Product design and development is notoriously risky – even if stellar successes from Apple and Dyson make it all look easy. Determination, financial resources and the right team of people are all essential, but your approach is also important. Here are five elements of a positive approach that can dramatically increase your chances of success…
1. See a need, fill a need
Product development is a bit like investments. You may make the most money from the riskiest opportunities – those that typically buck trends and deliver solutions that no-one asked for. The Dyson vacuum cleaner is an example of a successful high-risk approach. The Sinclair C5 electric tricycle is an example of one that didn’t work out so well. Sadly, there are far more of the latter than the former.
If you want to develop products with a lower risk factor, you need to identify existing needs that aren’t being met, like Bigweld in the animated film ‘Robots’ (and if you haven’t seen it, you should). Bigweld’s concept of ‘see a need, fill a need’ basically summarises the concept of understanding the market and identifying opportunities for new products. While this is rarely easy, it can be as simple as identifying ways to improve existing products or meet an unmet need in a changing sector, like the so-called ‘grey market’ of fit, elderly people with significant incomes. The more evidence-based this can be, the better, particularly if you want to minimise your risks.
What you should never do, unless you want to take a massive risk, is base your new product concept solely on a personal conviction, however strong it is. Believing that everyone will want to buy your product because you think it's great is a bit like thinking that everyone will want to marry your partner, because you love them. Happily, life doesn’t work like that, and neither do the markets.
2. Get identified
Brand identity has never been more important in product design and development. This matters, because whether you are seen as being ‘green’, ‘disruptive’, ‘traditional’ etc, will have a strong impact on how your company is perceived and how your products are promoted and discussed, particularly on social media.
Like the identification of market opportunities, research is the key to identity. Explore the markets you want to be in and think about how other companies create the right feel to their products, graphics and promotional media. Strong images and clear graphics are often the route to success. This is one area in which first impressions really do count.
Establishing a brand can be quicker and easier than you might think. Consider some of the new dockless bicycle companies like Mobike that have sprung up in the last few years. Many of these are now large international businesses with a clear identity and strong brand values.
3. Make sure it works
This may seem like stating the obvious but making sure that your product works in every possible way should be the top priority of your development programme. I can think of at least four products I’ve looked at in shops during the past year that wouldn’t pass this test, either because they were too difficult to operate, trapped a finger or suffered from some equally basic problem that could - and should - have been eliminated during development.
These problems are usually the result of an inadequate test programme that only looks at the basic functions of the product and ignores the range of possible uses – and abuses – that the paying public might subject it to. Detailed testing takes time and money, and it is remarkable how many small companies are reluctant to make this investment, even in sectors where accurate and safe function are not just desirable, but essential.
This brings me to the closely related issue of product quality…
4. Focus on quality
There are clearly opportunities to make money from designing and selling rubbish, and the internet is awash with it, but if you want to develop a business that has growth potential and long-term value, you might be better off focussing on quality.
The downside is that this is not the easy or cheap option. Maximising the quality of your products takes time and attention to details, often tiny ones. It also means not putting your product on the market when it is barely out of the prototype stage, but developing it until every software glitch, user interface issue and irritating panel alignment problem is completely worked out and fixed. In our experience, not many companies are prepared to spend the time and money to do this well, but those who do reap dramatic rewards. It is interesting to note that Apple and Dyson are not only two extremely innovative, risk taking companies, but also one's in which product refinement and testing are central to the business model.
It is also important not to confuse quality with high production cost. A high-quality product can be inexpensive to make if it is designed correctly and uses the right materials and processes. Again, the focus needs to be on the details. Does the product creak or rattle? Does it feel solid and well built? Do the parts fit together well? Is it comfortable to use? Some companies take this down to very small details like corner radii and the size of a specific chamfer or edge.
However far you take it, please be assured that investing in product quality will pay dividends in the medium to long term.
If your company makes more than one product (and it should), opportunities to rationalise parts, methods and production systems need to be a priority. Car manufacturers have absolutely nailed this issue by developing ‘platforms’ that share chassis architecture and parts but are developed into ranges of products that compete in widely different markets. Clearly, this approach will not work in every sector, but any opportunity you can identify that will allow you to use the same parts or components in different products will lower your costs and extend your markets. For example, could you sell product variants with lower or higher quality casings than your standard product, but that use the same internal parts?
The other aspect of product rationalisation, particularly if you have a complex product range, is modularity. We worked with a laboratory equipment company whose product inventory was extremely complex but based on five different processes. Instead of building each product as a unique device, we helped them develop a range of modules that could be combined on the production line, simplifying the production inventory and reducing manufacturing time. The commercial benefits of this approach were dramatic, and led to a completely new way of designing, developing and manufacturing their product range.
The bottom line
You may have noticed that my list of five factors does not include ‘making it look good’. This isn’t because I think it doesn’t matter (nothing could be further from the truth…). However, the reality is that if you don’t know your market, have a clear identity, make sure your product works and focus on quality and cost, no amount of appearance design is going to help you.