The Marshmallow Challenge and what product designers can learn from it

The Marshmallow Challenge is classic design game that is attempted by people of all ages. If you haven’t heard of it before, here’s a quick rundown: In 18 minutes use 20 sticks of spaghetti, a meter of tape, and a meter of string to create a tower that can hold a marshmallow at the greatest height.

Sounds simple, right?

Well, in theory it is. Most people are able to create some sort of a tower that is strong enough to hold a marshmallow. However, when it comes to creating a tower that is both strong and tall, many struggle. In fact, studies actually indicate that business school graduates tend to build shorter structures than toddlers in kindergarden. 

Why is this the case?

Well, the answer lies in the design process. Business school graduates are taught to plan before taking action. As such, they tend to spend the majority of the 18 minutes planning a structure. Once they are happy with their plan, they then create their tower and are forced to stick with their first design as they quickly run out of time.

Toddlers, however, take a different approach.

From the first second of the challenge, toddlers tend to start building. They build, then they test, make improvements, test again, make improvements, and so on until time runs out. Without realising it, toddlers are using what is known as an iterative design process.

The iterative design process is not unique to the marshmallow challenge. It can be utilised in by all new product designers. It has two major advantages that allow it to be one of the most favourable and successful design processes:

  1. High quality product
    That’s always the goal, right? In the competitive world in which we live, any design fault or inefficiency can become incredibly costly and detrimental. Using the iterative design process, designers are able to test and improve the product multiple times before its release. This means that (hopefully!) the majority of problems are already fixed and the most efficient design has already been found, way before the market get their hands on it.
  2. Increased innovation
    With the option to test a product numerous times before its release, designers are more likely to take greater risks. The benefit of this is obvious: innovative and unique products.

So, iterative design is awesome when it comes to innovation and product quality. However, the reality is that unlike in the marshmallow challenge, iterative design tends to involve mammoth time investments and compounding costs. Each time a new prototype is developed, tested, and refined, thousands of dollars are added and the launch date is pushed back. With the race to market being so fierce, design firms are forced to make tough decisions around budget and time restrictions, which ultimately affects the quality of their final design.

So, the question is, how can product designers integrate iterative design, just like the toddlers in the Marshmallow Challenge, whilst hitting deadlines and minimising costs?

The answer is SOLIDWORKS® Simulation. 

SOLIDWORKS® Simulation allows for multiple tests of a product without a single physical prototype. As such, a process that can take months and thousands of dollars can be completed within a day by a single designer. Designers are able create their 3D model using SOLIDWORKS® 3D CAD software, test it under real conditions using Simulation, find the weak points, improve on them, and repeat the process until they are satisfied with their final design. This final design need only be prototyped once before launch.

It really is that easy.

At the end of the day, the marshmallow challenge teaches us a valuable lesson: nothing beats the iterative process when it comes to new product design. The real question them becomes: with SOLIDWORKS® Simulation available on the market, why aren’t all design firms incorporating iterative design into their own design process?