Designing Dell: Dell’s Industrial Design team talks turkey with media

Dell’s hardware designers explain their original mandate, to turn Dell from a follower to a leader in product innovation, and discuss their design philosophy and principles that underlay the large degree of success they have in this area now compared to a decade ago.

Ken Musgrave Dell 400

Ken Musgrave, Director of Industrial Design and Usability at Dell

ROUND ROCK — Dell believes that while it has some of the most innovative technical design processes in the IT industry, they haven’t done a good job at promoting themselves in this area. As a result, the company designated this Thursday as Enterprise Innovation Day, A group of media was whisked in to Dell’s Austin and Round Rock based campuses to visit Dell’s labs and data centres – some of which had previously never been opened to media – and to talk with senior Dell engineers and designers about the company’s technology investments.

Dell’s Industrial Design team designs the company’s core hardware building blocks, from the most modest devices to the high end enterprise systems. All the hardware goes through the one design group. These building blocks are then crafted into solutions by other groups. Ken Musgrave, Director of Industrial Design and Usability at Dell, who has run the group since it was first formed back in 2006, explained the logic behind its formation.

“The feedback from customers then was that we were a PC company dabbling in the enterprise space, and they did have a point,” Musgrave said. These were still the days when Dell was not seen as a leader in anything except being able to sell at rock bottom prices, They were experts in supply chain innovation, not product innovation, and the company wanted to change that.

“We started this group to understand what enterprise big iron computing needs to be in the future,” Musgrave said. “We began by understanding how users perceived our products. They told us they could tell the difference between pulling a hard drive out of a Dell, compared to pulling one out of IBM – and we weren’t the best. We needed to do a better job of creating order in our thinking, designing products like they were meant to live together.” That meant, for example, that products were redesigned so that cables were all on the sides that most conveniently connected with companion products, something that had not been done previously.

“It meant that on a blade server, we spent more time defining the back of the system than the front,” Musgrave said. “We looked for ways to bind elements and families together, because we hadn’t been very good at this.”

Ten years later, Musgrave said this is now a strength, which differentiates it from its competition.

“We have shifted from trying to create enterprise credibility to maintaining it,” he said.

Musgrave said their design philosophy revolves around satisfying three reads. The first read requires simply the ability to determine at a glance that the product is a Dell datacentre product.

“With the second read, you want to be able to see continuity around user interfaces, and with the third read, when you go into the product and start interfacing with it, we want it to be so that if you know one product, you know all of them,” he said. “That’s why we put more effort on interiors of the systems than the outside of the system.”

The result today is a great amount of cross-pollination and consistency in design across product lines.

“Inside our Alienware PCs, you see a lot of DNA from our workstations, and inside our workstations, you see a lot of DNA from our enterprise products,” Musgrave said.

“What we are trying to cement in is stability,” Musgrave added. “We want to see continuity and stability. That doesn’t mean we won’t update our designs – we do. But there are elements we want to keep the same across generations in design.” He compared that philosophy with HP’s major design of their ProLiant server between generations.

Tom Deelman Dell 300

Tom Deelman, director of user experience, Enterprise Experience Design Group, at Dell

“It’s no secret we have built our enterprise business with acquisitions, like Compellent and EqualLogic,” said Tom Deelman, director of user experience, Enterprise Experience Design Group, at Dell. He said that in integrating acquired products into the Dell design, the main philosophy is to do no harm, “to harvest the goodness and help out where we can.

“If we do our jobs right, things will be invisible in terms of consistency in design of the products,” he said. “We will test it and find out what works the best and design it across the whole of the portfolio. If we don’t do that right, red flags go up.”

Deelman said they continually test all products with customers, in two ways.

“One is to spend time in the field, and the other is to bring the field into a controlled environment of usability labs,” he said. “This lets us find out the good, bad and ugly of a particular product, and that sets out our compass on how to go. In controlled environments, where we test our products against the competition, and customers don’t know a product is us, we can often get more accurate observations.”

Scott Lauffer Dell 300

Scott Lauffer, director, Enterprise Industrial Design, at Dell

“When it comes to user interface, ten years ago we were a follower, and now we see people copying us consistently,” said Scott Lauffer, director, Enterprise Industrial Design, at Dell. “Especially in the enterprise, we try to drive consistency in our products. For hot-swapple products, we always use a terracotta indicator, and for cold-swapple it’s blue. Colour in the data centre is driven a lot by functionality and consistency, which makes the learning curves a lot shorter. It also builds equity in our brand because it’s recognizably Dell. For example, our 2U servers are one of the most recognizable icons in the industry today.”

Colour on the outside of the box is a separate issue.

“In consumer, in commercial and in the data centre, people say they want colour — and then they buy black,” Musgrave said. He said retail research in stores with a whole spectrum of colours shows the same thing, that customers are drawn to colours, but they still buy black.”

“We brought out pink PCs and pink notebooks and we will continue to do things like that in the future,” Musgrave added. “But going to market with colours, we just haven’t seen the demand stick. We also want to use naturals. Native aluminum is silver in colour. Native carbon is black.”

Musgrave spoke with pride about how Dell has successfully designed carbon into their devices, using the XPS 13 launched this year at CES as his example.

“It took us years to perfect the carbon fibre, and we are unique in the way we do it, with the weave exposed in a three dimensional form,” he said. “We actually knocked the weave back a little bit because it would be over the top. We started it with one product and it will be on eight or nine by the end of the year.” He noted that this would include particularly interesting products in the tablet space.

Asked if they were playing with new materials, Musgrave replied emphatically – “YES, but we cannot tell you what they are. There is no point in doing carbon when you don’t need carbon, because it’s really expensive, so we use it mainly in mobile products. Some of the other things we are doing are to get weight out of the systems.”

Ultimately, when it comes to design, the Dell team stressed that less is more.

“We are successful if we deliver less design, with more automation, and more of a single pane of glass approach to systems design,’ Deelman said. “That should equate to a customer managing their business better. It’s a lot harder to achieve that, bloating up with features and functionality, and that’s a huge design challenge for us.”

“Simplicity is hard to do,” Musgrave concurred.