Developing a product, especially in the early phases, can be fraught with problems. These problems, however, should not be viewed as necessarily problematic, but rather as a normal and expected part of a larger process.

While some of the problems encountered in early product design may be a result of insufficient research and planning, many problems are simply intrinsic to the iterative nature of the design process. At Pivot, we’re experts in troubleshooting common problems that arise during product design and development. Below are a series of key considerations that clients may find useful for investigating, understanding and contending with design difficulties.

Don’t be afraid to deviate.

The requirements in product-development projects rarely (if ever) remain stable. When organizations insist on sticking to a plan that can’t accommodate the ever-evolving nature of product design, they understandably run into problems. Refusing to deviate from a plan or viewing deviations as evidence of poor management can halt product development in its tracks and damage the morale of your design team. If design efforts are proceeding as they should (in an iterative, experimental fashion), what does and doesn’t work and which direction to go often becomes clear only as development unfolds.

The problem of defining a customer’s needs at the beginning of a design project is intrinsic to the process as it isn’t easy for customers to accurately anticipate and articulate their needs for solutions that aren’t currently available. Customers’ preferences can also change unexpectedly as they become familiar with competitors’ offerings and demand features or functions that your design team hasn’t planned for or considered. For these reasons, being unwilling to deviate from an original plan – no matter how masterful and fail-proof it seemed at the inception of the project – can generate more problems than it was intended to prevent. This is not to suggest that planning and plans aren’t important, but rather that the plan should be regarded as a hypothesis that is constantly subject to revision as the “data” that is generated by the design process is used to continually reinform it.

Question assumptions to reframe the problem.

Difficulties in the design process are often a result of failing to question assumptions and reframe the design problem in novel ways. The design process will become unnaturally complicated if a team is asking the wrong questions (and therefore failing to adequately understand the problem they’re trying to solve). Questioning assumptions and asking the right questions may be the most important but under appreciated dimension of product development and the most important key to unsticking a stuck process. Albert Einstein was reported to have said, If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask, for once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes.

For example, when Walt Disney was “imagineering” Disneyland, he was able to question the assumption that simply building a bigger and better amusement park than those of his apparent competitors was the road to success. Instead, he reframed the problem from one of mere “imitative expansion” into one of disruptive innovation: How could Disneyland create a magical experience for its guests? The ability to ask this question didn’t come out of nowhere: it entailed intensive, often obsessive research, ongoing experimentation, and deep insights into what “magical” might mean as translated into a functioning theme park.

See the value in the innovation maxim: Fail early, fail often, fail forward.

Organizational cultures that embrace a “zero tolerance for failure” or “error-free” orientation, and teams that are overly anxious or intolerant about “getting it wrong” will find their resistance to failing is preventing them from getting it right. Conversely, teams that receive organizational sanction and even encouragement to strategically “fail early, fail often, fail forward” are much better able to iterate rapidly and learn quickly from the valuable data that each “failure” generates and bequeaths to the next iteration until a truly superior design emerges. With advances in simulation and rapid-prototyping technologies, there is no excuse for “failing to fail”. Stefan Thomke of Harvard Business School explains:

Consider what we found in a study of 391 teams that designed custom integrated circuits. Teams that followed an iterative approach and conducted early and frequent tests made more errors along the way. But because they used low-cost prototyping technologies, they outperformed (in terms of the time and effort required) teams that tried to get their design right the first time. The teams that faced high prototyping costs invested more effort on specification, development, and verification. And because they did their iterations later in the process – and did far fewer of them – they delayed the discovery of critical problems.

Investigate how less can be more.

Sometimes product development teams think that the more bells and whistles they can cram into a product the more desirable it will be to consumers. Often this belief is more a reflection of the team’s lack of objectivity about their own design as well as a disconnect from the end-user’s experience. (As discussed earlier, it is also an illustrative example of the problems that can arise when design teams fail to ask the right questions.) Though on the surface there are notable exceptions to the “less is more” approach, deeper investigation of these exceptions (the Apple iPhone, for example) demonstrates that successful mass-market products with a proliferation of “bells and whistles” must compensate by being exceptionally simple to use. (It’s worth noting that providing a multitude of features and a streamlined, user-friendly interface is an incredibly rare and game-changing feat).v

Many products are overly complicated because design teams assume that more features translate to higher value and consumer demand and that less features translate to lower consumer desirability. Often design teams run into problems that can be prevented altogether or quickly solved if they can think in terms of addition instead of subtraction. As Steve Jobs explained:

When you start looking at a problem and it seems really simple, you don’t really understand the complexity of the problem. And your solutions are way too oversimplified. Then you get into the problem, and you see it’s really complicated. And you come up with all these complicated solutions …That’s where most people stop. The really great person will keep on going and find…the key underlying principle of the problem and come up with a beautiful, elegant solution that works.

At Pivot, we’ve helped hundreds of teams solve their most intractable design problems. Contact us today and see what we can do for you.