Product development can be complicated, drawn-out and bureaucratic. But the effort can also lead to tangible and helpful items, making the process particularly satisfying.
Product development is the process of turning an idea into a new product. It involves original and critical thinking, manufacturing, design and drive. When everything goes right, product development takes an idea and turns it into a reliable, cost-effective and aesthetically-pleasing finished product.
Sarah Meerschaert works in Project Management for Products, doing research and development for CenTrak. In an interview with SmartSheet, she said product development must consider “how unique a new product is as compared to your current offerings, [and the] risks associated with it. Often small improvements over time can be the safer option. Emerging technologies and emerging markets can open up opportunities where it is worthwhile to build a new product farther outside the wheelhouse. Development of something truly new can offer a greater reward, but also more room for error!”
Meerschaert also warned upcoming product developers, “The world of software is quickly moving and iterative. The world of products cannot adapt as quickly. That being said, 3D printing and other quick prototyping innovations have allowed for quicker turnaround times in product development. With less time needed, more innovation is taking place. However, patent law is no small boundary and many upstart inventors can find themselves in legal trouble because of unintentional infringement, or with other companies quickly copying their ideas before patents are securely in place.”
Dean Geraci, who also interviewed with SmartSheet and has more than 25 years of product development as the General Manager at ProMation Engineering, Inc. had the following to remind new product developers: “The most important aspect of new product development for newcomers it to follow the steps needed for any new product in a development pipeline. While called different things, each level needs to be completed before the next.”
According to Geraci there are five essential steps to product development.
Before anything else, you must have an idea. Geraci tells us to ask ourselves “What is the product and can it be made?” before even thinking about the other stages. Geraci goes on to inform us that in this step “customer requirements meet technical details. One might not have all the answers at this stage, but the essence is that can the product be made [to meet] market or customer needs.” According to Booz, Allen, and Hamilton, which the BAH model of product design is named after, “For every seven new product ideas, only one succeeds.” So the generation of potentially great ideas is an important place to start and it can be the most time-consuming step, this is by design (get it?) and not a reason to get too discouraged. Once you’re sure that you have a good idea, that will meet customer needs, it is time to move on to step two.
This step is also often referred to as “screening” and can be accomplished in a number of different ways. One way is to have an independent focus or decision group evaluate your proposal and make a decision whether to move forward or drop a project. Ideally, in this stage, the decision group should have some sort of operating criteria so that decisions can be made fairly and quickly, such criteria could include: market potential, whether there are similar/identical products with patents already on them, and costs of production.
According to Geraci, “This is probably the most important [stage] and takes considerable thought. Can and how do I make the product at the price point I need? Market research, component identification, capital requirements, initial business plan (including marketing) as well as many other aspects need to be fleshed out in this phase.” Different companies have very different strategies for this stage, part of which is determined by which development model they are using, BAH, the Stage-Gate Model, Lean Product Development, Six Sigma Methodology, User-Centered Design, etc. (the steps outlined in this article are the broadest compilation of these models, as all have some variation of concept, feasibility, development, qualification, and launch, no matter how many diverse or specific sub-steps they break each into).
The first step in development is usually making a prototype. Doing this may involve finalizing design concepts in the form of sketches, drawings and illustrations, determining the best presentation strategies for these concepts, watching market trends (especially regarding favorite product features and aesthetics), coordinating with artists and designers to mockup the prototype, and modifying or make revisions to designs to meet customer demands or needs, and production limitations.
According to Geraci, “The Development phase defines the processes and operating procedures to make the product efficiently.” From making a prototype, to developing the product further, to documenting every detail and breathe of the process, this stage is where you get to begin to see the fruition of your labor, and is where the satisfaction can really begin to kick it, knowing of course that things can still go wrong and best they go wrong in step three or four than after step five.
Also commonly known as the “testing phase,” qualification is when cars get driven into brick walls with crash dummies and where people try out the new spork to see if it really can work as both a spoon and a fork. What has revolutionized both development and qualification in the last couple of decades, is “virtual product development (VPD),” which allows production designers to design and test a product in a digital environment, either in 2-D or in 3-D. VPD has become essential for companies that work in competitive markets since it significantly speeds up the entire product development process. Companies design, test and plan manufacturing of a product all before having to buy and use any materials, making the process less wasteful as well as faster.
When I was a child, I went to a “bring your kid to work day” and watched an engineer design a bridge on what looked to me like a computer game, then test the bridge’s ability to withstand certain weights, weather conditions and wear over time. Now, VPD is used in almost every industry and allows engineers and product developers to work remotely, helping to increase worker flexibility, an issue we know is intimately tied up with gender and job access.
According to Geraci, “Qualification is the testing required to ensure that the developed product meets the market or customer needs,” and like with any of the steps, bad things can happen if you move past Qualification without giving it the time and detail-oriented energy it requires.
Releasing, marketing, advertising, maintaining, all these tasks are important for a successful launch and sustainable product. According to Geraci, “The last phase is Launch where all the elements come together – business plan, go to market strategy, pricing, customer/market segmentation, promotion/advertising to name just a few – to bring the product to market.” Having a strategy, using various forms of media (traditional and social), setting goals and tracking analytics are sales are important to succeeding during and after the initial launch. Geraci in his last statement to SmartSheet, reminds us once again that, “Skipping any of these steps can lead to failure of the product or worse: recalls, lost opportunity, retreating from the market. The key is to fail early and fix the issues at hand before the product is in the customer's hands.”
One example of product development is Nissan’s Leaf. Nissan set out to make a wildly accessible fully electric car, that perhaps with government incentives, could be affordable to middle-class people in the United States (unlike cars from the first successful electric car manufacturer, Tesla, which start at over $40,000).
Nissan set out to design a car that could be mass-produced, and designed it to have user-attractive features, such as the ability to charge at home from a regular outlet, a silent startup, and a roomy cabin size. Nissan Global has the following on its website regarding the testing phase of the Nissan Leaf and the man in charge, Kouji Tanaka: “What if you had to drive through a puddle? And what about in the remote chance you are struck by lightning? Let's say your pet chewed on the charging cable? What if. In the remote chance that. Let's say. Etc etc. There is a man who has the heads-up on all the dangers you might face in a Nissan car. His research field is inexhaustible: Everything and anything that can happen to a vehicle. Whatever minute occurrence life throws at a car, it's his job to test it out. Kouji Tanaka was part of the EV Safety Protection Project Technical Development team for Nissan's Leaf.”
Testing takes enormously divergent thinking, considering the most unlikely of possibilities. “’ What are the dangers for an electric vehicle? What kind of tests should be done? We had to really find out through feeling our way,’ recalls Tanaka. After all, Nissan Leaf was the first electric vehicle the company had mass-produced. This required the team to create a whole new set of tests they had never conceived of before in all their years of perfecting gasoline vehicles. They had to envision the narrative of drivers actually using the new EV in order to shed light on any potential weaknesses, on any chinks in the armor. The team ended up performing tests narrowed down from over 1,000 hypothetical situations. The clues for devising these tests always lie in everyday life. Walking the dog leads to ‘So, what if the dog chewed the EV's charging cable?’ Spotting a woman out shopping inspires the question ‘Would you get an electric shock if you were wearing a necklace while charging up the car?’ These kinds of moments help Tanaka realize the delicate details of his tests.” Nissan ended up launching the Leaf worldwide in 2010, and in 2019 it is the best-selling, all-electric car in the world.
Product designers often work full-time in an office environment, but people involved with product development, like Kouji Tanaka, can really end up spending their days anywhere, from an office to a testing warehouse, to knocking on doors. Product developers, who specialize in various steps of the process might also work as freelancers who contract with companies. They may use workshops, studios and factory spaces, and meet with customers and co-workers to discuss products, in addition to any office time. Product development is a field that brings together many diverse talents and rewards innovation and creativity, whether that is in the concept stage or the testing stage. Think it might be for you? Check out Fairygodboss’s product development job listings!