You’ve identified the customer’s needs and the market gap. You’ve gathered your team and you’re starting to design a product that might as well shake the whole industry.
Congratulations, you’ve made it far enough already. Now take a deep breath and start being more careful than ever, because your next decisions will most likely determine the success (or the failure) of your whole project.
In this blog post, we discuss why your early design decisions will have such a huge impact on your project, the conditions they are taken under (which are often suboptimal) and certain methods that can lead to the optimal result.
Getting it right with the first try will most likely not make you more successful
“We will be more successful if we get it right the first time” is a huge fallacy in the new product development.
On the one hand, getting it right does lead to a faster time to market and less development costs. However, we have to understand that development cost is usually lower than 10% of the total cost of the project, while the cost that the company commits to, at this stage, is commonly cited to be between 70% and 90% of the total cost.
This can be easily understood by looking at Figure 1:
Figure 1.time vs cost committed & cost incurred.1
As we can see above, the incurred cost (money actually spent) on a project is relatively low when the product is still being designed, while by the end of the design stage the cost the company has committed to is much higher.
The reason for this is that important decisions, such as the manufacturing process of the product and the materials used are determined during this stage.
Despite their importance, however, these decisions are often taken under suboptimal conditions. Why does this happen?
Well, it is due to a design paradox that can be explained with the help of Figure 2:
Figure 2. Time vs Knowledge & Design Freedom. 2
Of course, knowledge doesn’t always have to start at zero.
However, many times, especially when working with new technologies, such as bezel-less displays, designers and engineers don’t have enough -or even any- knowledge on the problem they are called to solve. As the work progresses, the designer’s knowledge increases, according to Figure 2.
Unfortunately, as knowledge increases, the design freedom decreases. So, many of the decisions of the early stage that dictate the products specs, such as quality and cost, are taken when the designer doesn’t have a deep understanding of the topic.
What makes this even worse is the “We will be successful if we get it right the first time” mindset we mentioned earlier.
This state of mind leads to designers and engineers implementing safer and less innovative solutions to the customers’ problems, solutions that have been tested and are proven to work.
This results to making significant commitments to bad ideas, the problems of which are often discovered at a late stage and are too expensive to fix, because the design freedom is lower as time elapses.
To better illustrate this point, let’s think of one of the most spectacular cases of discovering the problem too late, Samsung’s Note 7 recall 3.
As most of you know, Samsung was forced to recall its product, the Galaxy Note 7, as some of the devices’ batteries started exploding. This critical design error was discovered well after the design process, as it was the users themselves that experienced it.
But what was the root of this problem? Well, some speculate4 that it was Samsung’s rush to introduce the phone before their major competitor, Apple, introduced the new iPhone.
“Fail early; fail often” seems to be the answer
Experimenting rapidly and frequently seems to be the key to success in product development.
There is no doubt that many – if not most – concept designs will fail (as much as 88% of ideas fail to make it to market5 ).
But this time around, failures are educational, and maybe even desirable.
Since the designers are not yet knowledgeable enough, experimenting will eliminate poor options at an early stage. This makes plenty of sense since early on there is plenty of design flexibility and little knowledge about the problem.
Failure will surely have its cost, but it will also generate information that the innovator was unable to foresee.
In other words: testing ideas in an early stage, may be costly in the short term but is definitely cheaper in the long term. Sticking to an idea without testing it early on can be really costly in the future, once the design freedom has been drastically limited.
Of course, there is data to back up the “fail early; fail often” mantra.
A study of 391 teams, that designed custom integrated circuits, showed that teams that were allowed to test frequently and cheaply outperformed -in terms of time and effort required – teams that tried to get the design right the first time around.
The main reason was that the latter teams discovered critical errors in their designs too late and by the time they were discovered, it was too costly and time-consuming to fix them.
So what now? IT tools (once again) come to the rescue!
Innovators are called to make important design decisions early on in the design process, where their knowledge is limited. Many times, due to the fact that they have the mindset “make it work on the first try” wrong decisions surface later, when it’s costly to fix.
The mantra “fail early; fail often” proposes the opposite: teams should be encouraged to test ideas and learn from the mistakes of each test.
This way, bad design practices surface early on, when there still is design freedom and can be easily and cheaply removed.
However, multiple tests mean prototyping, virtual or physical.
Once again, advances in Information Technology are going to pave the way for the development of better, cheaper, and faster-introduced-to-the-market products, thus giving companies the competitive advantage.
Virtual prototyping with the aid of simulation is ideal to test new designs in every stage of product development
However, many companies don’t take advantage of simulation.
This is mainly due to inability to simulate the model behavior, lack of trained staff to conduct simulations and the time it takes to prepare models for analysis6.
The above reasons can be condensed in a single cause: simulation engineers are rare and busy. Most existing simulation tools require expertise and time to use.
What is needed to revolutionize the product development process is a new kind of simulation tools, that have short learning curves and allow non-experts to run their own simulations.
This way, the whole team is empowered, as each engineer can easily run their own simulation and have the accurate data they need to make informed decisions.
In conclusion, whatever process you follow for designing a new product, keep this in mind:
The design process does not only give birth to a product, but it also is responsible for its life and death.
And if your product happens to be a touch sensor, you can trust our product, SENSE, to make sure it has a long and happy lifecycle.
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[1,2] “The mechanical design process”, David G. Ullman.
 Bloomberg article
 Markprofitt article
 Aberdeen research
“Six Myths of Product Development”, Stefan Thomke & Donald Reinertsen, “Harvard Business Review”, Issue of May 2012.
“Agile Product Development: Managing Development Flexibility in Uncertain Environments”, Stefan Thomke & Donald Reinertsen