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Andrea Lim is a Design Engineer at Dyson, which means she’s part of a team of innovators tasked with imagining how users will interact with their product — and then building something that can stand up both to that fantasy, and to all the ways people will find to mess up. For example, Lim was on the team that helped create the Dyson Supersonic, a hair dryer that gained internet notoriety when New Yorker writer Helen Rosner used it to help dry the skin on a chicken she planned to roast.
“Quite often we do these brainstorms to try to think how a product might be reasonably misused, so we can make sure that it’s relatively safe in those conditions,” Andrea says. In particular, “We have quite a good one for the hairdryer: lots of things that people might decide to use it for even though it wasn’t designed for that, like defrosting your freezer… or cooking a chicken. We have to try to keep those things safe.” Here’s more about what she does at work.
I didn’t know I wanted to be an engineer until I was applying to university courses. I was thinking about the subjects I enjoyed doing and it was like, math and physics, so what I could take from those? I applied to do engineering, but then decided that I wanted to do something more creative. So that’s how I ended up doing a design engineering course, which is kind of a balance between more creative design and also technical engineering.
On graduating, looking at the different companies that were available, Dyson was the most inspiring company and had the most exciting projects. We’re still growing really quickly, so we were recruiting massively at the time. Compared to some of the other companies I was looking at, the stuff they were making was so much more innovative and exciting. I wanted to be a part of it.
How do you describe your job to non-engineers?
I’m a Design Engineer. It’s what it sounds like — it’s thinking about how people use things, and then designing them, so that they have improved usability. My role is more focused on usability and interaction, so how a person actually experiences something.
I’m in Chicago right now. I’ve been at Dyson for six and a half years and I’ve been [in Chicago] for the last six or seven months. I’m learning about the US market, so that rather than designing products for the whole world in England, we’re sending engineers to different markets to make sure we understand the unique needs of the people in each of those markets.
I would say the main structure of my work is around the design/build/test iterative cycle that we do. Sometimes the length of that process will be a few months, and sometimes you’ll do that three or four times in a day, depending on what you’re working on.
We have awesome automated 3D printers, and we’ll set them to build overnight so they’re ready when we come in. I’ll go and check whether my prototypes have built properly; then I assemble the prototype, build it up, make sure it’s built to specification.
If I’ve built two different things, I’d go try them out on a few different people — have them use it, check which one is better. For example, I might have made two different button styles, so I’d see which one was more comfortable to press.
I might also end up doing some user trials for other people as well. I might be asked to go and try a new hair drying product, for example. We’ve got quite a lot of projects going on at any one time, so I’ll go and try something out and give my feedback.
If you just want to test out an idea you have, the people around you are maybe not the best people to test it because they’re all engineers, but it’s also the best way to get a quick answer. We do a lot of quick user trials in the office and the lab, and once we have a better idea of what’s working well, then we’ll start recruiting people externally. But obviously that takes more time and is more expensive, so we’ll wait until we’re pretty sure it’s working.
A lot of your job is coming up with ideas, which doesn’t always work as a desk-bound process. How do you give yourself space to imagine and create?
I quite like the part where things start going wrong, and you have to figure out how to fix it. Because you have to really get creative, and quite often you’ll have to ask other people to come and get a few more brains on your problem, or you’ll get pulled into someone else’s problem. You can kind of sit around and sketch and draw on Post-It notes, and everyone bounces ideas off of each other. And someone will say something that makes you think of something else. It’s a satisfying process because you’re coming to a solution that you can test out and check over.
It was usability and visual elements, so I was working on the button, the heat control, and how it feels in the hand. We did a lot of work on the handle diameter, at what point it becomes too big or too small to be comfortable for different people to hold.
And then I did some work for the packaging and the box, the case that it comes with. When something comes with accessories that need designing, we do them all in-house, in the engineering department, rather than going to a packaging supplier. Which is exciting because then you get to work with different materials. So I had to learn new things. I had to very quickly learn about fabric and sewing and stitching techniques and stuff.
Now that Dyson has revolutionized hair drying and vacuuming, what’s the chore you dream of the company tackling next?
I don’t like folding clothes. I don’t have any patience for that. Especially socks, knowing that I’m just gonna mess them up when I put them on. I’ll add it to the project list!
I don’t know how to answer that question without telling a secret! When we launched the Supersonic it was a whole new category for us, and we weren’t exactly sure how well it would do. It’s done really well, so how we follow up with that is going to be really exciting, to see if we can really become respected as a beauty brand as well as a technology company.
Zan Romanoff is a freelance writer and the author of the novels A SONG TO TAKE THE WORLD APART and GRACE AND THE FEVER. She lives and works in Los Angeles.