A phased approach to product development, including models, can help reduce risks and end in rewards.

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A concept sketch (top), “works-like” (left), and “looks-like” models of the Iona Internet radio, designed by Cambridge Consultants as a portable, battery-powered, and low-cost Wi-Fi Internet radio concept. Images: Cambridge Consultants

Any product development involves risk and has the potential for unexpected problems at any time. This applies to simple product upgrades, but even more so to challenging new innovations.

A phased approach to development is a well-known technique to help efficiently bring products to market—identifying the high-risk, most difficult challenges and solving those first, leaving the easier, more handle-turning—but labor-intensive and very necessary—engineering until later.

A useful way of planning this approach is to perform a development risk analysis. Most often used in a health and safety sense, it is a powerful tool to identify and mitigate risks within the project phases.

This can come across a little dry, even to the most enthusiastic of development engineers, and certainly to those important marketing stakeholders. Demonstrators or prototypes of varying types can be used throughout this process. When a lot of people think of a demonstrator or prototype, they often think of something that looks and works just like a final product, perhaps missing some functionality and not quite ready for production.

However, there are other types of demonstrators that do not distract the development team from the main task at hand, to help stakeholders understand progress and make key decisions. These demonstrators can help the development teams and manufacturing partners visualize what the final product should be.

Concept sketches
Concept sketches are developed early on. Industrial designers use the sketches in early phases of consumer products. However, sketches also add a lot to products in other market sectors—for example, industrial—and they shouldn’t just be limited to what the product looks like. Creating a user profile and the typical use cases is important—a scientific instrument for use by low-skilled operators in a factory environment have significantly different requirements from a similar instrument used by doctorate-level technicians in laboratories. Storyboards of how the product will be used are also important and are quite easy to create right from the start of a development.

But why spend time creating prototypes or demonstrators? What are they useful for? It is true that a good product requirement specification should capture all this information. However, captured information is very different from information that is easily understood by a wide range of people. In addition, these models can be generated quickly and at a low cost, which is vital for startups trying to find seed funding with which to start their development. They can also make the difference between R&D getting or not getting funding from a marketing department to start a development.

Looks-like model
The next step is to separate functions of a demonstrator/prototype; this is key to rapid developments.

A “looks-like” model has no working or functional parts to it. In its simplest form it could be a foam/card block model with its user interface printed on paper and stuck onto the front. At the other end of the scale is a full industrial design model, beautifully crafted, painted, and finished to look identical to a final product.

There are a good number of reasons to create looks-like models of any kind within that range—and probably a number at different stages of the development at different points within that range. The obvious one is to define what the product should look like, what the user interface involves, and how it will be used. But the additional benefits start with the development team itself. Engineers are mostly driven by creating an end product—sharing this looks-like model gives them the vision of what it is they are creating, whatever discipline they are. Marketers need to start building up a picture of what their product is, and how they are going to position it.

However, the most important point from a risk mitigation angle is that this is the first time reality starts to meet the vision. Engineers start to see how much space they have to fit all the functionality they need to create, and the human factors team starts to see how the story board of user interaction will work in real life. All these teams need to work together on producing and iterating a realistic design, and this looks-like model is a tangible platform to do this on.

Works-like demonstrator
Working prototypes or demonstrators are second nature to engineers. They use standard development platforms to develop the software and define the hardware architecture; or use standard, off-the-shelf, components to create a mechanical system. This is a classic approach to concentrate efforts on debugging the highest risk, most novel aspect of a new product. The lengthy implementation side of engineering a product has been done already, albeit in a way not suitable for the final product. But the works-like model also reinforces the message to stakeholders when combined with the looks-like model.

The important aspect is to create a coherent message between the looks-like and works-like demonstrators. All players—engineering, commercial, and marketing teams, and perhaps even consumers—need to connect the two and see how they will merge together into a final product. This also forces the different teams—design and development—to come together and have a shared vision of a complete, coherent product.

Works-like, looks-like
The logical next step is bringing these two different models together into a functional prototype that looks like a final product. This will inevitably happen as part of the development, but trying to get to this stage quickly—well before all the design for manufacture has been complete—has its benefits. At this implementation stage of the development, the most common challenges are whether it can be made small enough and at a low enough cost.

As soon as these prototypes are ready, the sales teams will want to start showing them to their customers and selling them before the final design is ready. But at least the major issues should have been solved, and the time to get the first batch of products from the production line can be as short and risk free as possible.