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Your product development primer: back to basics

By: Leanne Armstrong


Breathing life into a new product can be exhilarating, but it isn’t always the easiest task – especially since most finished products pass through a number of stages on their way from idea to market. If you’re new to product development especially, you may have to:

  • Assemble a dedicated workforce or team
  • Teach yourself or others how to navigate new systems or manipulate new technology
  • Get used to the idea of reworking your vision multiple times

Product Development 101

Product development is an all-encompassing process or strategy for successfully moving a new or improved product from conceptualization to commercialization.

While there’s no one-size-fits-all, end-to-end blueprint for bringing life to new creations across business sectors, following clear, step-by-step processes will ensure you discover what your customers want, test and explore your ideas thoroughly, and verify your products serve a real need.

Before you get started creating a plan, understanding what goes into developing a new product in a general way will better prepare you to take your design from the drawing board to the end-user.

So let’s dive into the basics by first establishing a product development definition we can work with.

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What exactly is product development?

Whether the product you plan to build is geared toward your own market, or has been commissioned by one of your clients, this basic product development definition is a good place to move forward from:

Product development is an all-encompassing process or strategy for successfully moving a new or improved product from conceptualization to commercialization.

In most cases, your product development journey will involve:

  • Delivering a new product, or bettering one that already exists
  • Meeting the specific needs of external customers or internal end-users
  • Achieving one or more business goals

The product development strategy you follow will largely depend on your reasons for designing a new product in the first place.

Has your business growth slowed? Is a new competitor giving your client a run for their money? Are you trying to grab the interest of a new buying demographic? Maybe your customers have been voicing an interest in some unexplored product changes.

No matter the driver, there are a number of considerations you should be prepared to take into account as you dive into your product development project.

  • Understanding the product design criteria, objectives, and standards
  • Verifying cost effectiveness
  • Evaluating the user experience (through alpha or beta testing, for example)
  • Documenting and protecting your idea
  • Establishing and working within a budget
  • Sourcing of materials
  • Packaging decisions
  • Making a plan to market or promote your new product (before, during, and after its launch)
  • Determining the best way to measure the success of your product

To give you some idea of what to expect, at the idea stage of the product development process you and your team could find yourselves conducting research to identify a market void, or relying on brainstorming tools and techniques to expand on the commercial appeal of an established product or line.

Management of project tasks, resources, communication and feedback, meanwhile, is likely to play an ongoing role.

Collaboration is key in product development

Regardless of what you’re designing – and who you’re planning to sell it to – your development project is probably going to include managing and aligning with an external and/or internal team.

Objective opinions are a must in product development. That’s why many businesses take their technical issues and manufacturing challenges to testing labs or engineering consultants.

Internally, meanwhile, you may need to join forces with personnel from various departments, including:

  • Product Design
  • Research & Development (R&D)
  • Quality Assurance (QA)
  • Production or Manufacturing
  • Marketing and Sales
  • Shipping or Distribution
  • Accounting and Legal

We’ll delve deeper into the details of the product development process in future articles.

But for now, suffice it to say that with so many moving parts, it’s essential that you have a detailed plan with measurable goals before throwing yourself – and your valuable resources – into any type of product development challenge.

3 basic types of product development

Product development plays a role in many different types of goods and services – from software and hardware, to consumer and industrial products. And while there are various reasons why you might want to cultivate a new product, your objectives will probably dictate the approach that you take.

Here are the 3 main types of product development, whether you’re designing a product for your own company or somebody else’s.

  1. Creation of a brand-new, original product. These are sometimes called breakthrough products – the iPhone is a good example.
  2. Re-creation of an established product. This includes creating revised versions of products that already exist – like if your company were to design, build, and market its own smart phone, for example.
  3. Modification of a product to make improvements or cut costs. This includes products you created previously for yourself or a client, but that you now want to change in some way – like if you were looking to build a cheaper or updated version of your company’s smart phone design.

In each of these cases, the point would be for your new product to (hopefully) open a whole new buying market – either by replacing a current offering with something better, or by making an existing product more appealing to an entirely different group of people.

Product development examples

Let’s say you’ve been tasked with the project of expanding your company’s popular line of cosmetics to boost business growth.

You might decide to create a new version of one of your existing face creams by improving its performance (by reformulating the product with sunscreen, for example), or enhancing its results (perhaps through the addition of extra skin softening ingredients).

If, on the other hand, your company was having trouble competing with a new or growing cosmetics startup, you might opt to:

  • Design a brand-new product to appeal to a new market segment
  • Develop a product that’s similar to (but better than) your competitor’s
  • Create a less expensive version of one of your existing products by changing out the ingredients or packaging

In any case, and regardless of the industry you work in, your product development strategy will likely include a handful of key phases: ideation, design, promotion, and implementation – that pivotal moment when you finally get to unveil the product you’ve worked so hard to create.

How product development differs across industries

While similar in many ways, the nitty gritty of bringing a product to life can’t help but vary across industries. Developing a new piece of technology, for example, isn’t going to look exactly the same as designing and launching a new beauty product, beverage, or clothing line.

The main differences are usually less about budgeting and marketing your new product, however, and more about what takes center stage during the design, testing, and manufacturing phases.

Take a moment to think about how priorities in the development process might shift in light of what’s most important about the actual product being created.

Here are some examples.

Software development. Priorities typically run to coding matters, ease of user interface, feature customizability, and UX or client feedback.

Health, food, or beauty product development. The emphasis might be on sourcing natural but economical ingredients, ensuring proper labeling, and extending product shelf life.

Clothing design. Concerns are likely to revolve around art department skills, sourcing of quality fabrics, prototyping, wash tests, and maintenance of specialized equipment like pressers or screen-printing machines.

Creative, technological, manufacturing, and industrial sectors. Licensing affairs, trade secrets (think Coca-Cola’s secret formula, for example), and the need to obtain protective patents or trademarks often play a key role in product development.

Despite this distinct difference in product focus, there are some common “success-driving” elements that companies across industries typically strive for.

Above all, thoroughly understanding your market, your competition, and the wants and needs of your customers will help you achieve greater success in product development.

It takes a plan to develop a product

Circling back to our product development definition, it should be clear that moving successfully from conceptualization to commercialization takes more than just a nifty idea. It also takes time, teamwork, and a dedicated process or plan to make a new or improved product profitable.

Because product development is the place where imagination, creativity, and innovation meet such practical matters as research, prototyping, and sales, your journey to a finished product might be a bit bumpy. But no matter what business you’re in, it can help to remember that every product developer faces similar challenges.

Learning from the experiences of others, by reviewing impactful case studies for example, is a great way to get inspired, overcome stubborn production hurdles, and find new ways to innovate.

Going in prepared, meanwhile, by establishing a solid, organized product development process, will help you avoid costly, unwanted, or poorly implemented products.

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