As an undergraduate student at MIT, Jana Saadi had to find a way to meet the demands of her humanities course. Little did she know that her decision would strongly shape her college career.
On a whim, Saadi had joined a friend in a course offered by MIT D-Lab, a project-based program aimed at helping impoverished communities around the world. The class was meant to be one-off, but Saadi fell in love with D-Lab’s mission and design philosophy, and remained involved throughout the rest of her undergraduate studies.
At D-Lab, “you do not create products for people; you create products with people,” she said. Saadi’s experience with D-Lab sparked an interest in the process behind product design. Now she’s pursuing a doctorate in mechanical engineering at MIT, researching how artificial intelligence can help mechanical engineers design products.
Saadi’s path to engineering began at an early age. She grew up in New Jersey with engineer parents. “My dad loves DIY projects and I’ve always found myself helping him around the house,” she says. Saadi enjoyed exercising his creative problem-solving skills, even on small tasks such as fixing an ill-fitting pot lid.
With her education, it was no surprise when Saadi ended up pursuing undergraduate and master’s degrees at MIT in mechanical engineering, with a concentration in product design. But she wasn’t always sure about pursuing a doctorate. “Curiously, what convinced me to pursue my doctoral studies was writing my master’s thesis and seeing it all come together,” she says.
Today, Saadi works to improve the product design process by evaluating computer design tools, exploring new applications and developing educational programs. For some of her research, she even found herself collaborating with D-Lab again. Saadi is currently advised by Maria Yang, professor of mechanical engineering at MIT and academic director of the MIT D-Lab faculty.
Understand the role of artificial intelligence in product design
When designing products, mechanical engineers juggle multiple objectives at once. They must make the products easy to use and aesthetic for the users. But they also need to take into account the results of their business and produce products that are cheap and easy to manufacture.
To help streamline the design process, engineers sometimes turn to artificial intelligence tools that help generate new designs. These tools, also known as generative design tools, are commonly used in the automotive, aerospace, and architectural industries. But the impact these tools have on the product design process is unclear, Saadi says, making it difficult for engineers to know how best to leverage them.
To provide clarity, Saadi assesses how engineers use generative design tools in the design process. So far, she has discovered that these tools can fundamentally change design approaches through a “hybrid intelligence” design process. With these tools, engineers first create a list of engineering constraints for a product without worrying about its appearance. For example, they may indicate where the screws are needed, but not specify how the screws are held in place. Then they feed the constraints into a generative design tool, which generates a product design accordingly. Engineers can then shift gears and evaluate the product for other goals, such as whether it is easy to use or easy to manufacture. If they are not satisfied with the product, they can modify the constraints or add new ones and run them again in the tool.
Through this process, engineers can focus on “understanding the design problem and uncovering the factors that drive the design,” says Saadi. With generative design tools, engineers can also iterate on designs faster, boosting the creative process as engineers test new ideas with less effort.
Generative design tools can also “change the design process” by enabling more complex designs, Saadi says. For example, instead of using structures with simple shapes, such as rectangular bars or triangular supports, designs can have an “organic” look that resembles the irregular patterns of coral or the twisting roots of trees.
Prior to this project, Saadi had little experience with IT tools in the product design process. But it “gave me an edge,” she says, to approach the process with fresh eyes and ask questions about design practices that might normally be taken for granted. Now Saadi analyzes how engineers and tools influence each other in the design process. She hopes to use her research to provide guidance on how generative design tools can support more creative designs.
Designing homes with Ugandan communities
Saadi expands the scope of computer design by looking at a new application: cookstoves for low-income areas, like Uganda. For this project, she is working with Yang, Dan Sweeney of MIT D-Lab and Sili Deng, professor of mechanical engineering at MIT.
Affordable cookstoves in low-income areas often release harmful emissions, which not only contribute to climate change, but also pose health risks. To reduce these impacts, Saadi and his collaborators are developing a stove that uses clean energy but remains affordable.
In the spirit of D-Lab, Saadi works with Ugandans to adapt the home to their needs. Originally, she had planned to travel to Uganda and interview people there. But then the Covid-19 pandemic happened.
“We had to do everything virtually, which had its own challenges” for Uganda, she says. Many Ugandans do not have access to the internet, eliminating the possibility of online surveys or virtual interviews. Saadi ended up working closely with a community partner in Uganda called Appropriate Energy Saving Technologies (AEST) to gather people’s opinions. AEST assembled a team on site to conduct in-person interviews with paper-based surveys. And Saadi consulted with AEST founders Acuku Helen Ekolu and Betty Ikalany to ensure the survey was culturally appropriate and understandable.
Fortunately, what started out as a rudimentary practical solution ended up being a godsend. Saadi’s polls were multiple-choice, but people often explained their reasoning to pollsters, providing valuable information that would have been lost in an online poll. In total, the team conducted around 100 surveys. “I liked this mixed survey-interview format,” she says. “There is a lot of wealth that came out [the survey responses].”
Now Saadi is translating the answers into digital design requirements for engineers, including herself. For example, “users will say ‘I want to be able to carry my cooker from outside to inside,'” which means they care about the weight, she says. Saadi must then determine an ideal weight for the cooker and include that number in the technical requirements.
Once they have all the requirements, the team can start designing the fireplace. The fireplace will be based on the Makaa fireplace, a portable and energy-efficient fireplace developed by AEST. In the new cooker design, the MIT team aims to improve its performance to cook food faster – a common request from users – while remaining affordable, Saadi says. To design the new fireplace, the MIT team plans to use a generative design tool, making the project one of the first uses of computer design for fireplaces.
Reform the design program to be more inclusive
Saadi also works to improve the product design process through curriculum development. Recently, she joined MIT’s Design Justice Project, which aims to ensure that students learn to design in ways that are inclusive for their users. “Education is about training the designers of the future, so you want to make sure you’re teaching them how to design fairly,” says Saadi. The project is made up of a team of undergraduate and graduate students, post-docs and professors in engineering and non-engineering fields.
Saadi helps the team develop surveys of instructors to determine if and how they have changed their design curriculum over time to include Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) principles. Based on the survey results, the team will offer concrete suggestions for instructors to further integrate DEI principles into their curriculum. For example, one recommendation might be that instructors provide students with a checklist of inclusive design considerations, Saadi says.
To help generate more ideas and expand this conversation to a wider community, Saadi is helping the team organize a two-day summit for people working in design education, including instructors from MIT and other institutions. At the summit, attendees will discuss the future of design education and consider ways to translate DEI principles from the classroom into industry standard practices. The summit, called Design Justice Pedagogy Summit, will take place later this month from August 24-26.
“As you can see, I enjoy this part of my PhD where I have time to diversify my research,” says Saadi. But basically, “my approach to research is [understanding] the people and the process. There are many interesting questions to ask.