This is the first in a series of articles designed to help entrepreneurs and early stage start-ups understand what it takes to take a product idea from initial concept to manufacturing. We will mostly be focusing on the design of physical products, but will touch on user interaction, experience design, and a few go-to-market strategies you may want to consider. The purpose of this series is to educate you as to what to expect when working with an outside (or in-house) design team.
This first article is a basic recipe of how we at Speck Design approach product design on a high level. Often when people come to us, they want to know what it takes to take their idea/product into production, but in fact what they really need to do is just enough to get to their next funding event. Getting all the way into production is very expensive, and the safest way to proceed may be to push your design forward in steps or phases depending on your funding strategy and your business goals.
The topics we cover in this series are based on Speck Design’s 22 years of experience designing products for clients, ranging from a doctor with their idea sketched on a napkin to a robot for Google. That being said, this is our approach, and other design firms may approach things differently. The important thing is for you to understand a firm’s methods and make sure they are aligned with your business and strategic needs.
In subsequent articles we will dive deeper into what happens in each phase and what best design strategies fit your product and process. We look forward to any feedback as we go to help tailor these articles to provide you with the information and subjects you find most helpful.
Understanding your target customer is essential. Ideally at this point you will either do some bootstrap research with friends and family to formulate not only who your customer is, but what unmet need your product will solve. If there are already competing products out there, how do you differentiate? What is your value proposition? If you have funds and time to invest in this stage you can have a professional conduct user research using a variety of tools, including online surveys, one-on-one interviews, ethnographic observations, etc.
During this phase your engineering and design team will be working in tandem to create both the industrial design as well as early engineering feasibility. By working as an integrated team, the design can move through the steps faster than doing things sequentially.
Once your design team understands your product vision, your brand attributes, and your users, they will quickly create Experience Principles that will guide your design. (We will talk about experience principles in subsequent chapter, but for now consider that all successful products are ones where the user connects emotionally because of their experience using the product.) Once the design principles are established, the team will come up with a range of concepts looking at user interaction and technical requirements to create the look and feel of your product.
Depending on the technical challenge, there may be some early engineering needed as well. In this phase, the engineering team may build a number of prototypes to validate various technical challenges using a variety of materials to rapidly build what are called Proof of Concept (POC). These models prove that the product will work. These prototypes are mostly mechanical with limited software and are made out of a variety of off-the-shelf and rapid prototype parts. The purpose is to rapidly validate the concepts and focus on a limited feature set.
This is where the concepts generated in Step 2 will be refined. Besides the form (and engineering validation if needed) this is when Color, Material, and Finish (CMF) is applied to the design. The final output may be only renderings to show potential investors. At this point you may opt to build an Appearance Model - this will look like a real product but is non-functional. Appearance models can be used for a variety of reasons; for your marketing campaign, to show potential investors, or to do design verification with potential users. These models, while not functional, can be extremely useful; products look very different on a screen than they do in your hand. These models can also be used to validate the design with user feedback. This is a good place to pause and use the models to get funding. You can now show investors that work has been done to define and prove that the product is viable, and that you have put in sufficient work to understand your users, test out the technical viability, and produced a design that responds to the users’ needs.
This is the first stage where you will have a Functioning Prototype. The engineering team will work out enough of the technical details to create a Minimum Viable Product (MVP). You don’t want to refine the design too much quite yet - not until it functions in the way the engineering team has anticipated. During this phase the team will build a P0 Prototype. This prototype is used to make sure the design is ready to move into Product Commercialization and can also be used for limited field testing. Usually these prototypes will be made using rapid prototype methods combined with readily available technology to create a functional prototype. The design is now at a phase where both the engineering, user interaction, and the industrial design are solidified and is now ready to move through the stages needed to get it into production. This is also a valid stopping point to attain funding. The next phases are the often the most expensive and need the most business support in terms of Go-to-Market strategy.
Your engineering team will move into refining the engineering and working out the bugs. There will be a number of rounds of prototype builds and refinements before the product is ready for production. Depending on the number of initial products being built, this is when the design would move into tooling.
The product is now ready to move into manufacturing. However, this is not as simple as dropping it at the door. Ideally your team has picked a manufacturing partner and have been working with them to conduct Design for Manufacturing (DFM) reviews. If not, this will need to happen now, and there may need to be another round of engineering. If you need to do compliance testing, this may be done now, or if your products have been refined enough, you may have completed it before you get to this stage. Depending on how complex your design is, manufacturing may be as big a part of the process in terms of time and budget as the product development steps. Depending on the size of your First Customer Ship (FCS), your Contract Manufacturer (CM) will refine the assembly and production methods to streamline the production. At this point, your design team will step back and be available as need arises, but they have now completed their work.