Measuring Up

ISD Doctoral Candidate Jesse Velleu Pursues His Dream of Researching Rigorous New Measures to Improve Products 

Jesse Velleu has a simple message for consumer product designers: Design products for the right reasons.

“Lots of times products are designed for the wrong reasons,” said Velleu, a doctoral candidate in the Design Science Program, Integrative Systems + Design, University of Michigan. “My dream is to improve the process of how products are designed and evaluated by researching more innovative solutions in a more efficient manner. Let’s take this scientific and rigorous way of thinking and apply it to a huge variety of different problems.”

Velleu’s research centers around the “millions of ways” to measure product design. Product designers do not always have control of how the real product is interpreted and used, Velleu said. Right now, there are “fixed lanes” to measure a product. They may measure emotional responses to products, but current measurements do not necessarily play well together. 

“How do I interrelate these measures?” Velleu asks. “My research aims at threading a very high level framework for designers to create systematic ways to help address this specific problem rather than an off-the-shelf measure. Let’s not use cookie-cutter measurements. We want to not only understand one version of this product, but we want to know the full range of all of these possibilities. This is a subtle paradigm shift to find better solutions.”

Improving User Experience

Velleu has worked professionally as a graphic designer and UX (User Experience) designer for several different organizations, including as an engineering designer for General Motors Research and Development and as a member of U-M’s Solar Car team, which won the American Solar Challenge in 2017. 

At GM, Velleu worked as an independent study student in a collaborative research lab. According to Velleu, GM has foundational ideas for potential products to go into vehicles and gives students the opportunity to implement these ideas, such as making a general attachment to hold loose items in a car using air, which can be deflated when not in use. 

“I created a notebook with 200 ideas on how to do this,” he said. “I love coming up with ideas and being creative to help design things to make the lives of people better. This was the start of a long-term partnership with GM. The door was open for collaborative efforts between psychology and engineering. That’s where I want to go.”

Velleu is currently working for Leave No Trace, an environmental nonprofit, as a traveling ambassador and teacher. He is responsible for leading different educational programs across the country about how to recreate responsibly in the outdoors, and doing lots of outreach at festivals or events, as well as on social media. 

“We travel constantly throughout the year and camp out the majority of the time,” he said. “I really like to have a broad understanding for how things are created.” 

Defending His Dissertation

A New York native, Velleu chose to enroll in U-M’s Mechanical Engineering program in 2015 because he wanted a more rigorous scientific and analytical experience. 

“I chose U-M to get the knowledge I could not get anywhere else,“ he said. 

He earned a BSE degree in Mechanical Engineering in 2018. He changed direction to pursue and earn a MS in Information Science degree in 2020 and a MS in Design Science in 2021, both from U-M. 

“Engineering is very technical,” he said. “It was missing the human element so I pivoted to the user experience and softer side. The interactive aspect was calling me. Design Science was a great fit for me. I want to explore why we make the product decisions we do and how we make things people enjoy.”

On August 8, 2022, Velleu defended his doctoral dissertation, titled “Embodiment Design Cartograph”. Embodiment Design is the process of taking a conceptual idea for a product and bringing it into the physical world. Cartography refers to the goal of this work, which is to allow Velleu to map out an understanding for all the different versions or forms this product could take through the process. Current design methods to support embodiment design largely do so with a fixed notion of what aspects of the problem are important to consider or achieve. Examples include designing for optimizing technical performance, designing for maximum utility or perceived value, and designing for emotional response. 

“Every product and every design problem is inherently unique, and can often have multiple different considerations that can be important, which don’t necessarily fit into these existing buckets,” Velleu said. “This research presents a framework for systematically developing new design methods from the ground up that are tailored to the needs of the specific problem. With this framework, designers can map out which considerations are relevant to consider in this design problem, what all of their options are for the resulting product, and how they quantitatively compare to one another across multiple different metrics. This has been shown to promote a greater flexibility and understanding of embodiment design, and allows for the creation of superior or innovative solutions.”

Hanging Out with Dora the Explorer, Muppets 

Growing up, Velleu was exposed to creativity at the highest level. His dad, Rick Velleu, worked as a film director and set designer who pitched the original pilot and concept to create the Dora the Explorer children’s television series. Rick Velleu also worked for Jim Henson and the Muppets, and even created architectural sketches and draft designs from Egypt for the MET. 

“There were Dora the Explorer sketches and storyboards all around the house growing up,” the younger Velleu said. “I got to hang out on the set. There were wacky crazy designs everywhere. I also got to hang out on the set of the Muppets and the MET.”

Outdoor Living

Another of Velleu’s passions is the outdoors. 

He is an avid snowboarder, camper, hiker, and runner. He just completed his first marathon in Brooklyn earlier this year. 

“I’m also a Michigan and New York sports fan,” he said.