The Ultimate Guide to Product Design

What is Product Design?

Product Design is a process by which new products are formulated, designed, tested, manufactured and introduced into the marketplace. It combines art, technology and science to create something that solves consumers’ problems in a meaningful way. Some products require a certain aesthetic, whereas others simply need to perform their required function efficiently and be manufacturable. However, many products must have both: beautiful aesthetics and solid mechanics. Many of the great product design companies come to mind: Apple, Samsung, Tesla, Sony, to name a few. It is easy to formulate ideas for products, but it is much harder to create, build, and bring products to market that solve real-life consumer problems. Inventors and entrepreneurs must look at the entire process of product design from the initial phase of identifying an opportunity in the market, to designing a solution to this problem, to finally building the product and delivering it to the market.

The Product Design Process

This guide to product design covers:

Empathize with The Intended User

Successfully introducing a product starts with empathizing with the user and discovering how to solve a real-world problem. A great example of this is with the company LifeStraw, who created a product that removes parasites and bacteria from water and allows the user to safely drink clean water. All around the world, whether it be in developing countries or people that simply just enjoy the outdoors, access to clean drinking water is essential. It addresses a very real problem and provides a simple yet effective solution.

Empathizing with and understanding the needs of the intended target user is essential for creating great products. It is important to understand who the potential customers are and what their true underlying needs and problems are.

Define Vision and Strategy

Once a real-world problem has been identified, defining what the product is and what it will solve are the next steps. There needs to be both a vision and a strategy: the vision states why this product is being introduced and the strategy states how it will happen. Amazon famously employs this step through their “working backwards” concept that ties back to their central doctrine of customer obsession. To submit an idea for a new product at Amazon, an employee creates a future “press release” that sets forth the initial vision of the what the objective is and which customers it will serve. A process that created products such as the Alexa devices and many other successful products and services. This is a highly effective method that helps define the vision for a new product from the start, but also keeps the ongoing project grounded in the context of solving customer problems.

Research and User Analysis

Research for product design can be conducted in several different ways. Surveys, interviews, natural observations, lessons learned from past products, and data analysis from existing customers are all great ways to conduct research when beginning the new product design process. It is important to adequately research the market, target users, and competitors when starting the product design process as it can reduce the amount of revisions and reiterations in the future.

Toyota has an explicit process for product design that allows it to leverage knowledge gained across product lines and across the many generations of vehicles. Toyota implements “engineering checklists” that contain detailed information concerning functionality, manufacturability, government regulations, and reliability. For example, different countries require the license plates to be a certain size, be displayed at a certain angle, and in a certain amount of light. All the information, relating to these requirements in each of the markets that they operate in, is in the checklist.

The checklist has several benefits: it creates a system of record for past organizational learning so that knowledge gained from any product design cycle is added to the company’s knowledge base, rather than remaining in one engineer’s head. As employees often come and go, it is critical to create a durable repository of design information from which current product design teams can extract “lessons learned” from prior product design teams. An additional benefit is that the checklist helps streamline design reviews, as discussions can remain focused on discrepancies between the new design prototypes and the checklist.

As with any product design process, there is a constant feedback loop between the stakeholder, customers, and designers. It is critical for firms committed to great product design to capture lessons learned from past products and leverage this organizational knowledge to drive more efficiencies and better products in the next product design iteration.

Another important exercise when developing new products is to conduct a user analysis. This involves creating user personas for the target audience of who will be purchasing and using the product. The persona should include the needs, goals and observed behavior patterns of the target audience.

Brainstorm

Once a problem has been identified, a clearly defined vision has been articulated, and market research has been gathered, it is now to time to brainstorm and to develop a range of creative solutions. While there inevitably will be constraints based on cost, manufacturability, etc. it is important during this stage to develop many creative and far reaching “outside the box” solutions that can then be down selected during the later stages.

Sketching, storyboards and 3D concept models can be very beneficial during the brainstorming phase. Especially in the case of physical products, it is important for all stakeholders to get a good feel of the idea with a physical concept model. 3D printing is a great option for producing rapid and accurate physical concept models to articulate ideas.

Design

Finally, once the due diligence stages have been completed to ensure the market viability and a shortlist of ideas has been formulated, it is time to begin the actual design stage of the product design process. There are a few different ways of going about product design, each has significant differences and deciding how to integrate the different design domains depends on the requirements of the user. The most common being that of industrial design versus that of design engineering.

Industrial Design

Industrial design deals with the aesthetics, usability and overall ergonomics of the product design. Whenever the product is something seen and felt by the consumer, great industrial design is key to developing an amazing product. When discussing the aesthetics of product design, Apple of course comes to mind, as the differentiator in all their products is the beauty and aesthetics of the design. Of course, the aesthetics and artistic qualities are not the singular focus of product design for most companies, even Apple, because to be a great product, it still must work perfectly. This is where design engineering becomes critical.

Design Engineering

Design engineering deals with translating the ideas developed in the brainstorming phase and translating it into sound underlying mechanics. To continue the Apple example, curvature and the colors of the metals on the exterior of the devices can have beautiful aesthetics, but the device must also function and perform the job as precisely and economically as possible. The electronics main board, ports, screen resolution and software all must function flawlessly. To be considered a great product design, flawless engineering must work in tandem with having a beautiful and sleek exterior.

Designing for manufacturability is also a critical aspect of design engineering. The entire purpose of product design is to create something that can be manufactured and sold to users to solve their problems. If the product cannot easily or efficiently be manufactured, then this is also poor product design and is therefore a constraint that must be seriously considered against any proposed design idea.

Although the manufacturing stage of the product design process does not come until later, it must still be kept in mind at this stage. This is because different product designs require different fabrication methods based on their geometry, tolerances and required mechanical properties. For example, products that are going to be fabricated using machining or injection molding should not be designed the same as a product or component that will be 3D printed. Manufacturing processes such as 3D printing have their own set of advantages that a designer should endeavor to take advantage of. Designers should understand these considerations ahead of time and think about how the product can be manufactured as they are creating the design.

Concept Model Prototype

As was done in the brainstorming phase of the product design process, continuing to prototype concept models is important for product designers. Technologies such as 3D printing allow for the rapid prototyping of many iterations, which makes it easy for the product design team to compare different ideas side by side with a scale physical representation. More iterations and concept models help new product teams make more informed decisions and avoid costly mistakes and revisions in later stages of the product design process.

Functional Prototyping and Testing

While a 3D printed concept model can be great for understanding the look and feel of different product iterations, once the process has progressed and the design team has finalized the first revision of their initial product design, the product must be tested. The best way to do this is through a functional prototype, which can also be done through 3D printing with engineering grade and composite materials. 3D printed functional prototypes are made with high performance materials capable of withstanding high impact applications, heat and tensile stress.

The unique advantages that prototyping with 3D printing offers is the ability to produce quality, high performance parts in a fraction of the time, at a fraction of the cost. Often, in the product design cycle, many prototypes are needed as there are many iterations that are being made because of user and stakeholder feedback. 3D printing allows designers to quickly and easily make changes to the CAD design and have the new product design physically in their hands within a matter of hours, rather than weeks, as would be the case with other prototyping methods.

Manufacture and Launch

Once the product has been prototyped, undergone multiple testing trials, and the new product design has been bought off by all stakeholders, it is time to manufacturing and launch the product to the market. Typically, conventional manufacturing methods require minimum order quantities that are often in the many thousands of units which can create a big problem if there ends up being a mistake with the product design that was overlooked during the design process. Additionally, the demand may not be as high as originally intended and further changes must be made. If there are already thousands of units manufactured that cannot be sold, then this also creates a large cost.

A solution to each of these scenarios is small batch manufacturing with 3D printing. Small batch on-demand manufacturing gives companies greater ability to align their supply and demand and quickly make design changes based on the user feedback from the initial production units. The same engineering grade and high-performance composite materials that were used for functional prototyping can be used for the production parts as more market feedback is received and demand begins to grow. Small batch manufacturing with 3D printing enables companies to mitigate some of the manufacturing risks associated with new product launches while still providing a great lean manufacturing solution.

Incorporate Feedback

The product design process is a continuous loop, whereby, user feedback is constantly being received and incorporated into future product releases. It is paramount to connect the product back to the user to ensure that the product still aligns with solving the customer problem stated in the original vision. As mentioned before, it may also be beneficial to capture some of the lessons learned, which can be used to drive more efficiencies and value in future product design iterations.

Ready to Start Designing Your Product?

ZABFAB Manufacturing offers product design services to help you design your products! We also offer rapid prototyping and small batch manufacturing using 3D printing. Contact us to learn more about how we can use great product design and 3D printing to help you bring your product to market!

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