Q: Do successful products rely on technical ability, or business acumen?
A: Successful product design usually begins with people who know their market very well already; they know what is already out there, what the pros and cons of the competition are, and who their target customers are. Those that jump straight into a new market without prior knowledge tend to encounter more barriers that push costs up and deadlines out.
Interestingly, the reasons for failure are rarely technical – there’s usually a solution that works. However, the key thing is to get the right mix between business and technical requirements.
Q: What are the biggest pitfalls in product design?
A: Without doubt the biggest problem is underestimation. Nearly every project makes this mistake to some degree – from completely underestimating the market as a whole, through to underestimating budgets or testing requirements. We see a lot of keen folk with a strong idea that have created a proof of concept with Arduino and a breadboard, and think they’re 60% there, but, in reality, that initial concept is really only 20% of the way through the design process in terms of time and cost. This is a common reason for single-product start-ups failing – they’ve raised what they think is enough capital, but they’ve underestimated the other parameters by a significant margin. This is where getting early expert consultation can really pay dividends and save time and money.
That ability to budget accurately at the outset is vital and requires good planning of the whole project – many companies forget that there are significant marketing costs to include, including shipping, following a completely successful final product design. There are also costs and logistics in owning long-term support, the need to handle obsolescence issues, as well as software updates to combat security vulnerabilities or third-party dependencies.
Other obvious issues we see time and time again are not planning ahead properly for compliance testing, which requires a clear-eyed assessment of which countries should be targeted. Compliance standards should be gathered early on, and it’s worth slimming down the list of countries if budget is limited – compliance testing can swallow up to 50% of the budget for truly global compliance. One example we had recently was a project that was going smoothly until it became apparent that it didn’t meet some US state fire regulations (each state has different regulations), so retro design fixes had to be done. However, knowing exactly which states were crucial markets, and collecting their regulations in advance, would have saved time and money.
Q: Is there a way to manage risk when designing a new product?
A: Of course, there are risks to any new product introduction, but there are ways to manage those risks. The most important step is to pull as much risk forward as you can to the beginning of product development. The fact is that most new products are pushing technical boundaries in some sense or other; there’s always an area that may or may not work out – these are the things to tackle upfront and early on – leave the box-ticking simpler stuff until later in the timeline.
In one example, we were working on a custom Android tablet that needed to deliver precisely-timed audio, using Wi-Fi. We were concerned about the robustness of Wi-Fi in a very busy and congested environment. By conducting a feasibility study at the outset, we were able to test and propose a method of using Wi-Fi combined with Bluetooth beacons to enable on-device audio synchronisation, solving this issue at the start.
Q: Should a product design remain in-house, outsourced or in partnership?
A: Being clear about your in-house strengths and weaknesses is a vital component of success, which we find most companies are relatively good at. It’s worth bearing in mind that the one-man-band might be the cheapest option to begin with, but we see a lot of companies that take this route initially run into difficulties when scaling up. It is also absolutely vital to carefully select your partners, with the right skills and attributes for your needs. Another way to think of it is that you don’t want to partner that very quickly becomes a bottleneck in the process – you do get what you pay for here.
Another particularly common problem is outsourcing to one of the many international manufacturing firms, who will deliver an initially sound product based on tweaks to an existing design. However, these firms then often own the IP, leaving the customer with no ability to take their design and business elsewhere, and then exploit this position by ramping costs excessively. It’s vital that contracts are checked to ensure the client owns the IP – this gives businesses flexibility if they want to take production in-house, for example.
Q: Are there ways to recover a project that is spiralling into failure?
A: One of our most popular services is the Design Rescue service, where we see a lot of variations on projects that have effectively ‘failed’ in their current form but can be turned around by addressing specific issues. Most commonly we see problems such as loss of IP, but there’s a huge variety of potential points of failure, including that technically-competent one-man-band retiring, as well as underestimations of budgets and time required to get a product through multiple revisions, testing and production successfully.
Q: In the last few years we’ve seen significant global shortages of capacitors and RAM, which has pushed prices up across the board – are there methods of mitigating these wider market threats to a product?
A: We’ve certainly had customers that have come to us with a working product but with a brief to get component costs down, and there are usually ways to do this. Especially around memory now, there are plenty of options to use different types of memory that can have a significant impact on cost.
Another client had 80 different pumps in the market, each with a different controller board, so by standardising the board across the range, the company made considerable cost-savings without having to compromise quality or operational effectiveness.
The big thing here is to work with the supply chain and contract your manufacturer at an early stage, don’t leave it until the last minute. Getting a draft bill of materials costed up as soon as possible is pretty essential to avoid unexpected costs.