Whether it’s getting started with defining product requirements, considering early purchases of critical parts, or helping overcome supply chain challenges, the product design process today is more complex and more difficult than ever. After decades of experience in the development of hundreds of products in various industries, we have identified essential information for projects and product design to ensure the success of the process.
Here are the top seven ideas to help guide successful product design.
1. Product requirements and project parameters must be well defined
Here’s a question: If you don’t know where you’re going, how do you know when you’ll get there? Successful products are the result of clearly understanding user needs or delivering a unique and valued user experience. The value proposition must be defined taking into account the competitive landscape. A fine balance between selecting the optimal feature set is necessary to avoid cost, schedule, and risk inflation. It’s not just about knowing where competitors’ products are at, but also anticipating the future of competitors. Never blindly accept the idea that the market will be the same in 6 or 12 months or more. Your product definition should look landscape forward. This should be documented, including where and how the product should be sold. All of these factors affect the design effort to follow. Of course, you have to be agile to respond to inevitable changes in the market or in technology. However, deviations from the defined requirements must be made taking into account the impact.
It is also crucial to have a good idea of how the project will be executed. Too often, projects start with an incomplete or inaccurate understanding of the resources that will be required. This can be related to budget or personnel. Although staffing issues can be mitigated by bringing in a product development consulting partner (like IPS) or contractors, this requires adequate funding. Similarly, product requirements should be translated into design and engineering specifications to best define your project parameters.
2. Be objective about your basic design and engineering skills
Everyone knows the expression “jack of all trades, master of none”. It is important to be realistic in assessing your company’s internal capabilities from an expertise perspective. If niche expertise is required, how will you solve this problem? One can try to hire additional talent directly, but that only makes sense if you can afford to recruit and onboard them, as well as define whether you have an ongoing, long-term need for their skills. Often a consulting firm can be brought in with the niche expertise needed to complement your team. In such cases, there is no need for a long-term commitment as one might with direct personnel.
3. The regulatory landscape must be clearly defined
It is important to understand the regulatory approvals that will be required for the product. If it will be sold internationally, it may require multiple agency approvals. Additionally, products sold in many countries may have subtle product differences (for example, items such as power supplies and wiring/connectors).
In the case of medical products, this is a crucial decision to be made consciously early in the product development process. For example, what class of device will the FDA consider for this device? Should you pursue a “health/wellness” implementation first, then introduce a “medical” product requiring FDA approval? This has a huge impact on verification, risk mitigation, and testing documentation.
4. Prototyping and early testing are mandatory
Today, everyone is familiar with rapid prototyping techniques for mechanical and electrical systems. This is necessary and a precursor to performing component and subsystem level testing. Finding problems early is the goal. It’s best to build robust prototyping and testing into project plans. Early prototypes that “look and feel” or “work like” the envisioned product are extremely helpful in getting customer feedback. If a company is seeking capital, investors will likely ask to see models that show and communicate intent and mitigate risk.
5. Considering current supply chain challenges
The key things to consider here are designing for multiple sources. It may be necessary to take extraordinarily early action on risky purchases for critical parts that may have extremely long or unpredictable delivery times. If you use external resources, consider the potential bandwidth of available regulatory design and test resources.
6. Identify and actively manage your risks
Successful product developers assess project risks early to understand what can cause variability in project/product cost and schedule. In addition, one must be realistic about the feasibility. If the product is an implementation of a mature technology, then the project is execution driven (i.e. one can easily anticipate what it will take to achieve the goals). However, if the product requires the development of new-to-the-world technology or manufacturing processes, it is best to recognize the risk associated with discovery which may require iterative steps and may embody feasibility risk.
7. Get Product Roadmap Information
It is very helpful to understand the product under consideration in the context of the company’s existing products or products being considered in the future. It’s hard to build a business around a “one and done” product. Successful companies realize that there can be a sequence of products on which to build the business. Understanding the anticipated future needs of the product can help structure the product to help enable future variants.
Those of us in product development are always eager to get in and execute the project at lightning speed with minimal cost of money and resources. Product designers can run at top speed; however, doing so without realizing the above information can result in a huge waste of time and money due to mistakes and misdirection. This leads to cost overruns and unmanageable schedule delays. Applying a balanced level of discipline gives the best chance of creating an out-of-process product within cost and schedule constraints that meets end-user needs and delivers expected returns on investment.