Product Development: Do Try This At Home

By Montie Roland, RTP Product Development Guild

Morrisville — Our firm receives inquiries from inventors and early stage entrepreneurs fairly frequently. We tend to break down incoming inquiries into four groups. The first group is inventors. Inventors are everyday people with an idea, but no organization to backup the idea. Entrepreneurs are individuals, or a group of individuals, with an idea for a product and a plan for an organization to develop, produce, and distribute that product. Start-ups are groups that are actively working on a daily basis developing the product and the organization necessary to make that product a success. Corporate clients are those in the process of adding another product to their suite of products.

Most design firms are not very interested in spending a lot of time talking with inventors that show up at the door. Many of these folks have great product ideas, however, most inventors are lacking two necessary elements for product success. The first is financial support and the second is the lack of ambition and vision. Product development is expensive. Once the product is developed, it is even more expensive to produce, stock, distribute, market and sell the product. Most inventors do not have access to this level of funding and support.

My impression, after talking with numerous inventors, is that most inventors simply give up, lacking the drive and ambition to make their product concept into a reality. They struggle with making the transition from being an inventor with an idea to an entrepreneur with a plan and a vision.

One possibility for failure is that the inventor has a pre-conception that all they need is an idea and a contact with a major corporation. That corporation will see that product concept and write them a huge check for the inventors idea. This myth is promoted by the ?invention submission? companies. The reality is that most corporations will not even talk to inventors about product concepts that have not been patented.

Another possibility is that many inventors dont know what steps they need to take to get a product to market, so are overwhelmed and give up. There is very little in the way of support structure for inventors and entrepreneurs. High-flying startups get lots of attention and funding, but that doesnt help the inventors, entrepreneurs and early stage startups.

Many design firms are hesitant to even provide proposals to inventors and entrepreneurs because so few of those proposals turn into billable hours. Startups are another example of organizations that often arent in a position to purchase professional services. Most early-stage startups dont have any product sales, and are not in a position to attract venture capital, so they dont have the funds to pay a consultant, or design firm, for needed services. Few consultants, and design firms, are in a financial position to accept the risk of receiving equity (or stock options) from a start up in lieu of fees.

The RTP Product Development Guild is designed to help drive new products to market. This is accomplished by creating teams of consultants to help in the early stages of the product design. These six member teams are made of local professionals in the product design community from various disciplines. Depending on the product, or service, these teams may include disciplines such as engineering, industrial design, software, business, legal, sales and marketing. This structure allows team members to share the risk of working on these projects while giving the product champion (inventor or entrepreneur) the needed product development support.

Guild projects last six months and follow a structured format. The product champion (individual inventor or entrepreneur) meets with Guild team members every two weeks to define, and refine, the product concept into a viable product. Participation in this structured method helps the product champion overcome many of the pitfalls that haunt entrepreneurs trying to develop a product without professional support.

Information about the Guild is available at:

Montie Roland is president of the Carolinas Chapter of the Product Development Management Association. Roland is also president of Montie Design, a product development and prototyping firm in Morrisville.

The RTP Product Development Guilds purpose is to provide consultancy services to startups and small companies across a wide variety of specialties. Guidance will focus on commercializing product ideas and technology.

Product Design Speak 101: Linear versus Iterative Design


Design, by its very nature, is an iterative process. The product design process begins with creating preconceptions. Those preconceptions are used to create a prototype. The prototype is then tested and the test results are evaluated. The evaluations are used to form new preconceptions and the process begins again. These iterative cycles can focus on the entire design, or they can focus on a small area (or technology) of the product. This process relies on prototyping and testing. Prototypes come in many forms. The word ?prototype? is commonly refers to a working model of a product, or product concept. A written, or verbal, description of the product could also be a prototype. A sketch could also serve as prototype. The exact nature of the prototype isnt as important as the effect of the prototype, which is to validate the success, or failure, of the product. As the design progress, the cycles of iteration become more focused, as the developers refine the product.

Different industries have differing levels of toleration number of iterations in a design sequence. Machine design is a good example of an industry with a low tolerance for iteration in the design process. Engineers that design machinery attempt to practice design in a very linear fashion. The goal in the machine design industry is to reach a finished, and proven, design in the least amount of time with the least number of changes or redesign cycles. This approach attempts to follow the straightest possible path to a completed design. This ?straight arrow? approach leads us to classify this industrys design methodology as a linear one. Even with this approach, iterations are necessary. Design iterations inevitably occur during the process of design a new piece of equipment. The can be caused by a machine, or system within a machine, that doesnt perform as expected. When this happens, that part, or sub-system, is redesigned and redeployed. Because of these issues the machine design industry does not have a completely linear process.

The linear nature of machine design is driven by two factors. The first factor is the prevalence of a function requirement and the minimization of aesthetic requirements. In my opinion, the biggest cause of the use of a linear design process in the machine design industry is the percentage of engineering and design costs as compared to the total cost of producing and marketing the machinery. Many machines are custom, or semi-custom, to the specific application (often manufacturing). This results in a small number of units to amortize the engineering costs against. This is a situation where the cost of design and engineering is a significant percentage of the total cost to produce the each machine. As a result, savings in the cost of design have a significant impact on the profitability of that design. This is the exact opposite of consumer products that have a low cost of design, relative to the total cost of producing the product.

Consumer products are examples of products with a very iterative design process. These products are typically produced in high volumes. This allows the cost of design and engineering to be amortized over a large volume of product sales. In higher volume products, there is more incentive to spend more time on the industrial design and front-end design (fuzzy front end) stages of the design process.

Any product, or service, will be judged by the market place based on the experience that the product provides. Machinery is evaluated on institutional-experience criteria including performance, ease-of-use, speed of installation, return on investment (ROI) and uptime. Consumer products are evaluated on end-user experience criteria that include ease-of-use, aesthetics, coolness, usefulness, perception that the product creates and the experience that the user has when interacting with the product. The latter criteria can be very subjective and difficult to capture in any sort of written document.

Products with great user experiences often succeed in the marketplace, where products with poor user experiences fail to generate sales. This does not mean that user experience is the only indicator of potential success. A product may have a compelling value to the customer that overcomes a poor user experience. Typically these products are the first in their class and provide some functionality that is new to the industry. This is a case where the value to the customer is high and the customer will accept a poor user experience in exchange for that functionality. As a segment of an industry matures, the user experience becomes a more important indicator of how well the product will sell in the marketplace.

The current game console war is a good example of this contrast between functionality and usability. The PlayStation 3? is a game console that has an average user experience, but provides state-of-the-art computer graphics. The Wii? is a game console that provides average computer graphics, but has a wonderful user experience. The Wii? has outsold the PlayStation 3? by about twenty percent.

Product iteration allows the design team to explore a variety of concepts. The evaluation of these concepts helps to decide which concepts to integrate into the product and which concepts to drop from the product. Many times the issue isnt whether a concept is good, or bad, but rather ?is it appropriate This is especially true when the design team is evaluating, and improving, the user experience of the proposed product.

Product developers, designers and engineers use the available resources (which are always finite) to work towards achieving the best product possible. The nature of the product and the expectations of the industry and customer ultimately drive the exact nature of the design process. Design is iterative. Product designers rely on experience and a refined process of iterating through the design cycles to create the next product. Often a designer achieves success not by any one single action, but by the consistent application of an educated, and refined, design process.

Montie Roland is President of the Carolinas Chapter of the Product Development Management Association. Roland is also President of Montie Design, a product development and prototyping firm in Morrisville, NC and the RTP Product Development Guild. You can reach Montie by email at: