This article is a transcription of episode #11 of IDology - the industrial design podcast by Mindsailors. You can watch the entire episode on YouTube or listen to the audio version on Spotify, Apple Podcasts or Google Podcasts.
In this episode Voytek Hołysz - COO of Mindsailors, tries Rafał Piłat - co-founder of Mindsailors, to spill as much as possible about common mistakes companies make when developing a new product.
Wojciech Hołysz: Rafał, I had this conversation with Anita, about dos and don'ts of product development, basically. And we went through each stage of developing a product and what things are good practice and what things are bad practice at each stage. But today, I'd like to talk with you about mistakes that might be, or maybe avoided when designing a product. And I'm thinking about mistakes that you, with your 15 years of experience, have seen and probably see over and over with some clients, especially the less experienced clients, that simply could be avoided and would help designing a product. So for someone who's new to developing a product, what mistakes happen often, and maybe how to avoid them, from the very beginning of the process.
Rafał Piłat: I think that many mistakes are related to planning the product itself and planning the project as a whole.
Wojciech Hołysz: You mean just the initial concept?
Rafał Piłat: Yes, because starting from the very basics, when someone has an idea for a product, he starts planning the functionality of the product, sometimes he or she is so engaged in this process that he forgets to do his homework and for instance, doing the market research, doing comparative research and checking the competition if there is any, because we often talk to clients who try to develop a bread of butter or invent the wheel for the second...
Wojciech Hołysz: So really people come to you and say, hey, I have this idea for a product, and you just Google it and show them, hey I mean, it's okay to release, it's not like only one company makes smartphones.
Rafał Piłat: Definitely, definitely. But obviously this is often the case, because on very few occasions, there are products which are so innovative that there is actually no competition in the market. But in most cases, those are products which already exist in the market in one form or the other. But very often a client is so focused on his project or this is going to be so exceptional that he or she forgets to check if there is indeed something like this already exists and maybe it's not the best idea to develop. And so not only doing the research in terms of well comparative research, but doing the research around the project itself so, as I said, doing market research, maybe market analysis, whether there is actual need for such product, whether there are customers or whether there is a market for such product. Because we've had cases where the product was so ahead of its time that when the product was ready, our clients had really, a very serious problem of properly marketing their product. Because it was so ahead of its time, and people had hard times understanding the functionality or the potential of the product.
Wojciech Hołysz: So that's also a big problem with the digital product I believe, the world of startups is full of product solving problems that don't need solving or don't exist on a bigger scale.
Rafał Piłat: First world.
Wojciech Hołysz: First world problems, so-called yeah.
Rafał Piłat: So I would say that another mistake when planning a product is thinking or overthinking the functionality of the product because, sometimes of course, we know this very well, you want your product to be best of the best. And you want your product to stand out from the rest, which is in the market. But very often let's say there are functionality which you can categorize as absolutely required or must have, let's say, or, there's also something which can be optional, or which should be optional. So don't force the optional things into the first version of the product, or maybe think about the functionality that you can get rid of because, it may happen that developing such functionality, would influence the time-frame of developing the product itself. And of course, if it takes longer, then it is more expensive to introduce as well.
Wojciech Hołysz: I don't know why. But another comparison to the digital world comes to mind when you have a product launch and there's it's usually called, for example, version 1.0. and then you have version 2.0, 3.0 1.21, 1.5. So what you're saying is don't start with version 5.0 or something like that. Start with the basic first iteration.
Rafał Piłat: We call this curse the 2.0 version.
Wojciech Hołysz: Curse of 2.0. That sounds like it's a good description.
Rafał Piłat: It happened a lot of times.
Wojciech Hołysz: So just packing too many features into the first stage of developing the product.
Rafał Piłat: That's right. And not thinking about alternative ways of introducing the product to the market. Maybe you don't need 2.0 functionality in the first let's say one or two years, maybe it's good to think about a scenario where product is developed with its basic functionality, and it already can start generating some revenue.
Wojciech Hołysz: So it's a more of a down to earth approach to the business of the product itself. So maybe first go try to talk with other business owners in this or a similar industry and see how the product's life cycle looks, because probably the version 2.0 is not something that you decide on, but something that's built on your user's feedback. So coming up with it before you have any users, is not necessarily the best idea.
Rafał Piłat: Yeah. And developing a highly complicated product I don't know, versus developing a basic functionality product, it may take twice the time needed for introducing this product to the market in its basic form. Imagine the situation when you are developing a product for, I don't know, two or three years, and you're delivering the 2.0 version, which is already obsolete because the competition was developing something iteration or they try to introduce different variants of the same product.
Wojciech Hołysz: Well, sometimes being first to market is very important.
Rafał Piłat: That's right. And so maybe, I'm not saying it's always a good practice because certain products simply require complex functionality, but take this into account when planning the actual functionality. And think about what is the critical functionality and what might be the optional functionality.
Wojciech Hołysz: Of course. Well I assume everything we will be talking about and are talking about, we need to generalize a bit. So there will sometimes, or maybe even always there will be exceptions or specific industries or types of products where those mistakes you have seen clients make simply won't apply.
Rafał Piłat: So I have in mind one of the projects that we worked on, and it was a project which was kick-started, and it was kick-started and advertised as a fully functional device, which our client came to us with, it was a litter box for cats. And the initial functionality was really a dream come true for a cat owner. And of course the development process took some time. And what changed was actually well, the market changed in the meantime. So by the time that the product was ready to go for tooling and to start ordering the parts for the hardware, it turned out that the prices of the components went up so high, in comparison to the situation in the market couple of years ago, that our client had to, and was forced to revise the functionality of the device because, they would not be able to meet the advertised price of the product. And they have to cut out more than half of the initial functionality that they planned before.
Wojciech Hołysz: And probably if they started with a simple product, they maybe could generate some revenue and cash flow to develop the product most steadily.
Rafał Piłat: That's right.
Wojciech Hołysz: That boils down to budgeting, which probably also has its own issues
Rafał Piłat: So yes, it's really hard to plan a good budget for hardware product because, very often if you have no experience doing this, certain things may be overlooked. And I think that even experienced people might have problems with planning simply because, imagine a situation when someone comes to you and asks how much does building a house cost? And the answer is, I don't know. Because we don't know what we are actually going to. How big is the house you want? Or how many bedrooms or anything? So this is the similar case with each product. If someone comes and says, okay, how much does, I don't know, a phone cost or something. So products which already exist in the market are easier to calculate, but the situation can get complicated pretty quickly because, even adding certain functionality, I don't know, waterproof ceiling, may drastically increase the time needed for developing and for testing such products. So I would say that even for experienced people planning the budget is hard. And I would say that it's always good to prepare a safety margin for such project and because it's simply responsible. It's wishful thinking to assume a certain budget and not anticipating problems along the way during the development process.
Wojciech Hołysz: And developing the product is one thing you need to consider after you develop it, you still need to manufacture it. You market it, get it to the stores or wherever. So there's a whole other side to budgeting.
Rafał Piłat: That's right. Because this is only half of the story. Developing the product may take a hundred thousand US dollars and then tooling for this project might cost 10 times this amount. And you still have to keep in mind that you need to let the world know about it.
Wojciech Hołysz: Keep the production line going, you need to market it.
Rafał Piłat: That's right. So, of course, introducing a product or planning the budget, it's not just planning the development budget.
Wojciech Hołysz: Yeah. But someone who probably plans for such a product must have some experience. It's impossible, I think, to start with such a big project when it is your first product. Probably in these times, like you've mentioned before, people who are developing their first product are looking to crowdfund the production or maybe look for investors before going to mass production. So that's a whole different story. From my experience when budgeting is a problem, you might say then usually, timing also is like any sorts of deadlines or planning a time schedule for a project release.
Rafał Piłat: So I think the biggest issue with the time planning is actually not anticipating that certain types of products might require various prototyping, the various iteration of development, and especially I'm thinking about products which are mechanically complicated, which would indeed require certain technology in order to prototype specific solution to test it. Because designing is just part of the process. And then testing and reviewing the thing that you designed is another process. And I remember talking to a client once, when we gave them a time-frame just for revision stage, they were surprised why we anticipated that a single revision for a relatively small product might take about eight weeks. And there was actually only one week of our work, and the remaining weeks were simply time needed for prototyping and for preparing documentation for manufacturing the prototype. And then assembling the product and then doing tests and analyzing the test results and thinking about planning the next revision. So the actual designing work was relatively short, but the client did not anticipate that the tests needed the feedback from the prototype testing is something that also requires time.
Wojciech Hołysz: So probably my guess would be if I were thinking about developing a product, and I would want to contact a company like ours, I think the first thing I would do is just call them and say, hey, I'm thinking about a product, but I'm not yet ready to come to you with a brief, but I would like to know about the process and how it looks and what I actually should be preparing for, not in terms of consulting or workshops, but just even a 10 minute talk about what you just said, could probably save me a lot of thinking and a lot of bad planning right?
Rafał Piłat: Yes. And even some people who have no experience in introducing any types of products in the market, might simply not be aware of the different stages related to introducing a product to the market. Well, people often imagine that once the manufacturing documentation is ready, they can already start manufacturing. And this is just a matter of months before...
Wojciech Hołysz: I just placed an order.
Rafał Piłat: Yeah. And no, it's not. And we often discuss it with our clients, if you plan for, I don't know, executing tooling for mass production or plastic injection, then we had a case where one of our clients was looking for a manufacturer for over three months, and then it took them another six months to negotiate the deal with the manufacturer. So that was nine months of actually...
Wojciech Hołysz: Of just talking with the manufacturer.
Rafał Piłat: That's right. And I have numerous examples of projects which were finished, I don't know, five years ago or six years ago. And it took I don't know, another three or four years before they actually hit the shelves because the manufacturing process was either so complicated or there were issues related with unforeseen events which took place along the way.
Wojciech Hołysz: It seems weird maybe, well, maybe not weird, but it's interesting that sometimes a design that you make or that you made, for example, like you said five years ago, or six years ago, only comes to market now, or recently is shown to the people. And like one of our clients for example, you get an award for the design like we received the red dot award or the IFF award for a design that we made five or six years ago.
Rafał Piłat: Yes, yes. And that was a medical product. And again the manufacturing process was very complicated. But the issue that caused the actual delay was actually selecting the manufacturer, which turned out to be very unprofessional. And the first tooling was botched, totally botched. And the actual tooling manufacturing process had to be restarted with a new company. So that caused a terrible delay in this project. And moreover, once the product was ready, that was a medical device, which required testing and required certain certifications to be delivered before actually the product was...
Wojciech Hołysz: Possibly allowed to the market.
Rafał Piłat: That's right. Before the product was allowed to the market. And that was also something which caused another delay. And yes, it's very hard to plan just or even draft a good and reliable timeframe because you need to take various risk factors which are not always known. But even talking to us as people who participated in various projects and who participated also in the manufacturing process and assisted our clients during during the manufacturing, we do have certain ideas whether, let's say showstoppers along the way, when it is good to add more time to the actual plan that has to be presented to board members or something. So it's always good to ask someone who already...
Wojciech Hołysz: Went through it.
Rafał Piłat: Went through it, that's right, and has more experience and perhaps can I indicate some other areas that have to be well taken into account.
Wojciech Hołysz: It sounds to me like when introducing a new product, whatever time schedule you're planning, make it longer.
Rafał Piłat: Yes.
Wojciech Hołysz: I think to some extent, that's the reason we do this whole podcast. It's because we talk about these things, like you said, problems with manufacturers, with the development process. A lot of the stuff that you are mentioning are also mentioned in other talks we have here, and they could help people who plan on introducing a new product, really have a more successful, and at the same time, less stressful experience.
Rafał Piłat: Definitely. So, because hardware is hard.
Wojciech Hołysz: Hardware is hard. I like that.
Rafał Piłat: And it's a fact. And if anyone claims otherwise, he has not developed any product. Well, unless you have really experienced team all over inside your company, which is experienced in all various stages of the process of development manufacturing certification, all kinds of things. Then just the logistics of projects which are not simple products, but have some kind of electronic hardware inside is complicated. And this is the reason why the budgets for developing products are not small. And I think part of our, let's say mission, is also to educate people, to give them a better insight into what the actual development process looks like because, very often when a less experienced client comes to us, he has a vague idea on what the actual process looks like. He has certain expectations, maybe I don't know, a blurred vision of what it might look like, but the actual process is often very much more complicated than the initial ideas. And we've had many discussions after finished products with our clients who claim, oh man, if I only knew, it would be so complicated.
Wojciech Hołysz: Yeah. If I knew then what I know now. I love the phrase that hardware is hard, but that's why during developing physical products, you need to rely on the prototyping process. I assume you could point out a few common mistakes people make there also.
Rafał Piłat: So yes. Certain types of products require prototyping. Prototyping is basically a key component of every design process. Of course, if you design a single part, I don't know, a metal plate that would be distancing something. The first prototype might be the last one. But you have to test it at certain stage of the development of the product. And for more complicated products, you simply need to be aware that multiple iterations of prototype might be needed. And I think this is also a part which is overlooked by people who plan such projects because they either assume that less prototypes would be needed, or they reserve too little money for the prototypes. And it's very hard to give a clear rule for making such assumptions. But from our past experiences, and I would say that products which were consumer electronics related, the healthy amount reserved for actual prototyping and testing during the development stage, was about a third of the total cost of the design process itself. So keep that in mind. And don't forget about taking prototyping into account. And always assume that more prototypes might be needed. They're actually well, that you plan because, we've even had cases where a client along the way decided that they need not one prototype, but they need four pieces because they needed to distribute the prototype In four different areas of the world to gather healthy feedback from the testing. So this is also something which has to be remembered when planning.
Wojciech Hołysz: You've mentioned electronics at some point, even after you finished with the design process, with the development process, you need to get certifications sometimes way more difficult or expensive ones to get them just the basic electronic stuff.
Rafał Piłat: Yes. If you want to introduce any product to the market, which has electronic parts inside whether this is something very simple or whether this is a smartphone or something very simple as, Bluetooth button or something like this, you need to remember that such projects, that such hardware has to be certified before you deliver this to the market. Of course, there are certain workarounds that can be used for speeding up such process but you cannot skip it completely.
Wojciech Hołysz: I remember when talking with Anita, about visual concepts, something that's almost at the very beginning of developing a new product before we get to prototyping before we even think about choosing a vendor or whatever. These often because they're the first very tangible thing that a client sees, they sometimes invoke quite the emotional reaction and a very strong attachment to the visuals. So what sort of mistakes you have seen people make after taking a design, a visual, and being like, ah, this is it.
Rafał Piłat: So I see a few because one of the mistakes is thinking that, wow, I already see this on the screen. So just a matter of, I don't know, months before I see it on the shelf.
Wojciech Hołysz: So two weeks and it's ready.
Rafał Piłat: No, as I told you, it sometimes may take years from the actual product visualization to the shelf to putting the product in the shelf. So don't assume that after seeing the visuals, then it's going to get easier. The hard work is done. No, the hard work is far from done. This is one of the mistakes. But also, I would say maybe not as much with the concepts that we generate here at Mindsailors, because we try to think about how the project products will be constructed, and we always try to deliver concepts which are realistic in terms of actual technology, actual separate parts, splitting the product into manufacturable parts and shapes. But sometimes we get clients who come to us with a concept of their own, or even a printed prototype. And they also assume this is just a matter of weeks before transferring this to documentation and before being able to execute this. But it's not often as simple as that because we always review such projects and very often, especially if a less experienced designer worked on such project, it turns out that the parts are technically not possible to get. Sure, you can print this on your 3D printer.
Wojciech Hołysz: That's not for mass production.
Rafał Piłat: That's right. And transferring something which is done on a 3D printer to a mass production might be a very time consuming process as well. And we've had cases like that before, I think I mentioned one of our earlier toxic projects, which I don't remember. There were 15 parts of which only one was possible to be actually injected with plastic. And the other parts required total redesign in terms of the shape.
Wojciech Hołysz: This example that you have just said, when someone who had no idea about the manufacturing process designed something, that he didn't even know or she, that it was unmanufactured. But that's the mistake of a single person. But when the processes of development can span over so many months or years, often many people throughout the lifespan of the development process, many people might be involved in it or leading it or gathering feedback or whatever. I see also that this probably is quite the source of some mistakes.
Rafał Piłat: Yes. Because this could be classified as a communication problem because in my experience, the worst possible projects, or the worst possible scenario in working on a project for a client is when there is no single person responsible for accepting or communicating the feedback.
Wojciech Hołysz: You mean, like there's nobody who's leading the vision?
Rafał Piłat: There may be a few people, there may be a few managers working on the same projects. And we've had cases where the decision making team was I think three or four people, a team. And it was really a problem for them to create comprehensive feedback for us, which would not be self contradictory.
Wojciech Hołysz: So no one was leading the process sort of.
Rafał Piłat: That's right. And we often got feedback, which one person wanted to do a change in this direction. The other person wanted to pull to cancel that request and to introduce something of their own. And that's why it's always nice to have one clear leader in terms of leading such project because it simplifies the communication process and basically it speeds up the development process.
Wojciech Hołysz: So too many cooks, but like the same goes.
Rafał Piłat: That's right. And also keep in mind that there's something like project specification, and remember that we will stick to it because this is the Holy Bible for us in terms of what actually has to be delivered and what actually has to be done. So we try to stick to it. And of course, we need to be flexible. So if a client comes and if the decision making team is more than one person, then of course we'll try to work as well as we can with such team. And we do have good experiences in such processes as well, but it's not always the case. So keep in mind that it's simpler to have a single person responsible if not for a whole project, but maybe just for a stage of the project. So that might be a potential solution for that.
Wojciech Hołysz: In my experience, it's also often a mistake when it comes to managing a project and for example, keeping up with deadlines. It happens in every business. When a project manager, even if it does have a single leader or manager or however you would call it, they plan that they need to keep us in check for the deadlines, but often they forget to consider that on their side, inside their organization, there might be some unforeseen problems, like someone who needs to green light this decision will be on vacation, or will be on medical leave or maternity leave or whatever.
Rafał Piłat: And that happens very often. Keep in mind that if you plan a project, then also plan the delays not only on the side of the contractor, which now in this case would be us, but also on your end because, someone might get sick, some decision making person. We had a case where a manager was pregnant, and she was not able to participate in the development process, and the whole process was severely delayed by months due to health problems. And this is something that may happen. So have realistic expectations in terms of making the timeline flexible in such cases. Because the worst thing that can happen is giving us feedback just before the last day of the deadline. And expecting that we will be able to deliver the product just by one click of the mouse.
Wojciech Hołysz: Revise product.
Rafał Piłat: That's true. So always keep that in mind.
Wojciech Hołysz: With project management developing a new product in general, I assume that these problems are more related to large companies than to small companies.
Rafał Piłat: It's not always the case because the size of the company doesn't really matter. Because even we know startup companies who had professional and experienced people working on various positions, and people who were also experienced with introducing different products to the market, they simply knew the process and knew what potential issues might come out along the way. And on the other hand, we had large corporate customers who often lack experience in certain areas. And we also had cases where a project manager from a large company had literally no experience at all in hardware projects. And that was something that we had to also be prepared for. So it's not always the size of the company, but it's people who basically drive the company that matters.
Wojciech Hołysz: Yeah, sure. Anything else comes to mind we could talk about?
Rafał Piłat: I think that we addressed most of the issues.
Wojciech Hołysz: Yeah, we covered quite a lot. To sum up, developing a product or researching the product is extremely complicated, and time consuming. And when something is complicated and time consuming involves many people and many physical and logistical aspects, you should be aware that there's a lot of preparation that needs to be in place simply to make a reasonable and actionable plan for the product development to be a success. So there's a lot more to it than people with little experience might expect. And probably before getting fixated on an idea for a product, it's best to maybe just call and consult to see what you don't know.
Rafał Piłat: That's right. Don't assume, ask, and do your homework.
Wojciech Hołysz: Don't assume, ask and do your homework. That's a good summary. Thank you for the talk. And I hope we have another one in a minute.
Rafał Piłat: Yes. Thanks.
Wojciech Hołysz: Thanks for the talk.
Rafał Piłat is an entrepreneur and co-founder of Mindsailors, an awarded industrial design company, with over 15 years of experience as a designer himself.
Voytek Hołysz is the COO of Mindsailors, with 15 years of experience in running a business in creative B2B services, marketing, sales and video production.
IDology #11 - Most common mistakes in product development
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