How to Identify Opportunities to Improve Product Performance
Andrew Wheeler posted on September 01, 2017 | 4825 views

A good leader can inspire people to bring their passion for making contributions to a product and harness the collaborative energy that represents something which the team personally wants (but cannot invent alone), even if everyone on a design team has their own opinions about what makes an excellent product.

Though a team leader can be a galvanizing force for product innovation, in the end, it’s all about your customers, and I’ve noticed that consumers don’t usually call their belongings “products” or talk about the fact that they’ve bought a lot of products in the past. They refer to their possessions by their names. For example, people call their smartphones “phones” even though their functions and capabilities are more in line with those of a computer.

There are so many other kinds of products besides computing ones that people carry around or possess. It is interesting that one of the most popular products of all time is the smartphone. In comparison to other mass-produced hit products, this miniaturized and complex computing device is likely the most radical and popular device of the last 10 years in terms of overall impact.

There are seemingly endless products in highly differentiated categories. If you are on a development team, the success of your product is intrinsically linked to the team’s success as a unit. It’s a big deal for people who spend years of their life making an idea a reality. Where, however, do you look if you’re curious about the possible existence of universal rules that you can use to improve the impact of your product?

Maybe you are an entrepreneur who became interested in mass producing a product. One of the things that might run through your mind is the question: How can I create a high-quality product?

You can be reasonably certain that innovation doesn’t happen the same way that it is portrayed in Hollywood movies, where a narrative mechanism like a “eureka” moment serves to both make the film inspiring and palatable for the sake of the movie’s storyline and runtime.

If you look at “The Aviator” and Howard Hughes (the drill bit heir, filmmaker, and airplane engineer), there are both eureka moments and examples of frustrating design and engineering that indicate a significant amount of repetition. Hughes’ design team is given the task of making the Hughes H-1 racer aircraft as aerodynamic as possible to reduce drag and increase speed and efficiency. One of the film’s eureka moments occurs after Hughes feels the smooth skin of his then-girlfriend, actress Katharine Hepburn.

The Hughes H-1 aircraft now resides at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC. Because of the innovative techniques used to remove any rivets or any objects that would reduce drag, the H-1 aircraft set the airspeed record by flying 352 mph in 1935. The pilot? None other than the leader of the product team: Howard Hughes. (Image courtesy of the National Air and Space Museum)
The Hughes H-1 aircraft now resides at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC. Because of the innovative techniques used to remove any rivets or any objects that would reduce drag, the H-1 aircraft set the airspeed record by flying 352 mph in 1935. The pilot? None other than the leader of the product team: Howard Hughes. (Image courtesy of the National Air and Space Museum.)

Because of the inspiration for smoothness, the H-1 Racer team (directed by Hughes) set the aircraft’s rivets and joints flush into the body, which had the effect of reducing drag. As a result of this innovation, Howard Hughes was inspired to fly the H-1 on September 13, 1935, and broke the airspeed record by flying 352 mph, which was also portrayed in the film.

Though movies offer entertaining and inspiring portrayals of product design, the truth is a little more repetitive and monotonous, but many incremental innovations can occasionally lead to a leapfrog innovation.

What are the best practices a design team can adopt in order to make an excellent product?

Extending Product Capabilities

When you are working on a product, it is incredibly important to understand the intended role and the function of every part of it. It is equally important to understand how each team member contributes to the product.

Extending your product’s capabilities first involves defining as clearly as possible what your product does. Your existing and potential customers will judge you by verifying the technical specs for themselves. Your relationship with your customers is crucial, and courting honest feedback can lead you to add profitable improvements and features.

The point of a business is to make money. When you design meaningful improvements, your customers will pay extra to have them.

The first approach is called “More Power and Speed.” Practically speaking, your team is going to want to make features that customers like in order to become faster and faster with each new release, version, or update, no matter what product class or industry it serves.

Focusing on high-level concepts can be distracting for your product team members, but one could make the argument that these concepts are essential for extending your product’s capabilities. In this approach, sometimes an increase in power is not based off of a customer’s practical necessity. Sometimes the potential power is alluring to consumers even though they never make use of the product’s full potential.

Can you think of an example of this? What is a product with an alluringly high capability that is almost never utilized by the customer, even though they enjoy it being available?

Corvettes have tremendous horsepower (500cc) in their engines. The average Corvette owner will never maximize their use of the engine to this degree, but they love the fact that the power is there. (Image courtesy of eBay.)
Corvettes have tremendous horsepower (500) in their engines. The average Corvette owner will never maximize their use of the engine to this degree, but they love the fact that the power is there. (Image courtesy of eBay.)

The second approach, “Larger Capacity and Range,” begins by the fact that when product teams successfully extend the capacity and range of their product, they can open a wider variety of uses.

Laser engraver burning a scorpion into an electric guitar’s unfinished body. The amount of surface area a laser engraver can cover is a crucial consideration for a customer looking for a machine with a higher capacity. (Image courtesy of Epilog Laser)
Laser engraver burning a scorpion into an electric guitar’s unfinished body. The amount of surface area a laser engraver can cover is a crucial consideration for a customer looking for a machine with a higher capacity. (Image courtesy of Epilog Laser.)

For example, if you are looking to buy a laser engraver that covers a large area, you won’t consider buying one that doesn’t meet your requirements. As a result, none of the other specs matter at all. If you produce a laser engraving machine and it doesn’t cover a wide enough area for potential consumers, they will immediately move to one that can, even if your system is more efficient and of a higher quality.

There are three methods to extend your product’s capabilities in this first section: Interviewing, Observation and First-Hand Experience.

If you can interview a customer who uses your product daily, ask them open-ended questions to gather firsthand information about how they perceive the product in terms of form, function and intended use. See interviews as opportunities to collect information that could inspire innovative ideas. 

Improving Product Efficiency

Making your product more efficient requires engineers to figure out how to do more with less, or at least do the same with less. Depending on the product your team is building, finding a way to manufacture with more efficiency can reduce the impact of your product upon the environment. Reducing energy consumption saves customers’ money and can influence their internal Return on Investment (ROI) metrics when deciding if they should choose your product over another.

Time is the most valuable commodity of all, because everyone only gets a finite amount. There is no way to literally “earn” chunks of time. With CNC machines and other industrial equipment, any way you can increase throughput and slice away at your customers’ cycle time will give them more time to do what they choose.

Reducing material consumption has obvious cost benefits and makes your product lighter, which is usually a good thing for consumers.

Minimizing downtime and repairs also has obvious benefits, but the distinction between improving the efficiency of a product while in use and making sure it needs minimal maintenance and repairs overall should be made as part of a team’s concept of making a product great.

What are some practical things you can do to improve product efficiency?

The first thing you want to do is map out everything on a whiteboard and look for redundancies. Transform the people, places, and things you identify into components of this system. Then, group all of the related items together.

Next, identify and define interconnections between the mapped-out elements that make up the entire system of the product. This makes it easier to find opportunities to cut waste and optimize your system. Be sure to keep detailed notes for future reference. For further insight, Autodesk has an eBook that delves deeper into these topics. 

Preventing Product Failures

The worst thing that can happen is that your product fails in the hands of the customer. This can also be devastating to a company’s image. Think about the exploding Samsung phones, the massive recall, and the ensuing bad press. The impression of incompetence that customers and the public at large may hold towards your products is the worst kind of situation to be in.

The more complex your product is, the higher the probability of potential failure. Thus, the more fail-proof you can make it, the greater the payoff will be from customers. Preventing failure within the product’s normal operating parameters and environment is a given. Your product cannot afford to fail during normal use, but customers especially appreciate a product that survives extreme conditions.

Ever drop your smartphone from a high place or a precarious location? The initial feeling of dread dissipates when you pick up the phone and it is still functioning. It took a severe beating that would usually destroy other delicate devices, and you can appreciate the fact that it is durable and well-made. Also, complex products like smartphones are expensive to buy and expensive to fix.

Overheating issues almost destroyed Samsung’s reputation for mass producing safe new smartphones. 

If your product overheats, it could cause product failure. This is especially an issue if customers want the newer versions to be thinner and smaller.

Impacts from being dropped are also an important consideration for every step of a product’s life cycle, from shipping, to everyday use, to extreme situations.

Your team will also want to consider how to prevent fatigue and wear. Planned obsolescence isn’t discussed all that often when making products, but understanding that people have certain expectations when it comes to the longevity of their devices is an important consideration that must not be ignored.

Autodesk has sponsored this post. They have no editorial input to this post. All opinions are mine. —Andrew Wheeler

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