Designs on the market

Spotting future trends and tailoring products to customers’ needs makes designers essential, says Mike Cane.

Smart companies do not just monitor change — they consider its implications and respond to the cultural, lifestyle, demographic, technological and environmental forces that drive it.

Being alive to the opportunities different disciplines can create gives forward-looking companies more than the chance to respond to an emerging market. It allows the creation of market-defining products and leading positions.

Inevitably, individual companies, universities and technology developers have different ways of working but, with sufficient flexibility, openness and adaptation in a collaborative development, these differences can become a key advantage.

The MP3 player was driven by a cultural shift — people exchanging music on the internet — coupled with a technology change — the low-power low-cost decoding of MP3 files. Designers saw the chance to encapsulate this in a portable device and the key design icon for the decade, the iPod, was born.

The role of the designer is fundamental because they occupy the space between changing or emerging technologies and the consumer. Product designers bring experience of understanding potential customers and insights into how to make a product intuitive to use and how to overcome problems in delivering a new product.

Creative thinking enables many products to be developed: a range of concepts can be explored then assessed to generate the most value from a technology.

One example is the development of the Satmap, a new product which is the first purpose-built GPS-based, hand-held receiver for use with information-rich maps for walkers, cyclists and other outdoor sports enthusiasts. GPS technology has been around for a long time but existing products did not address the needs of people used to detailed maps and compasses. Satmap identified this product niche and by getting together with product designers, generated a specification for this product.

A technology development company with technical expertise in a specific area, such as micro-mechanics or PDA mobile device design, can assemble bits of disparate, apparently unrelated, technology, which have never been brought together in a complete system, to produce something of real value. Product design companies can also imagine and make appearance models — essential and powerful communications tools for potential investors — as well as functional demonstrators that reveal how a product, or different elements of a system, works.

In contrast, the pitfalls of not bringing product designers in at an early stage are considerable. Significant investment in technology development may result in a product that no one needs or buys because the customers’ perspective was not at the forefront of the development. This is what designers can bring into an engineering team and a multi-disciplinary, cross-pollination of ideas and perspectives can rejuvenate products in a market sector.

For collaborative relationships to work it is important to align the medium- and long-term goals to ensure all parties have a strategy to invest and gain a return. This typically requires project planning and tangible milestones at interim periods. All parties must have complementary skills with clearly defined roles and responsibilities. If the relationship works well, trust builds but the collaboration must play to the strengths of each party. The overriding need is for continual communication on the final product vision, with informal communications as well as formal reviews.

Inevitably, a relationship will begin with a mis-match in expectations. For example, marketing might expect too many product features that cannot be achieved to cost or timescales, or technical teams may have an unrealistic expectation of technical problems that might arise. So it is important to make sure everyone has realistic expectations, regularly reviewing risks, plans and time lines.

Another way to reduce risk is to continually develop back-up solutions. A general rule is to have two or three alternative solutions for each part of a product. In the technology innovation process there are often failures — everyday situations in which experiments go wrong or the results are not as expected. But this is normal and it is important to value this as a learning experience to build a better version.

Finally, the development process demands that the team evolve, so it is vital to keep communications going. Building the right team for each stage of the project might typically produce core project management and a technical team. However, outside design experts can offer a wealth of opportunities, not only to complete projects but to open up fundamentally new markets.

Mike Cane is a director at Cambridge Design Partnership.