Product design - keeping it real

21st May 2016

Product design - keeping it real

A client recently reminded me that Kickstarter has banned the use of photo-realistic renderings because they can give the impression that the project is more advanced than it actually is. I couldn’t agree more with their approach, and it got me thinking about other aspects of product design and development that can mislead and confuse, particularly if you’re working on your first project.

The first one is fundamental: what are you buying when you pay for design work? We meet quite a few first time entrepreneurs who have been to one of the less scrupulous agencies and spent a lot of money on spurious patent advice and an impressive rendering. The problem is that they have been encouraged to believe that they’ve bought a design, when in fact they only have a very expensive picture. It usually turns out that the ‘design’ has been knocked out very quickly, with no consideration for manufacture, assembly, use or function. We usually have to break it to the client that they will have to start again if they want to end up with a product that can actually be manufactured and sold.

The time it takes to get from an idea to a product is the second area that seems prone to confusion. We’re all under pressure do more things in less time, and we all want to meet – or exceed - client expectations. However, media reports on high tech production processes encourage people to expect almost instant results. The reality is that product development is a process, not an event, and several stages of work will be needed to get the right result. One of these stages is prototyping and testing. James Dyson famously sold his original cyclone cleaners with a swing tag that proudly proclaimed that the product was the result of 5000 prototypes. Whilst this might seem a little excessive, the point is that one of the biggest mistakes any new product developer can make is to attempt to short-circuit the process.

This brings me to the final point of confusion that affects many product design projects – attention to detail. Design is often seen as being about grand gestures and big statements. Whilst there is certainly room for this approach, design effectiveness and the quality of the user experience usually come down to tiny details. No one knows this better than Apple, who famously spend years perfecting design details on their products in order to achieve a level of user experience that others still marvel at. These results do not come cheap or fast. Like the search for continuous improvement and incremental change that transformed the UK cycling team prior to the London Olympics, developing and refining product details takes time and effort, but is always worth it.

Good product design is about creating things that make our lives better, from making a phone call to cooking a meal or conducting a scientific experiment. Its most obvious impact is on external form and colour, but this hides the tremendous time and effort that goes into making products economic, safe, practical and easy to use. So, if you are developing your first product, plan out how to do it properly in the shortest possible time, and ignore anyone who offers a quick fix – it will be rubbish.


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