5 Lessons for delivering successful product development
Innovation can be a challenge, and trying to make your ideas a success can be a scary prospect. Here at Detekt we have been providing our product design service to innovators to help them get from an idea all the way to a manufactured product. These are some of the lessons we have learnt when it comes to forging great relationships between the customer and our product design company.
Lesson 1: Just because you know A doesn’t mean you know B.
Client and product designer relationships are like flowers, they take care and attention and each one is uniquely different. Your customer may have grown up in a different country, they may have experienced cultures that you’ve only seen in films, and more importantly there’s a good chance that they have experience, knowledge and insight that you as a designer don’t have. Similarly, your client has approached you to leverage your design and manufacturing skills and experience as a product designer to bring their product or idea to life because they themselves may not possess these skills. So what’s the problem that could arise? As the project moves forward over time a clear mismatch begins to develop between the customers expectation and the final outcome of the product development project, meaning that both time and money have been totally disregarded leaving everyone with a sour taste in their mouth.
How did we get here and how can we prevent it? Well there’s one thing that is above all else paramount and that is communication. Clear and effective communication. It sounds simple but when it comes to designing products it takes on a small nuance that maybe isn’t true in other industries or even day to day life. It can catch people out without them even realising that they are doing it and it effects both sides of the product design company-customer relationship.
So firstly, the customer, now the pitfall that can be so easily fallen into is that you the customer have slaved over, obsessed and toiled, ruminated and dredged over the idea of your product so thoroughly, potentially for years, that the journey that lead you from the initial idea to what is your final concept is a very challenging thing to communicate. The core concept of your idea may have changed many many times from its initial conception that by the time it comes to telling the product design company all of your concepts backstory, history and development can be lost. The risk here being that with poor initial concept communication, and poor on-going communication the product designer reiterates ground that the you the customer have already gone over and developed on. The end result being something that you the customer knows doesn’t meet its full potential.
Secondly, the designer. It’s paramount to remember that no one knows the product better than it’s innovator. As a designer you are trying to bring someone else’s idea to life. If the product designer doesn’t bring the customer along through the product development process and guide them through the journey then there is the risk that you alienate the customer and leave them disenfranchised with the final outcome.
We can overcome these problems in two ways, for the customer, it’s important to take your time up front and to make sure that right from the get go everyone involved fully understands the concept. This isn’t about a basic understanding of the particulars, this is a deep dive into the how, the what and most importantly the why. Why did you come up with this particular idea, what influenced you, what do you imagine the final product would be. Write it down, make it measurable, and use it to help guide both of you going forward. For the product designer, continued communication is key. Bring the customer along for the journey but another important lesson is to make sure that the customer participates in the process. Don’t exclude them. This can be from asking their opinion when you aren’t sure between two options, to simply giving them regular progress updates. Make them a stakeholder, and a party to the decision making process and they’ll feel like they have a part in the product development and final outcome. Alienate them and they won’t feel invested or worse disillusioned to the final outcome.
Lesson 2: Always expect the unexpected.
Time isn’t linear. It’s all lies. If you’ve ever done project management you know that the weeks at the beginning of the project last eons and the weeks at the end of the project last seconds. On top of that, there’s always hitherto unforeseen challenges that sneak up and bite you right when you just needed to catch a break. It doesn’t really matter what industry you are in because this happens to all of us, and product designers are certainly no exception. Actually, product development if it can be boiled down into two words it’s unforeseen challenges. Probably the best analogy is that designing great products is like trying to cook a great pie from scratch, without a recipe book. There are many pies out there in the market and you can buy them and taste them and get a pretty good idea of what a great pie should look like, how it should smell, the best colouration, ingredients that go into a pie and also the kinds of packaging people sell their pies in. Even though you know all these things, you don’t actually know how to make a pie. This is product development. It’s getting together all of these things and testing them in a kitchen to see if you can create a recipe that makes a great pie.
When you start you clearly know your end goal – to make a great pie. Also you know almost all the ingredients that go into the pie. The unforeseen challenges arise in that when you start the process of creating the recipe, you haven’t got a clue how to make the pie and until you start the trial and error process of putting it all together you can’t foresee the problems that you learned on the way through going through the process. This is exactly the same thing for the product development process. When you start you have a clear end goal and though they may be many other products out there like yours you are going through the process of learning what challenges could come up to delay the delivery of your product. It’s not a predictable process and you can’t always know ahead of time the problems that you will learn as you go through the product development of the concept.
We can overcome this problem, however, by detailing/planning all work stages of the product development process at the beginning and communicate this to all parties so that everyone has an understanding of where the project is at any given time and everyone can then plan accordingly when obstacles arise. It’s also important for the product design company to measure the outcomes of each step with the customer involved instead of simply rushing through all the steps at once. That way the customers are happy with the final outcome and aren’t left confused when a project is running late, and are involved with the progression of the product development. It makes sure that the customer isn’t sitting and waiting for the final product to arrive and isn’t getting frustrated when the progress isn’t moving forward as they had anticipated.
Lesson 3: Speaking the language of product design.
The world is so teeny tiny now. It’s a global marketplace where goods and services really aren’t constrained by geography. Design and manufacturing, probably more than any other industry, is built on the principle of international collaboration. Global sourcing and supply chains, international manufacturing, overseas warehousing, international testing and certification labs and more are just a few examples of areas in the life cycle of a product that are becoming more and more international. With this in mind there is an important lesson that all product designers can learn and that customers can keep in mind. Just because someone is talking to you in English, doesn’t mean that it’s their mother tongue, and doesn’t mean that you fully understand each other. This is especially compounded as because of time differences, and simply the nature of how business is conducted, most communications will be via email or messenger apps. The lack of face to face meetings, and the nature of written communication means that all nuance, context, and meaning can be stripped. This can result in a breakdown in communication, delays or errors. As we turn towards a more globalised marketplace this is more and more becoming the norm.
These challenges can be overcome through firstly thoroughly documenting all discussions in the form of minutes and sharing it with all parties. Include a summary. This is a great way for all parties to make sure they have been understood and that the expectations are clear. Especially when using technology such as video calls it is still important to send summaries after the fact to ensure that you are all on the same page. Secondly, understand that language barriers exist and that you probably might misinterpret each other at some point. The point here is don’t make assumptions. Don’t let your ego get in the way and don’t for a second let your embarrassment stop you from double or even triple checking. An awkward moment just double checking you’ve understood someone or checking that they have fully understood your intentions can be invaluable later on in the product development process. Always remember, be polite, and be clear and when they clarify their understanding simply say thank you.
Lesson 4: Prototype ≠ Product
For a customer or anyone who hasn’t been involved in the product design and development process it can be difficult to appreciate that just because you have a prototype does not mean you have a finished product. Product design companies use prototypes to achieve one of a few different functions. Firstly, to test ideas and see what works in the real world. Through doing this a product designer can validate a concept, formulate a new idea, improve on the design and ultimately progress forwards towards a final product solution. Next designers use prototypes to validate the form of the product. This can be for one of two reasons, either to investigate the aesthetics of the product and develop it’s design language, look or feel. Or it can be to test its function. How easy is this thing to use, how well does it work in context, can we improve on its shape or functionality now that we have seen it and used it in context. Lastly, designers use prototypes to get buy in from stakeholders. These can be referred to in many different ways from show models, to sales models, to exhibition models or simply hero models. Product designers use these so that they can best demonstrate what a final product could be to a customer. It is used to get buy in or sign off on a product.
What a prototype is not is a finished product. It’s just good enough to complete the intention of that particular prototype. If that prototype has been made to test a mechanism, then that is as good as that prototype is. This can seem more disconnected however, when it comes to the sales prototypes. These are high quality, painted and finished versions of what the a real world version of the product might be. They may even have electronics inside, they may be fully functioning and to all intents and purposes be completely indistinguishable from a real world product. The important thing to know is that in general they have been crafted by a highly skilled model maker who may have spent several weeks creating just this one prototype. When creating the product design for this prototype the designer may not have fully designed the product for manufacture and it may include features or parts that are not manufacturable. The internals may have been put together to only achieve a demo version and won’t function outside of the parameters of the prototype. For instance they might have used a Raspberry Pi computer running a stripped back demo version of a software in lieu of a fully developed custom PCB or software. It’s also important to note that prototypes or product samples are used for testing and certification of a product design. This can be safety certificates or compliance certification and it’s important to note that all product designs are subject to change through the certification process.
An effective way to overcome this challenge is to manage the customers expectations. The product designer must elaborate the details and communicate the importance of making prototypes to the customer, and also explain the possible spin-offs and changes that occur to a product as a direct result of producing prototypes. This is especially true for medical orientated products or products that have incredibly high standards of safety and compliance as the product designs can be subject to the external compliance and testing. Many rounds of testing and prototyping can be necessary. Once again it boils down to communication. Great communication is the backbone of great product development.
Lesson 5: it’s not the same anymore. It’s better.
When taking a product through the development process it’s important to see the process as a journey. A product designer is taking an idea from its humble beginnings, then through trials and tests and a process of constantly improving the design will deliver a great product. The challenges can arise when the customer is not taken along this journey with their idea. When starting a project the designer will often generate a series of concept ideas sometimes in the form of sketches, rough CAD models, realistic renders or even a prototype. This is to get an idea of direction and begin the process of learning how to deliver the product. At this concept stage the product design company will get the sign off from the customer and agree upon the initial concept. From here it is possible that the designer and customer can begin to diverge. As the designer starts to take the product through the development process it can become clear that certain aspects may not work, or that some areas could be improved. With enough cycles of improvement it’s entirely possible for a product to look, function or behave anything like it’s original concept. If the product designer doesn’t keep the customer involved in the process and keep them as an active participant in the product development process then it could be a real shock to see a product design solution that is completely evolved from its original form.
Once again it all comes down to great communication. Provided that all of a product designs revisional changes are well communicated with all members and the customer via a single point of contact (i.e. to handle by Client Manager from the product design company) who is well briefed by the product designer then the customer won’t be shocked, and will understand their product better. Effective revisioning the design can only be considered complete when it is reviewed and compared against all impacts/aspects of product design work, and well understood by all parties involved. In addition, changes or revisions should be rational, and explainable. If you can’t tell someone why you made a change or how it improves the product design then you should expect push back internally and by the client. If you can secure the clients consent and approval at all stages then you’ll always have a happy customer.
At Detekt we are a product design company with years of experience developing products with customers. Some products are easy, and some can be a challenge, but we’ve put together 5 key lessons that we have learnt taking customers from idea through to world class product.