I was a graduate student in MIT Media Lab’s Information Ecology research group making future consumer objects. As part of my research, I made a prototype of a nightstand called Tableau, which converted between digital and physical mail, bridging a gap between people who preferred one or the other.
I asked an engineer colleague if he wanted to work with me to see if we could make a commercial version. But we had little experience with…oh, let’s list them all:
* designing printer mechanisms
* making furniture at scale
* making electronics at scale
* marketing new products
* selling retail products
One way to climb a daunting mountain is to break your difficult problem into several smaller ones. Have you ever played Civilization? Think of how you had to acquire a string of technologies before you could build a battleship or a factory.
So that’s what we did. Good thing we really enjoyed learning and solving problems, since we were doing this all ourselves. Not doing it all in one moonshot took the immediate pressure off. Instead of planning the perfect product, design your product development process. The gradual slope up is slower, but surer.
You need to feed yourself as you learn. One way to do this and move quickly is to take on investors. We chose not to. Instead, each step resulted in a product that at minimum could generate revenue.
But if we hadn't been cocky self-assured, we might have never gotten into trouble, and trouble is formative.
We started by learning how to make something at scale. What separates industrial designers from “makers” is the industrial part—designing for the process by which someone else will make your product at a reasonable cost and quality, with minimal effort on your part.
It almost doesn’t matter what you’re making. Furniture’s a fine place to start—you don’t generally need to put a lot of money into molds or other setup. We designed a side table, which has its own CAD file embedded into it, out of CNC’d oak and laser-cut steel. We got quotes from local shops for the various operations and priced it to make a profit. We got some press. And one order.
Okay, so we learned that building it does not mean they will come. But the exercise of setting up a supply chain was valuable. We designed something, got a quote for it, redesigned it to be less expensive to manufacture, and lined up our suppliers.
Design for manufacturability is often something designers learn only through experience, and by working small and close to manufacturing partners (that’s a recommendation to not fly to China right away), you learn a lot that will guide you earlier in the process next time.
So having succeeded in learning about how to make furniture (but not how to sell it), we tackled the electronics half of the equation. And we still needed to make money doing it.
We got excited about making a toolbox not just for ourselves, but for other interaction designers. So we designed not just a circuitboard with a radio, but a user-friendly experience emcompassing a soft TPU case, a web interface to command the circuitboard without programming, and a server to manage it all. We called it Twine. It did well on Kickstarter. Now we had to deliver it.
We had a complex product that itself could’ve been broken up into smaller steps. But if we hadn’t been
cocky self-assured, we might have never gotten into trouble, and trouble is formative. We put technical and logistical lessons learned into practice, and got many new lessons on running a business, defining products and managing employees, customers and our own expectations.
Twine’s success distracted us from our original goal, but it funded further R&D, gave us momentum, and sparked many conversations and observations about how people used this multi-purpose tool and what they really wanted. You learn a lot about what product to ship by shipping a product.
We escaped with a shipping product, but we had new problems. The product was expensive to make and it didn’t have a well-defined market. Combined, these presented a roadblock to wider sales. There was no clear channel to sell into, and we couldn’t meet the typical retail margins anyway. So we knew we had to reexamine our approach.
We also had a ton of feedback from customers and we decided to hone in on specific tasks that people wanted to accomplish. A particular conversation with a commercial customer steered us toward a focused use case, and we decided to make a smart cooking thermometer named Range.
We had the supply chain procurement process down. We knew how to manage a complex product development process, and we had a focused use case. We threw in a few new engineering challenges (making a product that worked with a smartphone and in an oven), but chose to avoid others (wireless communication). Instead, we upped our level of polish. We honed both the message and the object’s purpose to lower the cost and raise the value to its buyer.
Range was a success, but the evolution on features and cost wasn't over. At least now we had a better understanding of the market we were selling to, and the path forward was incremental and straightforward. So of course, we gave ourself new challenges for the next step, which you can read about in my previous article.
Our rule of thumb, baked into our development strategy: Build a product that requires two or three things you don’t know how to do, but no more. We typically take on one new technical challenge (iOS app, Bluetooth) and one new production challenge (injection molded silicone, overseas manufacturing). Each product should give you a chance to explore and learn about new territory, while having a solid footing on your existing competence and a revenue stream.
You may have noticed that we still haven’t made what we set out to. Along the way, we expanded our perspective and changed course. This is a reason to get started now, before you think you’re ready. You’re going to learn by doing, not just how to make, but what to make.
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as time goes on, i find the hardest thing to do is start. once you get the ball rolling, and have some momentum, it is not as hard to finish, as it was to start.
I agree. Kickstarter is a great way to commit yourself early to finishing. You won't be perfect with your first product, so you just have to get the iterations under your belt. It's like an extreme form of sketching.
Nice, good advice! I find this stuff to be true in the development process of products here at Botzen design