Starting Gate: How to Successfully Begin Product Design

Clearly, the most critical phase of any design project is the first step. At the starting gate is when you set the all-important criteria and some concepts for your product design. Accurately defining specifications is absolutely essential for launching any successful industrial design project.

The first step is clearly defining what it is you’re after because without knowing that, you’ll never get it. It’s surprising, but this step is either trivialized or omitted in the design process.

I often work with companies developing a new product based on a sketchy description of what it is and how it should perform. It’s my responsibility to assist them in investing time and money to clearly defining a comprehensive product specification document.

Companies that don’t perform this critical step will frequently add product requirements as the project evolves. And that results in multiple problems including delays, extensive redesign, added development cost, and sometimes major tooling revisions.

Typically, a loose set of specifications will describe a product in extremely oversimplified terms. That can lead to serious omissions in testing, function, aesthetics, or safety resulting in failure. An industrial design project without a well-defined set of specifications is like taking an ocean trip with no navigational equipment. Projects usually end up in chaos, poorly managed, highly inefficient, and with terrible end results.

So how do you develop a well-planned project?

How to Do “Right From the Start” Product Design

Well-defined specifications must be logically organized. It’s based on the information being documented, easily amended, easily updated, based on facts, and based on well-researched information. In addition, they should also include some level of risk assessment, budgetary guidelines, schedule, options, and prioritized product requirements. Specifications don’t have to be long booklets, but they should be comprehensive.

Ideally, specs should be segregated into sections that are assigned to specialists familiar with that area of knowledge or skill set. For example, a materials specialist may outline all the parameters associated with material selection and performance. A human factors specialist may focus on the user interface, safety and comfort. A structural engineer may define structural requirements under various environmental conditions. A regulatory specialist would address all national and international requirements. A program manager would examine the project from a level of resources, scheduling, cost and risk.

The creation of a product specification document is an essential component of the industrial product design history that could serve as an invaluable piece of due diligence evidence in any future litigation.

I’ve written many product specifications throughout my career and have appreciated the multiple benefits of these documents. An interesting phenomenon occurs during this process as I realize the multitude of parameters involved in how the product could be used. I used the word “could” versus “will” because it’s important to design for the unexpected.

Comprehensive product specifications include a wide range of parameters, expertise and knowledge. They should also be written as a living document that can be updated as the project develops. Any or all amendments in the industrial design process need to be managed and controlled by an assigned individual.

For every new product design project, invest the necessary time in a well-written set of specifications. This critical first design step will save you tens of thousands of dollars in development cost, and guide you to a successful product launch.

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