! I'm planning to host a victory get-together with them. But all in all, I'm so proud of us and the work that we've done. I'm ready to discuss starting the 2020 team. Next time, we're taking first place!

In terms of engineering and design and what you're learning now at Northwestern, what do you hope to do in the future for work?

Ng: I'm curious to see how the same research process would apply to university interiors, like study spaces and dorms. I think that might be my next project. As for what I'd like to do for my job, I think product design would be cool. But I wouldn't want it to be sketching all day as much as I love to draw. I want to solve existing problems in the world, like "self-watering planters for college students who can't keep a cactus alive," and focus on user-centered design, asking questions like "Why haven't they paved that diagonal path through the Ford lawn even though people walk there all the time?"

If you are interested in learning more about House by Northwestern, visit their website or explore the photos and video footage of the house on their Facebook page.

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