Design Thinking Via the Robotic Glockenspiel Project

Now that the glockenspiel is working and in a case, this post is about what I’ve learned about Design Thinking through my Robotic Glockenspiel project.

Caveat: since I didn’t apply formal Design Thinking to the project, I’m going to be shamelessly revisionistic in order to talk about how the project would have been better via Design Thinking.

The Design Thinking steps we use at work are:

  • Gain Empathy
  • Develop Insights
  • Ideate
  • Get Feedback
  • Prototype
  • Test

A brief history of the project

  1. I was a music nerd as a toddler, then a band geek in late grade school and early Jr. High; then a vocalist from late Jr. High through adulthood. I love music.
  2. In the deep past I was charmed by music boxes and by The Mighty Wurlitzer at The Organ Grinder pizza in Portland Oregon.
  3. In 2003 I wrote a project note something like “make a circuit to play a toy xylophone”. And there it sat for years, awaiting something to help break through the inertia. I’d used PIC chips, but they were time consuming to use. I’d fiddled a little with Arduino, but hadn’t devoted any serious time to it.
  4. In 2014 I spent some mad money on an Arduino Starter Kit, and had a grand time going through the exercises in it.
    • During this time I started to post YouTube videos of the projects. This was the beginning of my blogging about projects.
    • As my Intel Sabbatical (8 weeks of vacation) started looming, I decided I wanted to build a Robotic Glockenspiel with part of that time. I started learning circuits I needed, and how to tune chimes.
    • I spent the last few weeks of my Sabbatical feverishly working on the project; then spent much of my Christmas vacation getting it to a point where it would work. I blogged the project as I went, and put the project code, music, and materials list under GitHub.
  5. There’s plenty left to do, but enough is done to talk about it. You can see and hear the chimes.

The project though the lens of Design Thinking

  • Gain Empathy: I wanted to build it for myself. I thought I knew what I wanted, but I didn’t really examine it any more than any hobbyist. Also, only later did I realize that there were a couple more audiences: 1) my wife, family, and friends, 2) other Makers and musicians, and 3) my co-workers. I only talked with my wife about what we might do with it after it (the first version) was playing music.
  • Develop Insights: Early on I did actually spend time thinking about what music I wanted to play: Public Domain Christmas Carols, mostly from the Oxford Book of Carols. Looking at specific carols led me to design a chromatic scale with a large (1.5 octave) range, rather than the 8-note Major-scale many hobbyists have built. I also knew I wanted to play MIDI files that I could create with an open source MIDI editor. Originally I wanted to play playlists and Midi files from the net, but later realized that playing them locally (from an SD card) fit better into the model of setting it up somewhere and having it play.
  • Ideate: I didn’t spend much time ideating: creating alternative physical designs and interactions beyond the single design I could think of: a thing that looked like a xylophone in a box, with an Arduino playing it from a playlist and MIDI files on an SD card. I feel a big difference between an engineer (how I was trained) and a designer (how I want to think) is that an engineer tends to stop at the first solution they find, while a designer produces a huge number of realizations of a given idea.
  • Prototype, Test: Here’s where most engineers want to start the process: Skip the understanding and alternatives, and jump straight into building stuff. In retrospect, this is the bulk of the work I did – so it’s clear I fell into the trap of the engineer’s approach rather than the designer’s approach.
    • I tried out several types of chimes cut from different metals, and settled on 1/2″ conduit.
    • I tried out a couple ways of cutting the chimes to length and tuning them, settling on a pipe-cutter, rough metal file, and my ukulele tuner – this worked great. My first narrative blog was about cutting and tuning chimes.
    • I built a few test chime mountings, to see if the chimes would ring properly. I tried 2 ways of mounting the set of chimes, because my first attempt failed miserably.
    • I experimented a bit in mounting the solenoids, mainly because I’d just bought a router and didn’t really know how to use it yet.
    • I made a test circuit before too long, to make sure the power supply would ring all the chimes at a usable volume.
    • The software development went pretty smoothly, because I’m a software engineer by training. …although I did get thrown a bit by Arduino interfacing (I forgot to write a blog entry on that). …and I changed the design a few times once I started thinking about making the project Open Source.
    • I waited until the mounting and circuit were done before I designed (or even thought much about) the box the whole thing would go into. As a result, the box is huge and unwieldy.
  • Get Feedback: Once the glockenspiel played tunes, I showed it off to Linda and we talked about how we might use it. This would have been a great conversation to have before I started – doh! We now think the best use would be 1) as a doorbell that plays tunes appropriate to the time of year, or 2) as a quiet music box that plays in the background at Christmas parties. We also learned a few things from this first prototype:
    • It’s huge. I need to build a totally different, more compact frame. It’s bigger than a card table, and certainly can’t be discreetly tucked away as a doorbell.
    • It’s loud; perhaps literally deafening. I’ve experimented a bit with dampening the clanking, and have more experiments to do.
    • There’s no way to control it. After it started playing, I realized it needed at least Pause, Stop, and Skip buttons.
    • I generally like how it turned out: The circuit works, it sounds pretty good and is nicely in tune, it’s easy to make MIDI files for it to play, and easy to edit the playlist.

So even though the project was mostly for my own enjoyment – a situation where you’d be tempted to skip parts of Design Thinking, I could have made a much better first working prototype by formally following the process: Gaining Empathy (looking into our lives and music); Developing Insights (analyzing how such a music box might fit into our lives and our house); Ideating (coming up with multiple designs for a music box / doorbell); Prototyping and Getting Feedback through low-fidelity prototypes that would let us pretend we’re using it.

I’m sold on Design Thinking. I’ll be using it in the next project (or iteration of this one).

Next I start putting the control buttons into the circuit.