D-Ford is rethinking UX—and saving lives in the process

4 min read
Tom Lucido
  •  Nov 23, 2020
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One million face shields can roughly supply one for every twenty-five doctors and nurses worldwide. Production of that magnitude takes a tremendous amount of ingenuity, coordination, and, ideally time. But because of the Covid-19 crisis, time was a luxury no one could afford. Manufacturing personal protective equipment (PPE) was of highest priority and became an all-hands-on-deck effort. Across the world, major manufacturers moved quickly to lend their capabilities. Ford Motor Company in particular had a history of stepping up during crises.

“We made bombers for the US military during World War II. We made iron lungs for children during the polio epidemic,” says Jeff Sturges, prototype design lead at Ford.

The 117-year-old automotive company pivoted to change their manufacturing plans—something that would usually take weeks or months—in just a matter of days. As plants paused production and office employees were sent home, teams from across the company chimed in offering to help on “Project Apollo”—an initiative to produce PPE to combat the spread of disease.

New leadership and new ideas

Our story starts well before Covid, back in the 1990s when Jim Hackett was a CEO at the office furniture manufacturer Steelcase. During his tenure, Hackett fostered a partnership with design consulting firm IDEO, exposing him to the importance of understanding a customer’s challenges before solving them. He set off on a mission to close the gap between user experience and product development, a unique approach which proved him to be a successful leader.

Fast forward two decades and Hackett sits on the board of directors at Ford Motor Company, overseeing the formation of their Smart Mobility program. Smart Mobility aimed to look at and understand how people and goods would move in the future —an interesting question in a space catching the attention of nimble start-ups obsessed with emerging technology. Four years later, in 2017, Hackett was tapped as the next CEO of Ford.

Design thinking was already underway at Ford and gaining popularity with c-suite execs who were recognizing its potential to differentiate Ford in this transformative era for auto companies. During this period, Ford hired Sandy Fershee, a design thinking consultant who built and led design teams at Motorola and at design agencies, to grow and lead a team focused on designing experiences for future products and services. This team would later formalize itself as D-Ford and serve as the heartbeat of Ford’s new human centered design approach.

The charter was simple, but ambitious: “We drive human progress through creativity and design. And a key part of our mission is to help everyone at Ford learn and adopt new tools to make us better at how we think and what we do.”

“We made iron lungs for children during the polio epidemic”

Jeff Sturges
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Fershee and her team were tasked to create, staff, and build Labs in Detroit, London, Palo Alto, Shanghai, and Melbourne to address three goals:

  1. Help teams across Ford in building empathy for customers of today and tomorrow.
  2. Determine opportunities and inform the development of winning strategies using human-centered design methodologies.
  3. Build confidence and optionality in business decisions through early and rapid trial and error.

Early on, the group helped teams across the company improve their products and, as Fershee puts it, “create seamless ecosystems that helped address Ford customers’ problems in new ways.” In one key example, user research led the team to discover that many Ford truck owners rely on their vehicles for work. The team observed people working inside their truck in a variety of ways throughout the day and created many prototypes to experiment with ways to create a more productive environment for their mobile office. For example, the team created seating and surfaces for people to work on a laptop or other mobile device and easily view and read documents and blueprints.

Design thinking in a global pandemic

When Covid struck, the D-Ford team approached this highly-urgent problem the same way they would any other—following the design thinking process. At every stage of development, they leveraged the best practices and principles available to any collaborative team.

Principle #1: Customer centricity

Although harder to do in the midst of a pandemic, D-Ford team members started where they always do: customer interviews to develop empathy. They leveraged personal interactions with doctors, nurses, and healthcare professionals i.e. their “customers”. Through these interviews, the need was clearly defined: Shortages of PPE put healthcare workers and patients at risk of infection. D-Ford needed to identify a viable model that could sufficiently protect the wearer and be produced at a capacity that would make an impact.

D-Ford made a conscious effort to communicate with their end users early and often through development, as we see here between Jeff Sturges, prototype design lead at Ford, and a healthcare worker.

Principle #2: Ideation

Over the next 24 hours, the team expanded their idea of user research. Instead of diving into ideation, they shaved time off the process by researching already-existing designs that might solve the problem. This was done in parallel with brainstorm sessions over video calls and experiments with mockup prototypes built from items readily available at home.

Brainstorm sessions lead to more ideas, which can later be narrowed down based on feasibility and effectiveness.

Manilla folders, pool noodles, and other objects acted as face shield pieces, which quickly exposed the strengths and weaknesses of their proposed designs. Only 24 hours after the customer interviews, the D-Ford team identified a viable prototype made by the University of Wisconsin, designed to be manufactured from off-the-shelf stock materials.

Principle #3: Experiment and test

On Friday, the team conducted the interviews. By Saturday they’d begun prototyping in the shop and testing the following day. They iterated their design on Monday, and on Tuesday had their first 2,000 face shields driven to local hospitals.

Rapid prototyping and testing provide the framework for iterating and improving designs.

When healthcare workers gave their feedback, the design proved to be effective—only needing a few tweaks. The next phase was to move into mass production. To do this they’d need to overcome material and process hurdles.

Principle #4: Collaboration

Leveraging Ford’s global supplier network and class-leading manufacturing operations, the production of face shields was able to quickly scale and adapt despite supply chain challenges.For example, when production ran into supply shortage, calls to materials experts across Ford yielded unconventional fixes like replacing elastic with rubber hoses that are normally used to seal car doors and windows.

Outside perspectives often provide alternative solutions, in Project Apollo’s case, for better materials and more efficient systems of production.

With these changes in place, production was running smoothly, but the assembly process bottlenecked the entire operation. Once again, the team designed an insights-based workaround: Rather than finish assembly before shipping, they could leave the stapling for the customer to complete at the hospital. By the end of the first week, they’d made hundreds of thousands, which would soon ramp up to over a million ready-to-assemble face shields per week.

Principle #5: Bias towards action

Project Apollo’s work didn’t end there. As production scaled and requests rolled in, the team realized that they would need to create their own distribution system to quickly identify and deliver face shields to the most hard-hit areas. Team members from the business design craft stepped in to create and manage distribution, gathering requests, prioritizing orders, and planning and tracking distribution on a digital map that overlaid Covid-19 hotspots.

Design thinking is an extremely hands-on approach to problem-solving favoring action over discussion. This map helped get the products to healthcare workers faster and more efficiently.

In essence, the team didn’t see the problem as “solved” until customers had the product in hand.

What comes next

“When you can bring a human-centered design toolkit to a challenge like Covid, what else is possible?”

Sandy Fershee
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While the pivot was quick and stressful, the D-Ford team rose to the challenge and are grateful for the lessons learned. Sturges calls the experience one of the shining moments of his career. Project Apollo exemplified the value that design thinking practices offer in driving efficiency. His team is currently analyzing ways to recreate that same level of rapid ingenuity in their everyday work. A large part of that is utilizing tools like InVision to share ideas quickly. Since the team can’t work in the same space right now, an always-updated single source of truth that all members can easily access is key to staying aligned as quickly as possible.

And they’re not the only ones taking notice. Fershee says that although Ford is a huge enterprise, teams across the organization are looking to learn from the D-Ford experience.

“When you can bring a human-centered design toolkit to a challenge like Covid, what else is possible?” She says. “Even if you start small, it catches on and people want to be part of it. The impact grows.”

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