Secrets of Designing Great Products

Secrets of Designing Great Products

The success of Apple in the last few years has demonstrated that designs win markets just as defense wins championships in sports. Transformative products like iPad and iPhone redefined (through perception demand) the techno-centric conventional design culture and ushered a new vista in product development. With the simplicity of its products, Apple reshaped industrial sectors, invented new lifestyle habits and built loyal customers. And across the globe, Apple engineering has been heralded as the catalyst that powered a near-bankrupt company into the most valued one.

Technically, this is where Steve Jobs plays well. Steve Jobs and Apple in general are innovative and not necessarily inventive. They take ideas which are in the demand and then make them better. They may not be doing focus groups because the performance of existing products is a good data to make decisions. They knew that Walkman was selling but iPod could make Walkman better. They knew that Blackberry was selling but iPhone could take the smartphone business to the next level. They want to stimulate a new level of perception in the demand nexus. So even if there is no focus group, sales data from public traded Research in Motion (then name for Blackberry maker) and Sony were solid insights on the sectors and the products.

But here is the fact: while its engineering is world-class, companies like Apple depend on non-techies to create the wow-effects on their products. These companies are understanding that the technical purity is not just enough, the usability, ergonomics and human factor elements matter. In other words, the staff who understands what the users want is as important as the one that codes or wires transistors.

In the semiconductor industry, for example, the competition used to be about speed of processors. Companies like Intel and AMD pursued that benchmark, and the result was faster chips. But by the flank, rivals like Qualcomm, Nvidia and ARM focused on what markets need which are not usually the fastest computational power.  Rather, processors that can provide low power consumption, multi-functionalities, even when sacrificing speed. Understanding that speed metric alone is not the competitive weapon, especially in the age of mobile, Intel expanded its social science division with sci-fi writers to help its engineers understand how products will be used so they can make more relevant ones. Invisible to the techies in Intel conferences are anthropologists and sociologists that visit clinics, hotels, and living rooms to understand user needs and shape products roadmaps.  In making the E3100 and E4100 chip series, the non-techies were very helpful in directing the vision of the product. In short, through their inputs, the engineers re-specified the products.

In a global economy with highly informed and sophisticated customers, making one-fit-all products that account for different economic spectra, culture, infrastructure, values and climate has become very challenging. Engineers without exposure to user behaviors will fail. Competition is about building affordable things that people need. This comes by understanding the users and that requires local domain expertise.  Africa, for example, now sees better product offerings from MNCs.

In the past, MNCs sent foreigners with no knowledge of the region. But today, they retain the locals and their products have improved, not because of better technology, but awareness of the needs of the markets.  For instance, Google has tweaked YouTube to work with poor networks and adapted most of the products for the African infrastructure. Its competitor, Yahoo, still delivers services in the same forms as it does to a Boston resident. To make great products, expertise matters, global and local.

For a 21st century global firm, building a global design team is important in developing great products. A team that is diverse has a higher chance of creating a winning global brand than one that is not.  This diversity will come in gender, race and disciplines. Why? Good technology is only part of the puzzle. Few years ago, I was involved in a U.S. team developing affordable medical device for Africa. When a prototype was sent to Niger, a nurse recommended a change on the device color. We had painted it gold, but she explained users could be attacked by criminals who may mistake the wearable device as a gold chain.

The success of Apple has brought to limelight the importance of seeing products from the perspective of the users, and not just technology. Before iPod, there was Walkman, from iconic Sony Electronics. Apple did not invent any breakthrough technology to disrupt its markets. It simply used a combination of art and science to improve product usability, ergonomics and aesthetics. This is the new trend in product development where the trained or untrained sociologists and anthropologists influence the engineering culture and methodology for products that succeed in markets.


Next week, I will run a seminar for a client on PERCEPTION DESIGN. I made up the phrase “Perception Demand” in a Harvard Business Review piece years ago to illustrate how great designs evolve.


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