Taking the steps to success

Tom Shelley reports on the challenges facing anyone seeking to produce innovative and successful products

Renowned product designer Geoff Hollington recently said: "The killer product is something that nobody knows they want, but cannot do without once they have got it." A company or an individual that aspires to manufacture such a product, can have the best technology in the world, but will not succeed unless they clearly identify the market need or opportunity it is going to meet, address the human factors and psychology of the users, and work out how all the people in the supply chain are going to make money so they are prepared to become advocates. Stephen Knowles, managing director of Industrial Design Consultancy (IDC) asserts that a really successful product is one "that fulfils an unmet market need and executes that need in a very well resolved way", but added, "Even this does not mean an instant route to riches." Dr Ken Phillips's motorcycle helmet, the subject of Eureka's April 2010 cover story, but originally featured in January 1999 is a case in point. It certainly met a need in that it reduces motorcyclist head injuries, but it has taken much time and effort to get it to market. Apart from saving lives and reducing injuries, Knowles said that unmet needs could include a need to greatly reduce price, or improving the ease of use of an existing product, and whatever the product, he advised, "It must be satisfying to use, it must be intuitive and it must fit in with existing lifestyles." He then added that, "The best inventions come from people who experience a problem first hand or work in a relevant industry, because they have a good understanding of their market and can see how to address the shortfalls." This certainly applied to Dr. Phillips, who is a doctor, specialising in psychotherapy, so well aware of the effect of brain injuries, who came up with the idea after a discussion with his son, a journalist writing for the motorcycle press. The other aspect that inventors and designers need to consider, according to Knowles is, "Pricing and the profit everyone in the design chain needs to make. The end retailers, particularly, need to make a good margin, and if they do, they will push the product and make it go." To assist this process, IDC has just produced an "Inventors Guide", available as a free download from the IDC website, which starts by encouraging inventors to address such questions as: "Has your invention already been thought of? Who would use your product? What are the reasons people will buy your product? What is the potential size of the market? Can you protect your idea? And "What are the risks and difficulties you will face?" Naturally, external factors such as the economy, the environment and society at large also play a major role in the success or failure of any design. Speaking at the 100% Design event, Electrolux designer Adam Szepanowski explained the importance of assessing and anticipating such factors, saying: "Most designers think design is about aesthetics, but it's really about making products that fit into a user's life." Szepanowski went on to explain that Electrolux is convinced that by 2050, 74% of the world's population will live in cities and average living space will be only 35.m2. Furthermore, he believed that almost all plastic then available will be recycled, and that consumers will expect products to be much 'smarter' taking decisions that will result in not only optimum performance but also minimising energy consumption and costs. The consequence for design was, he claimed, that: "Green has to be the default mode." Examples of this approach could be seen from the entries to Electrolux's annual competition for young designers called DesignLab. This year's winner was the 'Snail', a device that could be fastened on the side of a metal cooking vessel and heat it up by induction, thus doing away with the need for a cooker. Conceived by Peter Alwin from the Ahmedabad National Institute of Design, the design was seen to meet all such goals, in addition to minimising space, cost and energy consumption. Runners up included a 'Bio Robot Refrigerator' which would use genetically engineered, heat absorbing micro-organisms in a gel matrix – with food to be kept cool in containers within the gel and a concept involving kitchen shelving that would include heated and cooled sections for cooking and refrigeration. Although such ideas may seem far-fetched, it is worth noting that the 'Shine' wall-mounted, illuminated washing machine designed by Levente Szabo, winner of the 2007 competition, is now on large-scale trial in Italy prior to going into volume production. David Kester, chief executive of the Design Council, speaking at Venturefest in Oxford, asked the audience which of them used design as a strategic tool in their business and found (as he said he expected) that it was only about 20%. He argued that we as a country have to look to our strengths. He said that since the UK was "second in the world" in terms of scientific and technical papers published and cited and had the largest design sector in Europe, employing 230,000 people. It therefore follows, he claimed, that these strengths were science and design", and that it was their combination that represented successful innovation. As a company that had science and technology in spades, but had lacked design, he cited Navetas Energy Mangement, a Suffolk-based company with a technology that allows electricity users to see the energy consumption of individual appliances at a single point. Kester then said, against a slide showing an image of a printed circuit board full of electronics, that, "The cleverness of the project was not coming across". The solution was to produce a visualisation of what the product might look like, which resulted in obtaining venture capital support to fund the development of real products, which are now being field trialled. Kester is also of the opinion that visualisation of product and development strategy is an essential part of internal development processes. "Visualisation is so cost-effective," he declared. Human psychological factors naturally play a key role in the success or failure of any product. People can be greatly influenced by how something looks or feels. In particular, when products interact with users through electronics, there are a host of additional human psychological factors to interact with that can either make the killer product or totally foul things up. Naturally, such factors will change according to the target market. Different generations look for different things in a product and, equally, one generation may be turned off a product by precisely the same factors that attract another. Pera, for example, has undertaken a lot of development work on intelligent pill boxes that can tell users when they need to take medication. (Eureka November 2007 and September 2008). These have yet to take off, however and it is easy to imagine that this might well be because many elderly people who would surely be the key audience for such a product may also have an aversion to high technology, especially technology that produces verbal reminders. Clearly, this is only one example of the way in which the human factors surrounding a product might adversely affect the success of an invention with numerous practical benefits. Nonetheless, it serves to illustrate the critical importance of understanding the market for any product in terms of the individuals who may (or may not) buy it. As IDC's 'Inventors Guide' puts it: "Researching and understanding the needs and behaviour of the potential users ensures that people will connect with the product - a key requirement for success in the market. Insights gained in the research stage often lead to new product innovations." Ultimately, of course, cost is probably the single most important factor in any development process. A proper understanding of the value likely to be attributed to any benefits or innovations inherent to the product is crucial if it is not to fall at the first hurdle. A product may be innovative and have practical benefits, but if achieving those benefits costs more than an end user is likely to pay for them, it is doomed to failure. Realism in any such assessment of the market potential for any product is absolutely essential, while a readiness to halt a project that seems unlikely to achieve profitablility should be seen as a positive rather than a negative. Clearly there is no single, guaranteed formula for successful design. The sheer range and complexity of factors requiring consideration is daunting and, as some of the examples quoted here make clear, the process that from design to production can be extremely lengthy. The sad reality is that most ideas don't make it to become successful products, but what is equally certain is that time spent conducting a thorough assessment of the realities outlined here is the only realistic way of ensuring your idea has the best possible chance. Pointers: Recipe to make a killer product * Is there a need in any of the markets that you have personal knowledge of that is not being fulfilled? Can you meet it at an attractive price and make it in a way that people would like to use it? * Look as your skills and manufacturing expertise and to see if they could be used to make something that people really want. If you are already in manufacturing, go to the Design Council if you cannot think of anything yourself * Look at the latest ways in which consumers and customers might interact with it. Look at mobile phones and the latest generation of new interfaces and apps * Produce mockups and computer visualisations so that potential customers and/or development partners can quickly grasp what it is going to do and how it is going to look. * If it is intended to be a branded product, show how it will look with the customer's own branding on it