The impact of modular design on product use and maintenance
Smith, Robert J.
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Modularity is a means of managing product complexity by arranging components into hierarchical independent subassemblies of common purpose. It offers advantages to manufacturers and producers and is assumed to benefit users as well. The producers have received most of the focus, however. Designers must be able to ensure the needs of both parties are being met but too little is known about users' responses to modular designs and the designer's role in handling modularity. This thesis demonstrates that modularity has an impact on users. The research specifically focused on aspects of modularity available to users. It consisted of three phases: a review of existing literature, an interview phase, and a survey phase. The interview phase elicited common terms for discussing modularity in consumer products. The survey tested the traits that emerged. Both phases used object pairs with similar purpose but differing in degree of modularity. During the interview phase, participants were shown pictures of eight pairs of objects and asked questions about their use and maintenance. They were then asked to generate a series of word pairs, opposing descriptors that could be used to distinguish the two variants. The most commonly occurring pairs were transformed into survey questions. The survey used the same set of object pairs, each accompanied by descriptive phrases built around the traits elicited from the interviews. Survey participants were asked to identify which of the two variants was best described by each phrase and the strength of that association. The responses indicated that modularity generally increases users' perceptions of complexity, presence of replaceable parts, and versatility. Modularity also diminished perceptions of durability, ease of maintenance, and ease of use. Investigation of object groupings, both predefined and emergent in the data, revealed additional context sensitive relationships. Several traits also demonstrated strong correlations with each other. Establishing these relationships is necessary to convert assumptions into knowns before research can continue. This thesis offers designers insight into the expectations surrounding modular design. As manufacturers continue to push modular design, designers will need to understand its impact on end users to ensure the needs of all stakeholders are being met.