Ideation – The key to building a product that people actually want

by | Dec 9, 2019

Throughout my past experience developing hardware products, I have repeatedly made the mistake of underestimating the amount of planning hardware product development takes. I consistently would tell people (and believed what I was saying), “that looks relatively simple... just a BLE chipset, battery, and an encasement” only to end up busting my (and my angry team’s) *ss to pull it together. And the crazy thing is that I was only generally pulled in for the hardware engineering challenges and never even had to deal with the monstrous amount of planning required for marketing validation.

Ben Einstein is a practical realist when it comes to hardware development and a role model of mine. Back in 2015, he wrote a 4 part article titled the “Illustrated Guide to Product Development” that became my go-to resource and model for product development. It is based on a process that is a hybridization of tried and true manufacturing/quality practices and lightweight process utilized by the design community.

The four different general phases of product development described are ideation, design, engineering, and validation. All four must be addressed, and all four are integral. Ben tells the story of a startup called DipJar, a connected tip jar for credit cards, and their journey through the development process to market adoption. PSA - I am now a proud owner of a DipJar (bought one to help raise money for the Boys&Girls Club of Truckee Meadows) and I can attest that they are real and work as advertised!

The rest of the article outlines the first part of the product development process, Ideation.

Founders (myself included) often assume that they know what people want (and how people will react to their product) before doing nearly enough research. As the saying goes, “assumptions make an ass out of you and me”. In order to avoid assuming too much with your product development initiative, there are a few invaluable things that you can do:
  1. Conduct customer development interviews to better understand the problem space
    • Have fluid, unscripted conversations and be open-minded about where the conversation may lead you
    • Don’t talk about your product or solution
    • Take detailed notes or recordings to build a database
    • Work towards building 3+ customer personas
    • Don’t only focus on what people say, also pay attention to how they say it.
    With DipJar, after conducting problem oriented interviews, they found out that the target market of people not tipping due to the proliferation of credit cards was much larger than they had previously expected, expanding past restaurants, service providers, musicians and into the primary realm of charities.
  2. Build good customer personas (fictional, generalized profiles of your ideal users). Don’t be lazy!
    Companies that do this right gain in-depth knowledge of their problem space including:
    • Which stakeholders make purchasing decisions, how they purchase, and why it is a problem currently
    • What brands and purchasing habits consumers have
    • Ideal price points for the product
    • Beachhead customer base definition
  3. Build what I like to call a “looks-like” model (Ben calls this a Proof-of-concept prototype) and go out to validate the major assumptions that your problem research uncovered.
    Here are Ben’s tips for iterative, “looks-like” prototyping:
    • Come up with lots of ideas before moving to any prototyping efforts. Focus on conversations, mockups, and prior art searches.
    • Test your assumptions about the problem and your users
    • Speed over quality
    • Use off-the-shelf parts as often as possible
To reinstate, ideation is CRITICAL to successful IoT product development. Without a solid understanding of the problem space, your customer profiles, and your general market you are most likely wasting your time and money.
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