Using the Design Abacus to value intangible qualities

The Design Abacus is a highly visual way of seeing problem areas; it quickly communicates the good and bad characteristics of the ‘thing’ being assessed and assesses different ‘focal areas’ such as energy use, materials and social impact. It is one of very few tools which support thinking about the social aspects of design.

Setting up the Design Abacus template:

The best way to use the Design Abacus is to print off 4 or 5 templates or to copy multiple versions of the blank template to a programme like Mural or Miro. You need one for each ‘Focal Area’ that you want to focus on.

A Focal Area is ANY area that YOU want to analyse for the project that you are working on. They might relate to the stages of the product life cycle: Raw materials; Manufacture; Use and Disposal, but you could choose to focus on areas such as: Social impact; Ergonomics and Well being.

Once you have identified you Focal Areas, you need to identify the the key characteristics that will be considered.

The characteristics are mapped onto the Abacus as both good and bad characteristics (see below in red). Repeat this for all the Focal Areas until the template is complete. This can take a little time to get right, maybe 1 hr.

Beginning your analysis:

Once the template is complete you can begin your analysis. You can use the Abacus to assess a current offering, competitors products, concepts etc. Take each characteristics in turn and decide how well for, example, Concept A meets the characteristic, then mark a point on the abacus – very good at top, very bad at the bottom. Make a note of any assumptions made so that you can change them later if new data is found. Decide on how confident you are in your assessment and record this in the top section. Work your way through each characteristic. Then repeat the activity for each Focal Areas that you have identified. Once you have finished you can join the lines together and you will end up with a visual profile.

Once the templates have been set up you can re-run the tool for multiple scenarios to create profiles for a range of products and concepts. And remember it doesn’t need to be perfect, it doesnt matter if the odd characteristic is in the wrong place – it will still help you to effectively compare the pros and cons of different design solutions.

Benefits of the Design Abacus:

  • Outlines your confidence in your assessment
  • Builds a profile of the current product
  • You don’t need specialist knowledge
  • Outlines the confidence you have in the different areas which have been assessed
  • Helps with trade-off decisions
  • Very quick compared to detailed LCA methods

The Design Abacus is simple to use, but sometimes it can be beneficial to get an external perspective or maybe you would benefit from a bit of capacity in the form of an extra pair of hands. Drop me a line if you think you would benefit from some help to make a start on this.

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