How would you feel to walk into a store and see a product that you designed on the shelves for sale? Do you have an idea for a product that you know people would want? Or, are you frustrated by the options out there, and you know “there’s got to be a better way”?
I’ve been there too.
The earliest product I can remember ‘inventing’ was a hat with a fan in it. The first product I sold was a ring, at my freshman holiday gift fair. And the first product line I designed, built and sold was a collection of messenger bags way back in 1995.
I sewed those bags on the floor of my college apartment, made catalogs at Kinkos and shlepped samples all over NYC to find buyers.
After years of designing products in corporate day jobs, I launched my first ‘real’ company in 2007.
As an Industrial Designer, I am always thinking about products. I’m the guy you’ll see taking notes in the aisles of Target or looking under the table at a restaurant to see how it’s made. I love nothing more than brainstorming business ideas and exploring new manufacturing techniques. There’s always a new idea brewing, and thanks to my lifelong obsession with things and my Industrial Design training at Pratt Institute, I’m always poised to launch the next product.
If you're reading this, you also probably have some great ideas and would love to get them on the shelves of your local store.
But, you may not have the experience or the training to start a company - or maybe you do and are just looking for another perspective. What I’m sure you do have is a strong interest in your niche. Whether it be sock garters, tropical fish tanks, or anything in between, I am sure you know a whole lot about it. Maybe you just see a problem and need to fix it. Or maybe you’ve had an idea filed away for years.
And that’s where your product begins.
Product design process
So how does it work?
In the world of Industrial Design, we generally work through a process that looks like this:
- Looking at Needs
- Researching the market
- Brainstorming Concepts
- Building Prototypes
Then, we repeat the process until we're happy with the results. The order varies, but some of the most successful products have been refined, refined, refined to a point where they as good as possible within your goals. (Nothing is ever perfect and if you wait until it seems perfect you’ve probably wasted a lot of time.) Look back at the first iPod. Apple launched it as the best product they could make at the time and refined it as the years went by.
Let’s assume that you are at the concept stage - most of us start there. We have a blast of inspiration and a surge of excitement to build a new product and start a company.
Will your new product solve a problem? Is it something people other than you want? Or is your idea breaking new ground and fulfill a need that people didn’t even know they had? Dig deep and define the features and benefits that your product will provide.
I like to look for the holes in product offerings. I’ll visit a local Target store and actively browse the aisle, looking at the collections, and gaining an understanding of what the store is offering the customers. Of course, people can only buy what is on the shelf, but what if you were able to imagine what wasn’t on the shelf - what new product would fit right in the collections, but be better and more desirable than anything else?
What do you think about your idea now? How will you apply your Need insights top make your product better?
Researching the Market
Online research is probably the easiest and fastest way to get a decent snapshot of your potential market. Start browsing blogs, sites, forums, and youtube videos. Chances are pretty good that someone is selling goods in your space, and you can get an idea of your potential competition.
If you heading into uncharted territories, sometimes you have to go with your gut. Or you can explore the markets that surround your concept and make some best guess assumptions. (It really is all about assumptions at this point, nothing’s real until someone buys your product). One of the easiest ways to start is to search on Amazon.com. Look for other similar products, read the reviews and note how many reviews there are out there.
Also try researching with Google Keyword Tool. Pick the best description you can of your product and explore the Tool. You can see how many people are actively searching for your terms.
Define your customer. Who would buy your product? Where would they buy it? Go to those places and observe.
These are the first steps to learning more about the potential Market for your product. You may not find concrete answers, but everything you learn will inform your product idea and help you to refine, refine, refine.
You most likely started this process with an idea, but having a solid understanding of peoples needs and the market will further inform your product concept.
How can you improve your idea? What could you do make it better, cheaper, faster lighter, etc? Are there other needs that you can fulfill? Does your new awareness of the market help you see what retail prices would be possible? Does that open or close options for features?
A mind-map is a great tool to visually explore all the possibilities for your concept. Then refining down to the essence of your idea will lead you to a successful product.
Product Design Prototypes
While students at Pratt Insitute, we learned how to make realistic product prototypes so that we could pitch our ideas as accurately as possible to our professors. This is one of my favorite parts of the process. I love filing, sanding, painting; the making part of product design. If you do too, don’t wait another minute - head out to your workspace and start playing with materials. Getting your hands on physical materials will give you even more insight. Making a prototype will expose ideas and problems you hadn’t even thought of.
In the words of a Pratt professor:
Perhaps your idea isn’t a physical product, or maybe you have insecurities about your prototyping skills; don’t sweat it. Just get to making. It’ll be worth it. Planning a service business? Then draw each service on a separate piece of paper and make a physical flow chart. Feel more comfortable in the kitchen than the workshop? How about making a cake in the shape of your product?
Sometimes getting your hands literally dirty will allow your brain to work cleaner.
After you’ve researched peoples needs, explored the market, and built a prototype, you then need to test. Testing the function of your prototype is the next sep of the process - and one that many people don’t fully do. It’s easy to fall in love with your ideas, but the goal is to have other people - many, many of them - also fall in love, and buy, your products. So, it must work for them also.
Get your product in others hands and watch how they interact, see if it functions as it should and you’ll quickly see ways you can improve.
I like to go through at least 2 rounds of this process, but more can be better. With every step you’ll be learning and improving, and getting closer to making the best possible product you can.
How’s your Perspiration Now?
Are you surprised by all the work? Yup, the idea is the easy part. Actually doing is challenging. Welcome to the hard parts of building your own business. Don’t let this steps dissuade you though, it’s all fun - you just have to look at it from the right angle. I guarantee you’ll never be bored!
If design is your thing, your own process will likely vary a lot. And if design is not something your are interested in doing personally, there’s plenty of talented designers out there that can help you. Just email me if you’re looking for someone.
Regardless of how it gets done, remember that your first idea almost definitely can be improved upon by learning, exploring, testing and repeating.
Read next: How to Get your Products Made