The fuzzy front end of product development
A significant proportion of our work with clients is at what some might call the fuzzy front end. This spans user insight and discovery, through innovation and concept generation, to proof of concept and minimum viable products.
By nature, it’s fuzzy because outcomes are not certain, but that’s not to say that process and rigour cannot be applied. Methodologies such as Design Thinking, Design Sprints and Agile Development, all support the concept of adapting the horizon of the anticipated result based on what has been learnt as the product concept develops.
Prototyping has always been a key element of KD’s in-house capability and approach, whether it takes the form of a rapidly made card model to test an idea, an engineering test rig to support experimentation, a technology demonstrator to communicate a new principle, a digital app prototype, or a looks-like, works-like proof of concept, all have important roles to play in moving forward along the product development path, even if that means taking a few sideways steps, or pivots, along the way, based on what has been learned.
Prototypes can be tremendously powerful communicators of an idea and can play vital roles in capturing a shared vision of an early product concept or in helping to secure next stage approval or funding for a programme or validating a concept with end customers.
But it’s not simply a question of having the attitude and capability to bring ideas, concepts and principles to life in the form of prototypes. Equally, if not more importantly, is deciding what and when to prototype, and how to test. Precious project time and resources can be wasted seeking to make a complete prototype too early – much better to focus on key aspects of a design where learning is important or the need for validation is more critical. Similarly, consideration of how to test – whether that is functional performance, usability, or purchase intent – should intelligently shape the requirements for the prototype.
There is no one-size-fits-all approach to navigating the early stages of product development. Ultimately, it’s about choosing the appropriate tools to address and balance the three key components of successful product innovation, desirability, feasibility and viability.
Is the product appealing, usable and differentiated? Here, the tools of Design Thinking (user empathy, ideation, concept prototypes and testing) are invaluable in iteratively building a compelling concept.
Is the product technically feasible? This is all about well-planned engineering prototyping and testing, using proof of principle prototypes to establish the feasibility of fundamental aspects of the product, then building towards a more complete looks-like, works-like prototype.
Is there a market for the product and is it economically viable? In this area, early demonstrators can help to communicate the vision to investors and, as the product develops, taking a minimum viable product (MVP) approach can provide an acid test of viability.
This article was first published in FOCUS Proof of Principle.