Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Design Patterns of Snow Removal

So I've taken a few weeks off to organize my work from the past year and plan out the year ahead. One of my primary goals for the year is to work with one or more of my classmates to develop a product design framework that could potentially stand as a foundation for a future consulting service, book, etc. It will focus on the processes of needs definition, solution ideation, and system design. If I play my cards right, development of this framework will be integrated into my classwork, and most importantly, during the time of my thesis. After all, if you're going to spend the time to write a 100-page research paper, it might as well serve some purpose after you graduate.

While the exact end state of the framework is still fuzzy, I am fairly certain that a "design patterns" approach will be critical to getting there. At least, I know that I feel most comfortable examining a complex space by organizing it into common trends and patterns. Modularization of like-minded components is generally seen as an effective method for simplifying complexity, and I don't see any reason why this approach isn't the best starting point. An example for this framework may include the organization of customer needs into patterns (e.g. Expectations, Needs, Nice-to-Have's) or even binning products themselves into the abstract concepts they are representing.

For today, I want to conduct a design exercise and explore design patterns within a given domain. There are two ways to do this - one is to examine an existing environment and define the design patterns that emerge and the other is to examine an existing environment and define the design patterns that could exist. If you're read anything on this blog, you'll know which one I'm going to choose (come'on.. new ideas are much more fun). Since we're expecting about 17 inches of snow in the Boston area tonight, I can't help but focus my attention on snow removal. What are the possible ways that snow can be removed? If you were the CEO of Toro, or hired by them as a design consultant, what are your options for new innovations? What does snow removal look like ten or twenty years out?

A few guidelines before we begin. The key is to create technology-agnostic design patterns. If you're talking about specific blade configurations, you've gone too deep. Design patterns should be abstract enough to leave room for creative technical solutions. Also, it's important to ignore legal, safety, and technical limitations for the time being. They kill creativity and they'll have plenty of chance to ruin the fun later in the design process. Finally, I recommend placing a couple constraints or boundaries. Used appropriately, they can generate creative tension that forces even the unimaginative into problem-solving mode.  For this exercise, I'm going to focus on driveway snow removal, since that's really the core problem of the average person.

A quick note about methods for documenting this type of work… I'm a huge advocate of the usage of mindmapping tools for this type of task. They are visual, fast, and flexible, and most importantly, mimic the logical structure of how we already organize information and ideas in our heads. This approach also forces unexpected connections, which is the hallmark of a good ideation process. If you're looking for a mindmap tool, my personal favorite is FreeMind, which is a free open source tool available at:  http://freemind.sourceforge.net/wiki/index.php/Main_Page
I've used it for organizing all of my work and class notes since November 2009.

So here goes…The Possible Design Patterns of Snow Removal. The patterns are in italics and the resulting design concepts are the sub-bullets of them.

Strategy 1
Snow Prevention by way of...

Heating ground
  • Design Concept: heated driveway

Heating surface of ground
  • Design Concept: heated blanket  + driveway
  • Design Concept: tube system that periodically emits heated puffs of air

Blocking snow
  • Design Concept: car port

Misdirecting snow
  • Design Concept: slanted roof 

Strategy 2
Snow Removal by way of...

Pushing snow
  • Design Concept: Plow
  • Design Concept: Shovel

Throwing snow
  • Design Concept: Snowblower
  • Design Concept: Shovel

Heating snow
  • Design Concept: Roomba + driveway (roving, autonomous, heated vehicle that periodically scans driveway for snow) 

There are clearly a range of other possible conceptual directions to go in here, but I think this is a start. Notice that we do little in terms of preventing snow, or at least removing it during its nascent stages. This is odd when you consider how easy it is to remove light snow cover by heat or physical movement, as opposed to how intensive it is to lift heavy snow banks. The next steps I would take would be to select a 4-5 unique design concepts and explore possible forms for each. While there probably wasn't anything revolutionary here from an innovation standpoint, I hope that it demonstrates the value of this methodology. If you're in the northeast, good luck with the snow tomorrow!


  1. You might be onto something with the comparison between how hard it is to move snow once it has fallen and how easy it is to move as it is falling. What if you had an oscillating fan placed outside at the beginning of the snowfall? Could that prevent snow from accumulating in the first place?

  2. Is second picture from Russia?