Unpacking the product development process
By: Leanne Armstrong
In today’s dynamic and competitive marketplace, there’s a never-ending demand for new products and services. And while businesses involved in the product development process range far and wide, there’s one slice of common ground they all share: that place where novel ideas get transformed into saleable goods.
The most successful product development examples to date are as varied as the companies responsible for them.
They include hits like:
- PlayStation’s gaming console
- Toyota’s Corolla
- Apple’s iPad
- K. Rowling’s Harry Potter book series
Not every commercial creation is destined to become a winner.
But if you’re looking for the secret to creating products your customers are likely to love, you should know that successful companies don’t just let the development process unfold – they direct it through an established set of product development stages that reduce the risk of generating a costly sales failure.
In this article, we’ll take a deep dive into the product development process by unpacking and examining the various stages involved.
What goes into the product development process?
Although the product development process looks a little different from one industry to the next, businesses of all types stand united by the fact that demand must be big enough to make creating and launching a new product worthwhile.
The need for something new, in other words, is mostly driven by the end-user. Your company’s decision to meet that need, on the other hand, is more apt to be driven by where you sit in terms of the product development life cycle.
Successful products typically pass through 3 key life cycle stages:
- Planning, development, launch, and assessment
- Change (accompanied by a repeat of stage 1)
- Eventual obsolescence
So if you’re toying with a new product idea, odds are you’re at one of several points.
You may be:
- Looking to enter a particular sales market for the very first time
- Planning to improve, update, and re-launch an existing product
- Hoping to create a brand-new product to replace an obsolete or outdated offering
No matter where you’re at, you’ll need to collaborate with a holistic, cross-functional team – and tap into multiple skill sets – to effectively manage your product development timeline from one end to the other.
In fact, product development timelines, come into play in multiple ways.
They play an important role, for example, in predicting and guiding the time it will take to:
- Move your product from idea to launch (typically 4-9 months for new software)
- Work through your individual product development stages (3 months to develop a new hardware prototype is common)
- Keep your new product selling profitably, whether it’s a one-and-done effort or you’re aiming for a series of rebirths (note that product life cycles can vary from months to years, and are usually tough to predict)
Time frames involved in product development depend largely on the nature of your business and what you’re creating. But by laying out your product development process, deliverables, and goals along a visual timeline, you’ll give yourself – and your stakeholders – a clear overview of what you plan to accomplish.
Now let’s take a look at what typically transpires during the 5 most common product development stages.
Stage 1. Coming up with a compelling idea
The ideation stage of the product development process is usually dedicated to:
- Fleshing out an original, “lightbulb moment” idea
- Brainstorming with your team to adapt an existing idea to meet a new need
- Using visualization tools to redesign and improve on a struggling product
Bear in mind that it’s usually much easier to transform current products in novel ways than it is to completely reinvent the wheel.
Stage 2. Conducting market research
As excited as you may be about your idea, it’s critical that potential buyers share your enthusiasm and that you have the ability to compete with any similar products.
Your research might include:
- Gathering objective feedback through online surveys or forums
- Talking to current customers and your sales or marketing team
- Conducting a detailed competitive analysis
You may also want to begin sourcing materials or labor during the research stage, and working through some initial costs to help gauge the viability of your new offering.
Stage 3. Designing, building, testing, and reworking your creation
The only way to turn an intangible idea into a tangible, desirable product is with a well-crafted design process.
This may involve using funnel or flowcharts, for example, to:
- Lay out the various steps in your design plan
- Manage the building and testing of prototypes (you might have to work with a third-party expert like a manufacturer or engineer)
- Incorporate stakeholder and user feedback into revisions of your original design
Taking advantage of visual diagrams to outline design components and product development timelines will make it easier to track the information and resources needed to bring your new product to life.
Stage 4. Promoting and launching your finished product
Well before putting the final touches on your design, you and your marketing team should be assembling a plan to introduce your target audience to your new product.
This could mean:
- Working out the perfect price based on your market, costs, and required sales margin
- Designing just the right packaging or meeting any labeling requirements
- Defining and laying out product specifications and customer benefits
Ideally, you’ll want to build up anticipation around the release of your new product with announcements made via your various marketing channels.
Stage 5. Measuring your short-term and long-term success
Using sales and marketing metrics to measure your success in the final stage and beyond is important for two reasons:
- They let you track your product’s performance post-launch
- They can help you manage your product development life cycle, so you’ll know when it’s time to revise or retire your product
Ready to see the product development process in action?
Then let’s consider how these 5 stages might unfold if the Show Me Your Smile (SMYS) Co. were to launch a new toothbrush.
SMYS Co. – A fictional product development example
SMYS Co. has experienced good success with their ergonomically designed toothbrush for adults. But it’s been some years since their product launched, and increased competition in the oral hygiene sector has been causing sales to drop off.
SMYS isn’t quite ready to retire their original toothbrush, but they would like to find a way to recapture some lost market share.
Stage 1: Ideation
SMYS calls together their product development team and engages in some serious brainstorming. Using visual idea and concept maps to share, expand on, and record their ideas, they soon land on the notion of complementing their adult offering with a toothbrush designed specifically for kids – one that lights up and plays music!
Stage 2: Research
SMYS wastes no time in confirming the appeal of their new toothbrush design (with younger audiences and their parents alike) by:
- Scrutinizing their current customer demographics for families
- Meeting virtually with focus groups
- Researching other brushes on the market
- Gathering input from their sales and marketing team
SMYS also takes advantage of matrix diagrams to identify potential product strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats.
Stage 3: Design
With a green light in terms of buyer interest, SMYS:
- Works with production personnel to create several toothbrush designs
- Hires a 3D printing engineer to finalize the design work and create corresponding protypes
- Methodically tests and compares these samples internally (for safety, dependability, and structural integrity), and externally (for performance, ease of use, and attractiveness)
They track and compare their results – along with evolving materials and manufacturing cost data – with the help of swim lane diagrams, flowcharts, and project costing tools.
Stage 4: Launch
After sourcing a cost-effective supply of sound chips, LEDs, and plastics (and reworking an unpopular handle grip feature), SMYS settles on the most promising design for their musical toothbrush and:
- Hires a manufacturer to mass-produce their new product
- Contracts with wholesale distributors
- Works with their marketing department to lay out a strategic launch process
SMYS Co.’s marketers know it will be much easier to manage the complexities of getting the word out about their new product if they use a process mapping tool to lay out their marketing process visually – and keep every team member and department in the loop.
Stage 5: Assess
Was SMYS’s product launch a success? Customer feedback and sales metrics tell them it was!
Now the company can continue to monitor their new toothbrush’s performance – along with the product development life cycle – to improve cost management, infiltrate new markets, and intermittently refresh their product line to keep business growth strong.
Family pet toothbrushes, anyone?
Successfully moving a new product from concept to market can mean the difference between a good idea and a great one.
Whether you’re banking on a single product or multiple lines to generate a positive financial return, make sure you start with a clear picture of your product development process in one hand, and the right visual planning tools in the other.