Guest Post | The Importance of Conceptual Design in Product Development

Steve Owens founder and CTO of Finish Line Product Development Services discusses the importance of conceptual design.

Why are successful people successful, while others are not? Successful people do what unsuccessful people are not willing to do.

Let’s take Steve Jobs who took over Apple on the verge of bankruptcy and made it the most valuable company in the world.  Did he take short cuts?  Did he look for easy answers?  Did he hire people because they were cheap?  No, he knew there were no shortcuts to victory, only hard work. He knew this was especially true when it came to conceptual design.   He endlessly obsessed over every detail of every product even to point of proclaiming “A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them

Conceptual Design is a part of the product design process that generates several design concepts which are then compared and contrasted to the product design specifications and ultimately the problem the product is trying to solve. Each concept will achieve the product design requirements with different levels of performance and the Conceptual Design phase is about making design compromises based on an understanding of the importance of each product requirement.

Even before Job’s started the iPod project, there were several digital music and mp3 players on the market – including several by well-funded companies.  All achieved only modest successes as niche market consumer products and didn’t really make much of an impact on consumers.

The iPod on the other hand become one of the most successful products ever developed.  Jobs did not come up with the idea of a digital music player.  Jobs perfected the idea of a digital music player by developing the ideas behind what made people want to listen to music and he did this (as all good designers do) through design thinking and more specifically; the conceptual design process.  The design choices that came out of that process were the difference, and why he famously agonised over them.

Conceptual design determines 90 percent of the development cost, unit cost, performance, usability, etc. 90 percent of the success of a product is determined in the conceptual design phase. It is the most leveraged part of the all the phases in the product development process. Get this wrong and everything that follows can be a colossal waste of time and money; something small companies can rarely afford to do.

Conceptual design is more than just a block diagram and flowchart. Conceptual design is about developing a deep understanding of the requirements, creating and visualising ideas and then comparing and contrasting these different ideas to achieve the product’s requirements and determining which concept will best meet them.

Don’t skip over conceptual design or assume it is just something the designers do.  Get deeply involved and create a diverse team of both technical and non-technical people to generate a truly great conceptual design (CD).

 

Here are a few things to keep in mind during your journey:

Requirements: Without a good written requirements document to pass to your design agency, it is impossible to conduct concept development (or any phase of the product design process!). To ensure that as many different concepts as possible are considered, remove any “how to do it” statements from the requirements document and stick to the hard facts of what you want to be developed and what you don’t want to be developed.

(Steve’s agency website provides a link to download template an RD Template – Here)

Widen your team: Get as much input as possible when constructing the requirements for the concept design phase. Include people from as many different industries and specialisations as possible, both internal and external (e.g., customers, vendors, consultants, and product development companies) and make sure you even have people that don’t have the same “shared vison” as you do. Naysayers often provide a perspective that your rose-tinted eyes can’t see!

Make Time: You always need to consider adequate time to conduct your concept development. Because most small businesses have long product turns, they can take their time in concept design. Typically, the concept design phase of product development is a small percentage of the overall product development resource cost but usually the most important! Most of the cost is in detail design and design verification. We recommend to our clients that they always give a good amount of time for concept development, regardless of whether or not it is time for a new model/phase/idea/process. This not only ensures you have time to properly conduct product concept development, but it also ensures you are not blindsided by any new enabling technology that disrupts your market. If concept design does not result in an immediate detail design phase, then continue to freshen the concepts as time wears on until it does. This ensures your designers are always coming up with fresh ideas that are relevant and market specific, rather than shoehorning in an idea that is months out of date! (A problem that big corporate companies often run into due to their immense size and lack of agility in pass new ideas through the system)

Methodology: Concept design is about finding the best concept to meet the project requirements. There are many ways to quantify “best” but one of the simplest methods is to score the value of each requirement in the overall design on a scale of 1-10 and cross reference that score against each concept’s score in achieving those requirements.

(Again, Steve provides a link to download a Conceptual Design Template – Here).

Good conceptual design is essential to product development success.  A deep understanding of the customer requirements and an understanding of technology that can achieve these is necessary to determine which set of concepts will best solve the problem you are designing for.  Done well, the product’s features will naturally appeal to the ideal customer over competitor products and as such command a premium price.

Steve Owens, Founder of Finish Line Product Development Services, has been successfully developing products for over 30 years in many different industries and is highlt sought after as an adviser and speaker on the product design. Steve has founded 4 successful start-ups holds many different patents and regularly gives insight to startups and SMEs to help in their product development process.

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