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Common Costly Mistakes to Avoid in Product Development: Part 1
“The wise man learns from the experience of others, a stupid one not even from his own” was an insightful nugget of wisdom shared by my father many years ago and it is one that has held true through all situations.
Mistakes are a critical part of the learning process. While success is mostly taken for granted with the reasons for success rarely analyzed, mistakes can teach us important lessons. Learning about what is wrong, what can go wrong and how we can overcome them can hasten problem solving skills and can help build good judgement. It also sets us up for success.
This could not be truer in the case of product development.
Product development or product design process is an elaborate, multi-step process that sees an idea all the way from ideation to fruition and beyond. There are multiple departments and skills involved every step of the way (engineering, design, project management, business management, marketing, sales, after-sales) and the possibilities of costly mistakes across the process are one too many.
If you refer to Fig 4 in my previous blog on ‘Electronic Product Development: Concept to Manufacturing’, you can see that bringing about a change in the design (due to a mistake or any other reason) at any stage of the development process can result in delays and can exponentially drive-up costs, especially at the later stages. The sooner we can rectify mistakes, the better it is.
Part 1 of the blog on ‘Common Costly Mistakes to avoid in Product Development’ aims to highlight some of the common issues one can see across three broad phases of product development.
- Pre-Development Phase
- Development Phase
- Post Development Phase
For the sake of clarity, please keep in mind that this blog focuses on products that have a hardware (i.e., a PCBA) or electronic components.
Let us start by looking at some general issues at a process level (macro).
Pre-Development Phase Pitfalls
1. Source (procurement) raw materials and components from suppliers
Not learning from existing products in the market is a big mistake. It is important to do thorough market research to understand market needs, competition and to also know what is technically feasible. It is quite common for an innovator to get emotionally attached to his/her idea. It is hard to let go, especially if it is the only idea they have. (This is commonly known as the “My baby is not ugly” syndrome).
For a successful NPI, It is important to focus on the innovation sweet spot (see figure 1) which finds itself at the intersection of what is desired, technically feasible and within the reach of available resources for this development.
Figure 1: Innovation sweet spot
2. Making a Swiss army knife of products
There are innovators who wish for their product to solve everything, all of the problems. The Swiss army knife is a good product, but it is only ~75% good at everything.
In our opinion, successful product launches must have 100% of their focus dedicated to solving one issue. The solution here is to narrow down your design goal, market and target, and your product will have more chances to be successful. I highly recommend young innovators to go through the book “Crossing the Chasm” by Geoffrey A. Moore.
3. Confusing customer requirements with product requirements
Customers don’t always necessarily know what they want — Sometimes it is difficult for them to articulate a specific product solution without first seeing a prototype or the product itself.
Secondly, customers don’t know what is technically possible. They do not have the time or expertise to stay abreast of the many developments in technology that may influence product solutions.
And thirdly, customers aren’t in a position to visualize the whole range of product needs and opportunities.
It is the job of the innovator to deeply understand the target market and its needs, and to combine what is possible with what is desirable (Refer to figure 1), to create products that solve real problems.
4. Confusing features with benefits
It is very easy to get absorbed with the specifics of the features that make up your product, rather than the benefits that those features may provide. This pitfall is predominant for innovators with an engineering background. Focusing on “Look how fast the processor runs!”, rather than focusing on the benefits it provides to an end-user. Yes, the processor runs fast, and so the video plays smoothly.
One must always remember that the product’s value proposition speaks to the benefits, and not the features.
Development Phase Pitfalls
1. Initial feature set is not equal to the NPI strategy
Throwing every feature you think the user wants into your initial product design does not give it a purpose, nor is a long-term strategy (this goes hand in hand with the Swiss army knife pitfall described above). Your goal in launching the first version of your product is to focus on what your users truly need to accomplish when they first use it, and then to evolve it over time — adding more features at the right time.
The idea is to release early and to iterate often and to improve in sequential releases. Remember what Reid Hoffman, Founder of LinkedIn once popularly stated: “If you are not embarrassed by the first version of your product, you’ve launched too late.”
Users don’t know what you didn’t launch with (nor do they care), so having a strategy around what you add and when, can make updates seem like little gifts to your users over time
Be aware, an excess of features may feel confusing to the user. So much so that they may not come back. On this topic I warmly recommend: The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less, by Barry Schwartz
There is a fine balance and, a narrow line that one must walk to achieve a successful launch.
2. Skipping steps in the Development Phase
This is never a good strategy especially for the products that target highly regulated markets.
While at first it may seem like a contradiction with the point above, this one is referring to the complete product design rather than on the number of features required for early initial release. There is absolutely no advantage in skipping steps in the long run. Remember: “You have to build it in order to build it.” You cannot cut corners when it comes to product development as it will hurt your bottom line (i.e., recalls) and even your company reputation (i.e., bad reviews).
3. Clearly documenting the requirements and deadlines
Clear documentation and clearly defined deadlines are the cornerstones of a good development process.
Bad requirements or convoluted requirements will bring you nowhere. It takes discipline and experience to streamline and make requirements clear for everyone. Documentation in the end is the cornerstone for successful development. Refer to our blog on the best practices of requirements documentation and the benefits gained from properly documenting requirements from the very first stage.
4. Failing to design for manufacturing
“The difficulty and value of manufacturing is underappreciated. It's relatively easy to make a prototype but extremely difficult to mass manufacture […] reliably at scale.” Elon Musk.
We must remember that a prototype is not equivalent to a pilot build. It is one thing to design a prototype and it is a totally different ballgame designing a product that is ready for manufacturing.
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5. Checking regulatory requirements and certification at the 11th hour
Leaving regulatory and certification requirements to the last minute is a common issue and if overlooked, will introduce considerable delays in the development process. The product will have to go through a couple of redesigns which can be very costly. In extreme cases, one may find out that product shipments are not allowed in the destination country because certifications are not in place, and the required paperwork is missing. This can also result in triggering recalls and even worse legal actions which can cost you a lot of money.
Design with the regulatory req. in mind from the get-go.
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6. Delay in engaging with suppliers
This is arguably one is one of the biggest issues these days. With estimated delivery wait times of 50 to 60 weeks for some parts and subassemblies, the importance of talking as early and as often with you supply chain cannot be stressed enough. While your supply chain connections cannot manufacture parts, you will at least be in the know and/or you may receive suggestions for alternative components.
7. Failure to have enough prototypes
Prototypes are the most expensive units of the future product that you will ever produce. I get that. The cost of a single prototype can run into thousands of dollars. To save on cost, some innovators may decide to produce only 5 prototypes (instead of 8 or 10, or even more). Out of the 5, they may discover 3 are not working, one may get fried in the bringing up process and then they are left with just one working prototype, hanging by a thread. The recommendation here is to go for at least 10 units, depending on the size of the project and on the cost. You may discover that the difference between 8 or 10 prototypes is not too much in the end, but it has the potential of saving you a lot of time.
8. Unreasonable expectations on timeline
“You cannot rush art” is a quote from Pixar’s “Toy Sorry 2” movie that holds value. Design is art. It is important to consider the timelines given by the design team, as they are carefully thought out and planned based on experience and understanding of the requirements. Adding unrealistic timelines on top of the inherent development pressure does not help anybody.
9. Not using feedback effectively
One proven way, if not the only way, for a new product development is to “fail fast & fail often”. In other words, iterate as much as possible based on feedback received. In our opinion, product innovators should be ready to go through with at least a couple of protos for the first version of the product before manufacturing (and this is the bare minimum of req. iterations).
10. Managing expectations
The expectation is to go directly from concept-to-design-to-manufacturing without any hiccups, with all the pieces of the development puzzle “falling naturally in their place”. The reality is the NPI path is rather convoluted and is never a straight line. There are multiple factors involved and it is important to be prepared to face different scenarios. Resilience is a key success factor when it comes to NPD and NPI.
Post-Development Phase Pitfalls
1. Not understanding the required effort for releasing a design into production
It is one thing to start design, and another thing to start production. There are processes in place that can help you with the transition from design to manufacturing. For a better understanding of the process involved in design transfer, we suggest referring to our blog on the manufacturing process.
2. Not understanding the required effort for releasing the new product the market
Remember that the engineering & manufacturing (including supply chain management) is only a part of the effort. The innovator is also responsible for setting up the sales team, inventory management, distribution channels, field service personnel and after-sales support channels. It is also important to prepare and plan the launch strategy (market, territory, pricing). Very often, the innovator is so involved in the design that they do not sufficiently plan for what should happen after.
3. Not being prepared for success
One may think that the moment you are successful things look great, the work is done and peace and calm settles. However, when your design is ready, be prepared for a lot of work ahead, especially when it becomes a market success.
A few things to consider:
- The product must be made available to the target market. Unless it is easy for them to pick up the product at their convenience, the sales target will not be met.
- The channel partners must be convinced of the viability of the product and have to stock it adequately. The pricing of the product must be consistent with the benefits it seeks to provide and with the wallet of the target customer. If the cost is too high, the customer will simply ignore the new product and it will stay on the shelves.
These are some common costly mistakes to avoid in Product Development to avoid failures, delayed launches, exorbitant costs and missed opportunities. Remember, you cannot design a product in vacuum, there are way too many considerations and dependencies on your product development lifecycle. Also keep in mind, that for a successful product, you must be ready to iterate often and soon.
Stay tuned for Part 2 of this blog which will focus on mistakes commonly seen in Electronic Hardware Design, Industrial Design and Firmware Design.