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Future Engineers Learning Product Design

Updated: Jun 27, 2023

Pre-college US students vie in the Robot Design Challenge

Cross-posted on Medium

"Design a robot that will make someone smile"

Note how the main objective is not a) that it works, b) that it looks like a robot, or even c) that it stays together for more than one demonstration. None of the above.

The main objective is to make it spur a certain response - a smile from a human who watches it in action. Achieving this end forces the students to go beyond technical expertise to build something that produces a specific response from a (non-robot) human.

Designing and building -- with purpose.

These engineers will need to think first about what kinds of observations cause that specific response - in this case, a smile. Nothing is said here about additional responses like laughing, pointing fingers at the robot, jumping up and down. All of these responses are more complex than a smile, which expresses simple but fundamental human emotions.

Key considerations

  • User: Who is your robot for? Consider who your robot is built for and why it will make them smile.

  • Task/s: What will your robot do? Will it perform one or more functions?

  • Physical Design: What will your robot be made out of? How will your robot’s design effectively complete its task/s? Will it be automated, or does it have a controller?

Judging criteria

Half the "grade" is about the effect the robot has on the user/observer, and that effect must be the one specified in the main objective: "Design a robot that will make someone smile"




The likelihood of your design to make someone smile


Communication of your robot’s design through image(s)/illustration(s) and text


Creativity and originality of your design

Brainstorming and Design

The first two suggested activities below comprise robot requirements.

Brainstorming - The User

  1. A list of who you want to design a robot for

  2. What makes each of them smile

  3. Pick one to design a robot for. The person you are designing for is your "user"

Note that none of these ask "what makes YOU smile". These young engineers are not designing a robot for their own delight.

These students must think about other people and create a custom robot for that person. In Big Time robot development, the builders need to think about more than one person. They need to think about a category of people. They are grouped into "archetypes", sometimes called "personas".

Then these builders must guess how to describe the unique characteristics of people in these categories. Next, they test to see if they're right and how they're wrong and discover categories and characteristics they didn't think of before.

This is called "research". In this process the students might use assets to test ideas with people who might represent these categories. These assets might be a storyboard that shows the design in action (but without showing a human response - you want to know how these people really feel). The asset could also be a crude drawing or a paper version. The idea is to present assets that are raw enough that people feel free to comment on the concept or design in ways that might better achieve the objective.

More brainstorming - Robot Purpose

Now that the students have identified what this one person smiles at, they know what aspects of a design to build. Note that I didn't say "do what this person wants them to do". As budding engineers, these students need to build things that help people be themselves in natural ways.

In this competition, robot aspects are hinted at. The competition organizers suggest a robot that produces a surprising and joyful action such as spraying glitter or blowing bubbles. Other robot behaviors mentioned are doing "a helpful task". Or adding sounds.

In my experience, it's very easy to later forget about the research and just see what the robot could do. That's fine, to just see if you can make a mechanical or digital thing do something.

Along the way, though, these prototypes and early designs should be periodically tested with the target user, the person the student wants to make smile. Periodic exposure to the latest ideas might cause different reactions or the person might even have suggestions the students hadn't thought of.

Otherwise, students could end up with a robot that does not in fact achieve the main objective: "Design a robot that will make someone smile".

Being able to say that the goal was to make a certain kind of user smile and that a robot successfully produces that effect is an engineering win.

See. UX Research fits perfectly in the engineering process after all.

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