The napkin is our generational synonym for the draft design, where out of the blue, while sitting in a cafe, we suddenly hit upon the “aha” moment when a product concept converged with a serious need out there.
Much has changed of course, and I doubt many would be designing something on a cafe napkin these days, especially since many of us do not even carry pens (or pencils) with us anymore. The closest thing to a pen-and-napkin combo we have may be our smartphone, or a tablet. And still, ideas do come suddenly, and sometimes for a few of us who churn out ideas and concepts often as a matter of profession, ideas come frequently as well, like a tidal wave. So, we need to quickly jot down ideas in bullet points, sketch out concepts on digital sketch apps, and then refine them when we get to our laptops or desktops.
I have been involved in creative design and product development since the 1980s. I developed creative materials and marketing campaigns. I independently designed and developed custom apps for networked learning and intranets. I co-designed email security server software. Eventually, my mainstay for product design and development centered on learning programs.
I enjoy the spark of inspiration when it hits me, whether for something as simple as solving a creative campaign deadlock, or debugging some server and web applications, or sketching out something more esoteric on my computer. And the spark hits me hard in the oddest times and places, sometimes in the washroom, sometimes while walking, in the gym, or nearing sleep.
Throughout my many years of diving deep in product design and development, perhaps there are 7.5 suggestions worthy of considering.
1. Prototype promptly.
From the proverbial napkin or sketch on the smartphone to a working prototype is the surest way to get the whole design process going. Do not simply sketch ad nauseam for some kind of perfection fetish, for there is no such thing as perfection. In the modern world of affordable 3D printing, it has become increasingly possible to create your own product prototype. If you are working within a corporate context, then collaborating as a team using the Agile iterative paradigm is one of the more expedient means to get a prototype ready. Every product on the market today is not perfect, make no mistake. So do not procrastinate on getting prototypes ready whatever the functionality may be.
2. Keep testing.
Once we acknowledge that every product will never be perfect, and that continuous improvement (kaizen) is the key to success, then we need to keep testing our prototype or product. The repeatability of usability is part of the product design and development lifecycle. For hardware and software products, establish proper testing protocols early once your vision of the product takes shape. Testing protocols should test for function, human factors, durability, duress, and recoverability after duress or breakage.
3. Collaborate with like minded experts.
When I was developing apps and email security server software, I determined early that I needed to tap on the collective intellectual prowess of experts out there. I have worked with some of the smartest brains from Novosibirsk (Russia) to Melbourne (Australia), and found the collaborative process humbling, exhilarating, and absolutely productive. The most important thing to remember is that we are almost certainly never always right, and that there are always people smarter than us out there. By accepting the expertise of allies out there, we can get working prototypes and products out to market much sooner. Some of those I have the privilege to work with, remain close friends today.
4. Seed people.
Just as there are experts we can work with in collaborative design and development projects, we can tap on as many people to help us stress-test our products when they are nearly ready. Whether it is alpha-testing or beta-testing, we extend the outreach of testing from merely internal testing during the early development cycles, to embracing people outside our organizations to test our products to make them as “bullet-proof” as possible. Remember still, that even as the larger the community of testers, the more likely bugs and errors can be identified and ultimately corrected, there is still always room for improvement and there there can never be perfection we naively imagine. Keep improving.
5. Eye on budget and suppliers.
Product design and development can be expensive exercises, and there are many examples of failures despite early recognition, seed funding, and market testing. If we do not keep a constant eye on the running budget, and the partners we work with, we may invariably spend beyond our means, and have to lament at the demise of what could have been market successes. If our genes are steeped in design and development but are inadequate in keeping track of finances and people, hire someone who can. And do remember to listen to those who are helping to rein us in when we deviate from the budget or miss deadlines.
6. Launch in phases.
From a working prototype that can be worthy for alpha-testing, and stress-testing and debugging in beta-testing, to seeding people for limited early runs, and to eventually launching the final product to the marketplace with great fanfare, remember to keep pace with internal capabilities and limitations, and to take steady steps. Never leap when you can barely walk or even crawl. There is a right time and place for everything.
7. Eye on sales. (or 7.5)
For internal products, this step may not be relevant. But if you intend your product to reach the market and to sell to consumers and corporations, never neglect this step. Some innovators and inventors dwell too much on design and development, and forget that the product is meant to be sold, perhaps in great numbers. If you intend to build a sustainable business that sells products, keep your pulse on the sales, and your competition. It is your job, and it is perhaps even more important than some of the individual suggestions above (that is why it deserves an extra “0.5” to it).
The adrenalin of speed when you are in an incredibly fast car pales in comparison when the imagination and creativity fuels and fires us up to create something new, something radical, something revolutionary, something even life-changing. I miss those days, and perhaps may return to it someday.
To every creator, designer, innovator, inventor, I salute you, and may you meet with the internal or market success you envision.