In reality, the creative process rarely unfolds in a perfectly linear fashion: you will jump back and forth between steps, follow tangents, hit dead ends, discard and resurrect ideas. However, if you find yourself at an impasse, reviewing the underlying product design process can help you figure out where you are stuck so that you can realign focus and plan your next steps.
This first stage involves the gathering of ideas without any firm commitment to a final direction or outcome. Keep a running list of product ideas that are not currently in development but might be of interest for the future. If you haven’t already, I would strongly suggest creating Pinterest boards around design themes or, better yet, maintaining a physical vision board in your workspace with images that inspire you.
The brainstorming process may also evolve from discussions about how your product direction aligns with your overall brand direction and positioning in the marketplace. These discussions tend to be informal and can come up at any time that you are discussing the overall business.
Once you are committed to pursuing a product direction, you need to create a brief that outlines your thoughts. While the product development process can and should be collaborative, one person will need to take ultimate responsibility for final decisions. Your brief is where you state the overall direction by defining what the product will and will not be. You can use words, sketches, pictures and whatever else will clearly communicate your ideas to everyone who will be involved in the process.
Even if you are a lone wolf undertaking this by yourself, I would still strongly suggest developing a brief. Writing ideas down brings them closer to reality by crystallizing them in language. It will help you clarify your thoughts and ensure you are not overlooking any essential details.
The research phase involves testing the ideas and assumptions you’ve laid out in your brief. This could mean:
- Purchasing similar or competitive products for your own use
- Field research: observing people using existing solutions
- Polling your existing audience for feedback
- Talking to experts such as designers, manufacturers or power users
Depending on your product, this process could require formal data or simply rely on anecdotal evidence and casual conversations. In either case, whatever you learn should be incorporated into your updated brief.
You are now going to focus on creating imagery or physical models that allow you to explore different aspects of your product in more detail, such as size, shape, and functional requirements. There are a number of methods for creating sketches:
- Hand drawings
- 2-D computer drawings or mockups
- 3D computer-drawn wireframes
- Paper or crafted mockups.
While the method you choose will depend on your skills and the type of product you are developing, the underlying principle is to rapidly explore specific ideas in enough detail that you can gain some sense of the finished product.
In the case of a consumer product, a prototype is a physical representation of your idea, that approximates the significant features of the final piece. While not every detail need be a perfect representation in this phase, your prototype should have enough fidelity to your vision to allow you to test its use in a real-world setting. You will likely develop a number of prototypes as you hone in and focus on different aspects and features of the product.
Depending on your resources, experience and product goal, getting a proper prototype developed may be challenging. However, it’s also an exciting and rewarding process as you hone in on your vision. If you already have a relationship with a manufacturer, they may be able to help you in this phases. You might also consider 3D-printing or engage a specialized designer, engineer or prototyping firm.
Once you have a functional prototype you can begin testing your product idea in real-world situations. It’s always good to document your thoughts in writing to help you get clarity on next steps. As with the research phase, the nature of your product will determine whether this phase should involve formal quantitative testing or simply rely on informal impressions.
Depending on what you discover in this phase you will either declare your prototype a success or go back to the stage in the process that will allow you to address any issues. This could mean going back to the prototype or sketch phases or even consider rewriting your product definition.
Once you have a prototype that meets your standards, you should begin developing detailed specifications that clearly communicate your product’s construction to a manufacturer. You can use whatever materials or mediums you feel will accomplish this while keeping in mind your audience, which may include anyone from highly skilled engineers to uneducated workers on a factory floor who speak a foreign language. Specific information should include:
- Hi-fidelity diagrams or models of the product, including your prototype(s)
- Sizing of all components
- Specific Materials and their grade
- Environmental and safety requirements
- Colours, which may include Pantone specifications
- Testing to be done
- Packaging design and specifications (If relevant)
Before you go into full production, you will have samples made by your manufacturing facility. These will give the factory a chance to clearly understand your design and begin to work out the best method for producing it. It should also give you an opportunity to test your factory’s fitness to produce your product, including qualitative factors such as communication, timing and responsiveness. This will especially be of relevance if you are dealing with an overseas factory where language, culture and time zones can introduce unforeseen challenges.
Depending on the complexity of the product and your history with the factory, samples may require several rounds to get right. You might choose to sample with several different manufacturers to get a feel for which is best. This will likely also be the first time that your factory is able to provide you with firm pricing for the manufacture of your product. Some will charge you for samples if you don’t have a previous relationship but may offer to deduct the costs if you place an order.
If there are any packaging elements to be included in the production process, you will want to have the factory address these as well. Packaging is often a critical component to making your product stand out on a shelf, so you may even want to undertake a separate design and development process to ensure you get it right.
At the end of the sampling process, you should have a “Golden Sample”, which represents the standard against which your manufacturing run will be measured. If your product must endure wear and tear, you will want to put your golden sample through all the situations it might encounter in everyday use.
Most production for indie brands happens in batches. That is, you do a “run” of your products during which your factory partner focusses its resources for a short period of time on fulfilling your projected needs. (Or, in many cases, as much as you can afford for the time being). Therefore, production becomes a cost-intensive period upon which much of your business hinges.
Unfortunately, a high-quality sample is not necessarily an indication that your production run will be flawless, as a manufacturer is likely to place a higher level of attention on the details for an individual piece than for thousands of pieces, especially when he is trying to win your business. (In some cases, your samples may even be outsourced to another facility!). Ensure you have strong references for your manufacturer and try to build some insurance or warranties into the agreement if possible.
To avoid any heart-attack inducing surprises, you should integrate your quality Assurance process as tightly as possible with your production process.
If at all possible you should be present for the production process or have a representative there to ensure everything is on track. In the case of overseas manufacturers, you may choose to employ a trusted agent to oversee progress on your behalf. Ultimately, you want to make sure that the finished pieces are meeting the same standards as your golden sample, even as they are being mass produced. This means developing a checklist of specific things that will need to be reviewed by you or your agent while pulling a number of random samples early in the process.
Make sure you are aware of any government standards your products must meet, which may require testing for harmful substances such as lead. You should ensure up front that materials being used in manufacture have been verified as meeting those standards to head off any surprises down the road. However, you will still need to submit your final products for testing in order to be certified to sell in certain counties or regions. (California, in particular, has strict standards for many products).
Conclusion: the Product Design Process
The product design process can be extremely rewarding as you see your vision evolve from pure potential to market reality – but it can also be long and fraught. This overview of the process should give you some ideas on how to approach your product development and help you realign when you hit a roadblock along the way.