Autodesk Flow Design
DisciplinesUX, User Research, Interaction Design, Visual Design, Information Architecture
Flow Design is a virtual wind tunnel that makes airflow simulation accessible to architects, product designers, and students—not just PhD analysts and engineers like previous-generation tools.
The goal of this project was to drastically simplify flow simulation so that more people could understand how their 3D designs will perform in the real world. Most people can understand the concept of a wind tunnel, but don’t know the first thing about computational fluid dynamics (CFD) or finite element analysis (FEA). All of this complexity lives behind the scenes with Flow Design, so the user can focus on their design.
Flow Design started off in Autodesk Labs under the name “Project Falcon.” After the initial success, we committed to commercializing the technology as a paid product offering and free educational tool.
This started for me as a “10 percent time” innovation consulting project with the Emerging Products & Technologies team. I then served as the lead designer for commercial releases.
- Design strategy
- User research
- Heuristic evaluation
- User stories
- Wireframes and mockups
- Refining HTML/CSS layout
- Visual design (icons, UI components)
Check out the demo video to see Flow Design in action:
In addition to standalone versions, we also designed and built CAD-embedded technology that worked directly in the design environment. The aim was to reduce workflow friction and provide almost immediate feedback with design changes.
The product has seen commercial success, and Roopinder Tara, Director of Content at ENGINEERING.com called Flow Design the “easiest-to-use CFD program ever.”
The thing I love about designing products that empower designers and engineers is that they will inherently be used in unforeseen ways. For example, Flow Design and Autodesk Simulation provided the technology behind the Fox Weather Trax wind simulation at Superbowl XLVIII.
In the Wild
As a testament to the ease of use, elementary school students around the country were introduced to Flow Design on National Youth Science Day, as part of a rocket-building activity. I volunteered at one of these events in California, and was unbelievably excited to see that the learners required no adult guidance to simulate their rockets!
I was also pleasantly surprised recently when I happened upon Flow Design in the wild while in the market for a new bike helmet.
As we have learned from Clay Christensen, disruptive innovation starts off looking like a toy. Indeed is the case with Flow Design, as this project started off originally as a simple 2D iOS app. You can see below the app went through many manifestations and evolved immensely over its lifespan based on usage & feedback.
Ultimately the “lightweight” strategy to encourage hands-on design exploration was successful and exposed many people to the advantages of simulation who wouldn’t have been otherwise. A few quotes from users:
- “SO, easy to use! exactly what I was looking for, just put the model in and point it at the wind”
- “The most user friendly wind tunnel software by miles”
- “Flow Design modeling package was the easiest to set up and allows you to quickly get the initial estimated results sufficient to quickly test hypotheses at an early stage, followed by modeling in professional packages”