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Consumer electronics product design guide

Looking to develop a new electronics product? Start here. This short guide is meant to help startups, entrepreneurs, small businesses or even corporate employees organize and plan their product development process.

I’ll share some tips and tricks on how to approach certain aspects of new product development and what to avoid. After reading the article you might consider watching this episode of IDology - the industrial design podcast. It has some tips and tricks on product development in general.

This guide is based on our Mindsailors’ Product Development Process and it will fit perfectly with not only consumer electronics development, but also with any other project you might be thinking of. What this guide is not good for, is designing products that do not include electronics or are not intended for large scale production. 

You probably heard this a lot, but hardware IS hard. This means the road ahead of you will be a lot longer and more complex than this guide might make it seem. Don’t worry though, that’s what it’s meant to be. Consumer electronics design or new product development in general is an iterative and experimental process. It needs to take time, and you should know you will “fail” many times along the way. That’s the nature of exploring new grounds. I’ll help you fail fast and fail cheap so you don’t waste more time and money than necessary!

What Consumer Electronics actually are?

Consumer electronics are all types of electrical devices, be they digital or old-school analog, that are intended for everyday use. They can be mobile, stationary, wearable, or not. Usually they are small devices, as bigger ones tend to fall into the home appliances category - like a hair-dryer. A printer on the other hand is considered an item of consumer electronics. Yes, this might be confusing at times.

The most commonly recognizable consumer electronics might be a radio receiver, a smart phone, or a laptop device. An electronic watch, a set of headphones, and a gaming console are also examples of consumer electronics. A washing machine or an electrical kettle, on the other hand, would be home appliances.

Initial research

"By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail." - Benjamin Franklin

Before you even start envisioning your product you must first validate the possibility of it  being a healthy business. You don’t want to invest years of your life developing a product and hundreds of thousands of dollars just to find out nobody is interested in buying from you. And believe me, I’ve seen it happen many times, when I was working on product development or marketing campaigns. A business built on nothing but dreams and money always turns into a burning nightmare.

Patents, market research, and product validation 

You need to start with doing a lot of homework and thorough research.

When you start Googling your idea and you find that no other company has developed such a product be warned - your idea might be bad business. 

You may think that your idea not existing on the market would be the key to success, but there is nearly a zero chance you could come up with an idea for a product that doesn’t exist in some form on the market. You should be able to find at least indirect competitors to your idea. Usually that’s the first thing innovators do - they try and see if they’re the first to come up with an idea! And when they find that someone has already come up with that same idea they die a bit inside. But is finding out someone else was first actually a bad thing?

No, it’s not. The fact that there are already competitive products in the consumer electronics market, can actually be a good indicator for a future business. It means that there is an existing demand for such products, and you can use the information about the existing products to inform your own product development and marketing strategies. Learn from their mistakes.

It is important to differentiate your product from the competition in order to stand out and appeal to potential customers. So while researching competitive products don’t just analyze IF they exist. Focus on what they offer, how they communicate and what pricing strategies they use. You need to find their weaknesses and improve on them. This can involve offering unique features, providing a better user experience, or offering a more affordable price point.

You should also conduct thorough market research to ensure that there is sufficient demand for your product and that you have a clear understanding of your target audience. 

A pro tip I can give you here, coming from my startup experience, is don’t be afraid to talk about your idea. There is this deep gut feeling that if you tell someone about your idea they might steal it. They won’t. They have their own ideas and businesses. They don’t really care about you, sorry. But the fact that they don’t share your enthusiasm for your project doesn’t mean they won’t give you feedback - and at this stage feedback is golden. Of course you should never let your guard down completely. If you have reasonable doubt, signing an Non-Disclosure Agreement first might be a good idea.

If you're not sure how your NDA should be constructed you can take a look at the NDA we sign with our clients. You can find our NDA HERE.

The last thing to do, when you have analyzed your market and competition, is to make sure you’re not thinking about infringing on someone’s patented idea. That’s right, it’s not crucial to start with getting a patent, but first with making sure you’re not stepping on someone else’s.

Now if all looks good after doing your homework you might apply for your own patent, but that may take years and cost a lot of money. Instead, in the United States, you can file a Provisional Patent Application (PPA). In the EU it’s called a European Patent Application (EPA) and other regions have similar solutions.

A Patent Application will cover your product for a year for only a few hundred dollars - it’s a kind of “I was first” declaration. At this point, you won't need to engage an expensive patent attorney. Keep in mind it’s short lasting, so you need to quickly validate your business and develop a proof of concept that will allow you to file for a patent.

Simplify your product

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Stethome design by Mindsailors, a minimalistic smart stethoscope.

At Mindsailors we call it “the 2.0 curse” and it truly is a curse that goes with consumer electronics design. Especially for inexperienced companies. Over and over again we see entrepreneurs pack so many features into their initial product idea, that it seems like they want to start with version 2.0. And there’s just no shortcuts here if you want to succeed. You need to start with a version 0.1 and gradually develop it further.

The truth about functionalities of a product is you don’t come up with them. Your users do. Believe me when I say you can’t yet imagine how users will use your product. This is also something I have seen many times - the surprise on the face of a startup founder when he realizes how people use his product. Sometimes it’s even anger! They are furious that their clients “have no idea what they’re doing!”, when in reality they themselves are blinded to the fact that they just received invaluable validation of their concepts.

Then there are the little things. Most entrepreneurs, and even most engineers, are unaware of all the implications of certain product features. The addition of what appears to be a small feature can frequently significantly raise your development costs and time to market. 

For example, a minor change in the position of a button could cost thousands of dollars if it necessitates the use of more expensive injection molds or reorganizing the PCB which might cause a cascade of problems. 

The hitch is that knowing the future repercussions of any product decision is difficult unless you comprehend the full development and manufacturing process. 

If you outsource product development, keep in mind that you need to work with a company that understands that. You don’t want “Yes-men” as your partners. You need a team that will challenge your ideas with good advice and research, and that will serve as experts in delivering a product to market, not in making it the most beautiful and most functional. Those NEVER walk hand in hand in the beginning. You either have to walk the walk or put a lot of time and money on a very risky gamble. That’s the only choice.

Build a proof-of-concept (POC) 

Industrial design proof of concept

A prototype next to a proof of concept

At this step, you've demonstrated that you will find buyers for your product.

The question now is if your concept is actually feasible. Many product ideas look good on paper, but small details make them impossible to make or build a profitable business on. 

Testing this is the purpose of a Proof-of-Concept (POC) prototype, which is an early prototype built from commercially available components. It's a way to showcase the potential of your idea, without committing to the full development or implementation just yet. It might be bulky, it might be loud, it WILL BE ugly, too big and clunky. It just needs to prove that your concept will probably work. Probably is good enough, you can work out the details as you go.

If you don’t know how to build one yourself, then… read on!

Product Development Strategies

If you're not an engineer or a designer, or your company doesn’t have the necessary skills or manpower, there are still several possible ways for you to approach the task of physically developing your product. I see six product development strategies worth considering:

Hire a product development firm

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Mindsailors industrial design and embedded electronics teams, mid 2022

You can hire a product development firm to help you design and develop your product. These firms typically have a team of experts in product design, engineering, and manufacturing, and can provide end-to-end support throughout the product development process. A well coordinated team can be a lifesaver in product development.

Keep in mind high end product development companies charge in the upper hundreds of dollars minimum for a project, but you don’t have to start at the top. You can check out our list of 10 noteworthy industrial design companies and start there.

If you can, you should verify if the product development firm you’re considering has experience with designing products relevant to your project; if they communicate in a clear way and if they ask good questions; and if they have a large enough team to handle your project, e.g. designers, researchers, mechanical engineers, PCB designers, manufacturing experts, etc. .

If you are planning on working with a product development company please consider Mindsailors. You can schedule a video call with our team HERE.

Hire a freelance product development expert

This is tricky, as developing a product requires a team of experts, specializing in different fields. A one man army is good for a proof of concept, but not the whole development process. 

You can easily find freelance experts on sites like Freelancer or Fiverr, but keep in mind that they will need to form a team that is capable of collaborating efficiently. This means syncing calendars, communicating effectively and understanding each other well.

Assembling your dream team from scratch is very difficult and I wouldn’t recommend it unless you have some unique reasons to go down this route and have enough experience and time to validate their work and play team and project manager at the same time. 

Work with a manufacturer

A manufacturing facility might be willing to take on the entire process. They even often offer good financing options, but there’s always a catch. 

They might require the entirety of intellectual rights to your project, which would basically mean signing your business over to them, so watch out for that. You should also verify if they will not constrain the technologies used for your product to only the ones they offer (which might be sub-optimal). Also be aware of the logistics, timing and delivery aspects of working with a manufacturer, especially with one located abroad.

Work with a co-founder or partner

If you have a business partner or a co-founder who has technical expertise, you can work together to develop the product. This can be a cost-effective way to develop the product, as you can share the workload and costs.

Finding a person you can trust that is skilled enough to carry the technical aspects of your company might be difficult, but it certainly is not impossible.

You can search for co-founders on local startup networking events; online platforms like CoFoundersLab or Angellist; Startup incubators and accelerators or local universities even.

Attend a maker space or accelerator program

Maker spaces and accelerator programs provide access to tools, resources, and are a good networking place. These programs typically have workshops and training sessions to help you learn the skills you need to develop your product.

While learning yourself might not be your goal here, maker spaces and startup accelerator programs are good places to meet like-minded people who you just might find fitting to become your business partners.

Learn the skills yourself

If you're willing to invest the time and effort, you can learn the skills you need to develop your product yourself. There are many online resources available, such as YouTube tutorials and online or offline courses, that can help you learn product design and engineering skills.

Ultimately, the approach you choose will depend on your budget, timeline, and skills. It's important to do your research and choose the approach that best fits your needs and resources.

Product development process

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A scheme of the Mindsailors Product Development Process

This is where the magic happens, and it can be a place fr both dreams and nightmares to come true.

It might be surprising for you to know that the product development process is practically identical for most industries and products being developed. It’s the context each stage is put in, and how stakes and stakeholders are communicated that are important. That’s why we coined the Mindsailors’ Product Development Process with communication in mind. 

Our process is focused on managing expectations and describing well defined milestones with deliverables. It consists of 6 stages and we have them mapped out for two aspects of product development - industrial design and embedded electronics. 

In short, you first need to develop your electronics, before you start working on the design of your product. It is crucial not to start with the look and feel of the device, as it will be highly constrained by the size and shape of your electronics, amongst others.

Embedded electronics design

The six stages of the Midsailors’ Embedded Electronics Design Process are:

  • Pre-design
    The end result of this stage is a comprehensible project brief for our embedded team.
  • Dev board
    At this stage you focus on PCB development. The end result of this stage is a first internal prototype verifying the project assumptions and component selection (dev board). Any ideas, changes & optimisation suggestions will result in dev board revision (going back to start).
  • Targeted prototype
    The end result of this stage is a targeted prototype aiming at verifying the design assumptions and component selection (after several iterations). Any ideas, changes & optimisation suggestions will result in dev board revision (going back to start).
  • Firmware
    This stage is about software and firmware development. Starting on a PoC or prototype PCB, and progressing with both, like you would with a physical product. At t his stage the product is not yet ready for mass production. The end result of this stage is working firmware and software, both with documentation.
  • Design for launch
    The end result for this stage is a full documentation allowing manufacturing in any EMS (Electronics Manufacturing Services). At this stage you should also make sure your product passess all neccessary certification, like EMC, RED or LVD certification. Design for launch is basically DFM (Design for manufacturing).
  • Production supervision
    This stage is a continuous process that lasts throughout the entire production process. Our customer is guaranteed that production is properly supervised.

You can read about each stage in detail HERE.

Figuring out how your electronics will work, how much power they will need, how much heat or noise they will generate, what sort of wiring they will require, whether there will be moving parts, glowing parts, displays, sound devices and in the end what size and shape all of those will be … is a complex process in itself. Be sure if you have never developed a product before - it’s more work than you expect. And for no less than a small team of experts.

The bad news is - you need to work through all of that before you start working on the product's both visual and mechanical design. So you will need to wait a little more before firing up that look’n’feel moodboard you have on your desktop since day one.

The good news is - most of the parameters you need should be defined enough by the middle of the embedded electronics design process, which will actually allow your industrial design team to start working on their part of the job.

Product design

This is the first and most prominent part in the imagination of an entrepreneur when they think about a new product. In fact it is practically the last thing you get to work on. As the immortal and ever true saying goes - form follows function.

That’s why R&D and early development are so important - if you don’t get them right you will not only double your work, you will double your spendings.

The Mindsailors design process is mirrored for both embedded electronics and product designed, with small differences:

  • Pre-design
    In pre-design we verify all goals and data
  • Conceptual design
    After we have confirmed “we know what to do” we can get to creating the early visual concepts. We usually develop 10-20 and present our top 3 choices to our clients
  • Targeted conceptual design
    At this stage we get into the details of the chosen concept and we finish this stage with a finished conceptual design. This means it is only the outer look. We make sure it is achievable and in line with the brief.
  • Mechanical design
    Now we need to take that visual and make it a reality, so we get to designing the mechanics and prototyping. After usually several prototype iterations we are left with a fully functional device prototype. 
  • Design for manufacturing
    We then take that prototype and work together with a manufacturing facility to tweak it’s design to be optimal for manufacturing technologies and tools. We need to make it “manufacturing ready” and this can have different meanings depending on the volume to be produced. In the end we are left with a “golden sample” - a prototype that is as close to the final product as possible, while still being manufactured with surrogate technologies
  • Production supervision
    The final step of the process is our work with the manufacturing facility on making sure the products actually meet the standards and quality our clients expect.

You can learn more about the Mindsailors Product Development Process from this episode of IDology - the Industrial Design Podcast on YouTube.

Product design and embedded electronics design go hand in hand. You will need to tak that into consideration when designing your first products as these are two separate teams of experts you will need to coordinate. Or you can work with an industrial design company like Mindsailors, as we have all the necessary industrial design experts in-house.

If you want to, you can take a closer look at one of our consumer electronics projects come to life:

Conclusion

There is a lot more to product design than this short guide tells you. If you’re interested New Product Development in both the design and business side you should check out our free e-book on New Product Development. You can get it when you subscribe to our newsletter below, which is also free.

If you feel like you want to consult your project with a consumer electronics design firm - just got to our Contact page and leave us a message!

Good luck!

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