New products do not magically appear overnight. Despite our collective image of a lone scientist working over a smoldering beaker of neon-colored fluid, most innovations are born of a rigorous process. In fact, studies show that firms with flexible product design processes generate repeatable new product success more than their competitors who approach innovation in an ad-hoc manner.
Watch the short overview video and then read the full blog for details.
Often called the new product development (NPD) process or product innovation process, a product design process takes the innovation team on a journey. We must first identify what strategic needs our customers have, what problems trouble them, and how we can help them solve those problems efficiently. The product design process delivers both steps to advance innovation as well as a set of tools to understand and quantify customer needs.
Steps in The Product Design Process
Most product development processes focus on the deliverables. In Stage X, you must have a fully fleshed-out business case. At Phase Y, you need to have built a functional prototype. What’s different about the product design process is that it focuses on actions that lead new product innovation from rigorous ideas to commercial products.
Step 1 – Ideation
Ideation is a creative process to generate, develop, and communicate new ideas. It involves searching for customer problems and defining the problem space. The two categories of tools deployed in ideation are divergent thinking and convergent thinking.
Divergent thinking tools seek to expand the question and derive alternate concepts. Sometimes we misinterpret a customer’s problem through our own biases (please see the blog on Optimism Bias). Other times, we jump to solutions without considering the whole scope of the problem. This can make products overly complex while they do not satisfy customers most basic needs. Consider the long list of micro-print included with prescription drugs. The warnings might be justified, but an 80-year old patient with macular degeneration cannot possibly determine appropriate dosage.
In convergent thinking, we take the creative ideas and solutions generated by cross-functional teams and collate them. The purpose of this step in the design process is to find common themes or concepts that will address large market segments so that we can move forward in the product design process. It is impossible – and fraught with risk and expense – to pursue all ideas.
Step 2 – Concept Design
Concept design introduces clarity and alignment for the product. It provides a way to explain what the product will do, how it will function, and how it will solve the customer’s problem. Often the concept design is a simple narrative description or sketch. This yields high-level feedback from customers to validate that the problem definition is correct. When organizations skip this step, they end up designing and selling products that only almost solve a customer’s problem. Unfortunately, this leaves a big gap for competition to fill with a better product that satisfies customer needs with better quality.
Step 3 – Embodiment
As a product moves from concept design into more detailed design, a product innovation team accounts for technical and economic feasibility. Customers will exchange hard earned money for products that offer convenience, simplification, or luxury experiences. The embodiment of the product must balance the features and attributes of the design against cost of manufacturing and, ultimately, the selling price.
Conjoint analysis is a common tool used at this stage of the product design process. This tool allows customers to rank and prioritize a select set of features against prices. The outcome of a conjoint analysis provides the product innovation team with a list of the most important features that must be included in a final product. Results of the study are important since it links desired features and quality levels with willingness to pay.
Step 4 – Draft Product Specifications
At this point in the design process, the “what” and “why” of the product are well defined. The next step is to determine “how”. The initial product specifications lay out physical dimensions and manufacturability. A key tool in this phase is D4X, or Design for X, where X may represent assembly, maintenance, or usability.
The expected outcome of the draft product design specification stage is to quantify and clarify the product design. Communication of the purpose of the product, quality levels of individual features, and the cost/benefit of the product are also important outcomes. Since the next stage is determining final product development and manufacturing methods, the draft product design specifications should be complete and reflect all key characteristics that the product must deliver.
Step 5 – Detailed Design
A primary tool in the detailed design process is QFD (Quality Function Deployment). This methodology converts the draft design specifications into specific manufacturing and engineering criteria. In other words, QFD translates the customer needs into measurable requirements. QFD is a sophisticated tool with matching, prioritization, and scaling of customer needs, competitive responses, and design attributes, combined with cost to create engineering metrics for new product manufacturing. QFD originated in the automotive industry and uses a graphic called the House of Quality. (Read more in the blog post Innovation Tools: What is QFD?)
Step 6 – Final Production
Sometimes called “Fabrication and Assembly”, the last step in the design process for new product development is manufacturing and producing the product. This includes prototype testing, market testing, and systems integration. Prototype testing ensures that the product works as it was designed to work and meets customer needs. Companies should test a variety of prototypes from those with just a few relevant features (e.g. the minimally viable product, MVP) to a high-fidelity working prototype. It is less expensive to modify the manufacturing and distribution process is before finalizing specifications and production moves to large scale.
The Product Design Process
The product design process does not replace a traditional or emergent project management process (like Stage-Gate® or Scrum). Instead, product design lies parallel to the project management decisions. Product design forces enhanced communication and interaction with customers resulting in better overall product designs and reception in the marketplace. While we have only briefly touched on some of the important product design tools here, you can read about them in depth in the comprehensive text, Product Design and Innovation by Carlos Rodriguez. He includes a lot of very thorough examples to lead you through the entire product design process.
How Do You Use Product Design?
Every industry, company, and product is different. You may know your market well, so that a new product simply needs limited design and testing. Or you may be developing brand new technology and need to conduct extensive testing with potential and existing customers to ensure strategic alignment. In this case, you will want to explore more of the product design phases and tools with more depth.
The most important part of any product innovation processes to ensure strategic business alignment. Developing product strategy precedes the product design process. Start with our Reset Your Strategy workshop in August 2020. Pre-register here. Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
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I am inspired by writing, teaching, and coaching. I tackle life with an infusion of rigor, zeal, and faith. It brings me joy to help you build innovation leaders. Teresa Jurgens-Kowal is an experienced innovation professional with a passion for lifelong learning with a PhD in Chemical Engineering and an MBA in Computer and Information Decision Making. My credentials include PE (State of Louisiana), NPDP, PMP®, and CPEM, and I am a DiSC® certified facilitator. Contact me at email@example.com or area code 281 + phone 787-3979 for more information on coaching for entrepreneurs and innovators.
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[…] In innovation projects, customer needs are documented in the PIC (product innovation charter). During all stages of the structured NPD process, the innovation project team will test customer needs to ensure alignment with the product design. One way in which to map customer needs to engineering design specs is to use the QFD tool (quality function deployment). Read more about process design here. […]