6 Product Design Tips from Robots

You may never have heard of Mr. Joe Jones, but he’s the inventor of one of the most successful commercial robots ever made – the Roomba.

Mr. Jones, a graduate of MIT, has experience designing hundreds of robots and he’s identified a few key precepts that apply to good engineering and design best practices, not just for robots but for all kinds of applications. Here are some insights about thinking like  a robot, product development and problem solving that can help you with your own design journey.


1. Perform a Valuable Task

A robot, like any useful device, needs to perform a discrete function and do it consistently over a long period of time. The perceived value of the product solution, from the customer’s point of view, is how well it performs the task and if it saves time and trouble for the owner, especially compared to doing it themselves.

A corollary to this is: don’t try to do everything at once. Be good at one thing at a time.

2. Do It Today

This means that you’re not trying to achieve some aspirational, hoped-for goal with your product. You’re not in the research stage, or anticipating what the market might need years down the road. You must bring to market a product solution that is practical and is ready to go, right out of the box and with minimal fuss for the user.

3. Do it Cheap

Cheap does not mean “low-quality” or “disposable”. It means that your solution must be able to perform the task at least as cost-effectively as your competition. The customer doesn’t care so much how the job is done, as long as the end result is achieved as efficiently as possible. Market forces will determine that, if your product is more expensive than somebody else and doesn’t fulfil the task, it will fail.

4. Reimagine the Problem

Most people think the Roomba is a floor vacuum cleaner. It’s not, or at least not originally. That’s because a conventional vacuum cleaner would be far too heavy and consume way too much power to be small and rechargeable in the way the inventors first intended.

So instead, the designers had to think: what are we really trying to do? Get dirt off the floor. Do we need a vacuum to do that? No, it can be done with a simple roller brush and a catch bin. That’s all the Roomba really was. A small vacuum was added to the original prototype because that’s what the consumer expected to buy! It was not functionally needed, but it was required as part of the user experience.

This is a great example of Aristotle’s First Principle. Reduce a problem to its essential components and build from there.

5. Think Like the Machine

Another great example of first principle thinking is to imagine how a problem can be solved by a machine instead of by a person. Franklin Robotics, another brainchild of Joe Jones, has a very clever robot named Tertill that illustrates this point quite well.

Tertill robot

The purpose of Tertill is to roam around in a home garden and kill weeds. But it doesn’t do this like a person might, yanking them up by the roots one at a time. Instead it uses a small string trimmer to lop the heads off the small ones, while larger plants remain untouched. It’s solar-powered and waterproof, with tiny wheels that constantly disturb unwanted seedlings to prevent their germination. And this requires no pre-programming or complex instructions, no vision system or AI.  A brilliant solution to a thorny problem.

6. Keep it Simple

Watching a Roomba work its way across a floor strewn with furniture and sleeping dogs, it’s easy to believe it has a very sophisticated set of sensors, actuators and logic circuits. It doesn’t. When encountering an obstacle there are only three choices: go right, go left, or reverse in the path of least resistance. From these three vectors – like the famed Three Body Problem – a nearly infinite number of movement solutions can be derived.

Roomba vacuuming around a dog

Remember, every bit of added functionality increases cost and complexity while decreasing reliability. Simplicity is a virtue and allows you to put resources into making prototypes and getting products to market faster. And that’s why robots don’t have a lot of extra time or energy to think about subjugating humanity.

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