Upstream thinking

Customer-centered process optimizes design results by involving every discipline

William J. Holstein
14 January 2019

5 min read

Traditionally, companies with an idea for a new product have designed and engineered it, then organized focus groups of target consumers to gather feedback. With design and engineering set, however, making changes often is too expensive. Upstream Thinking involves customers from the beginning, creating radically inventive and disruptive concepts.

Imagine designing an automobile with no preconceived notion of what it should be. Would you design a car that gets driven only 9 percent of the time, then sits useless for hours or days on end ?

The team working on a new family car concept for Renault asked themselves that question. Their answer is Symbioz, an innovative concept for a mobile living space. Symbioz takes you where you need to go, but its all-electric design means that it can be parked in the living room as a separate area for reading or movie-watching, or on a home’s roof as a mosquito-free room for socializing or viewing the night sky through a large glass panel.

“We had the idea that in the future, the car will become an integral part of your ecosystem, designed not in isolation but as part of your life,” said Laurens van den Acker, Renault’s senior vice president of Corporate Design. “It is electric, so it can go inside because it has no fumes and no oil leaks. It can be driven or it can be autonomous, so it can park itself on the roof. It can share energy, charging the house or the house charging the car. And so we named it Symbioz, the idea of connecting two objects that profit from each other.”


Renault calls the process that yielded Symbioz “Passion for Life,” consistent with the company’s brand values. Outside Renault, the process is known as “Upstream Thinking” and involves three steps absent from traditional design. Upstream Thinking:

• begins with a cross-functional team, not just designers or engineers. By involving every corporate function, it becomes easier to break away from industry conventions while benefiting from specialist knowledge traditionally left untapped until too late in the development process.

• involves target customers before detailed design begins. Most design projects test a prototype on focus groups only after months or years of development has frozen the design and engineering.

• builds the learnings from its research into a conceptual design that potential customers can experience, either on a computer or in virtual reality, allowing them to give more informed feedback before detailed design begins.

The most important facets of Upstream Thinking are its laser focus on the customer’s needs and wants and on breaking design paradigms by involving people with no preconceived notions of how design is done or what the outcome should be.“It is unusual for a car design team to also get our hands into architecture, but with Symbioz we designed the house as well, together with Marchi Architects,” van den Acker said. “We worked with Philips Lighting for the lighting of the house, so that when the car arrives it can start to communicate with the house or the house can start to signal its intentions. It shows, I think, that in the future we [designers] won’t be isolated anymore, but we will do many more collaborations with people who think differently than we do.” Patrick Lecharpy, director of Design Synergies Alliance for Renault’s Laboratoire Collaboratif d’Innovation, adds: “This is our process to imagine what people will dream about within a few years, but cannot imagine today.”


Michel Serafin, an electrical engineer in the aerospace industry, wishes he had known about Upstream Thinking when he and Sébastien Mahut, an electronic engineer and electric propulsion expert, founded Newron Motors. Their aim: invent a high-performance, all-electric motorcycle with top speeds of 220 km/h (140 mph) and acceleration to 100 km/h (60 mph) in less than three seconds.

“We are bike enthusiasts but our job is not to create bikes, and the mechanical part of it we knew we could not do,” Serafin said. “So we went to a mechanical engineering expert, gave him the specs and asked him to create it.”  The result, Serafin said, was a boxy, heavy machine far too ugly to succeed in a market dominated by sleek, streamlined designs. So Newron hired a designer, who gave them a beautiful sketch – but no idea how to build it.

After the traditional design process failed them, Newron’s founders finally received the bike concept they had dreamed of thanks to Upstream Thinking, in which every discipline collaborates on a concept with input from customers. (Image © Newron)

When their project was chosen to join an accelerator program, they were introduced to Upstream Thinking and given access to a digital platform optimized for creating superb customer experiences.

“Even those members of the team who were not technical people became involved in the designing,” Serafin said. “From the moment we linked to the platform, an entire constellation of people was connected and working with us. They taught us how to not just design a product, but to imagine usage scenarios and design an experience. They had us thinking about the customer from the beginning to the very end.”Typically, Serafin said, a bike company tests the ergonomics of its design by building a wooden prototype and asking people to sit on it. On an experience platform, “in one hour, with no money, you can design it and test it virtually,” he said. “At the end of five days, you can ‘ride’ the entire bike virtually. You can test all of the options, all of the possibilities.”


The benefits of Upstream Thinking aren’t limited to concept cars and startup companies, however.

“It’s about being ahead of the game,” said Dave Marek, global creative director for Acura automobiles, based in Los Angeles. As a result, Marek has expanded his research, working with researchers at Ohio State University and at California’s Stanford University, among other institutions. The research includes interviews with students about what young drivers expect in the fit and finish of a car.

(Image © Renault)

That Upstream Thinking engagement with future customers helped Marek persuade Acura executives to equip the brand’s 2019 RDX crossover sport utility vehicle with an all-new infotainment system. The device, called True Touchpad Interface, features a 10.2-inch (26 cm) HD Dual-Content center display that is within the driver’s line of sight, and an intuitive 1:1 touchpad control just inches from the driver’s hand.

“Everyone who has gotten into the vehicle quickly understands how to use it,” Marek said. “They have an ‘Aha!’ moment. That came from us having people get in and try it over and over,” until the design was fully intuitive on the first try.

Digital collaborative tools on a common platform improve not only Acura’s customer understanding, but understanding among different disciplines at Honda R&D Americas, as well.

To solve an issue with the Engineering department before the company had a collaborative platform, for example, Marek had to make a trip to their offices or place a phone call.

“Part of the problem about calling was, I can’t see what you are talking about,” he said. “That caused delays. Now, with the collaborative tools [for viewing virtual models], you can do it in real time and all the time, asthe quality of that interaction gets better and better. Collaborative methods have changed everything.”

By iterating early and often, involving every discipline from the start and keeping a firm focus on the wants and needs of the target customer, these companies are achieving designs that are right the first time. The result: faster development at less cost and happier customers. And who wouldn’t want that? 

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